It is a testament to the rate of change in the world of mapping, though, that Liquid Galaxy is now essentially old hat. Google has much, much bigger plans. In June it revealed that it had already started using planes ”“ “military-grade spy planes”, the New York senator Charles Schumer claimed ”“ to provide more detailed 3D imagery of the world’s big cities. It also unveiled the Street View Trekker, a bulky backpack with several 15-megapixel cameras protruding on a stalk, so that operatives can capture “offroad” imagery from hiking trails, narrow alleyways or the forest floor. Almost every month, new kinds of data are incorporated into Google Maps: in June, it was 2,000 miles of British canal towpaths, complete with bridges and locks; it was bike lanes. And for the first time, Google’s dominance of digital mapping faces a credible threat: Apple has announced that it will no longer include Google Maps on iPhones or iPads, replacing it with an alternative that, an Apple source told the tech blog All Things D, “will blow your head off”.
“I honestly think we’re seeing a more profound change, for mapmaking, than the switch from manuscript to print in the Renaissance,” says the University of London cartographic historian Jerry Brotton. “That was huge. But this is bigger.” The transition to print gave far more people access to maps. The transition to ubiquitous digital mapping accelerates and extends that development ”“ but it is also transforming the roles that maps play in our lives….
Google and Apple insist, plausibly enough, that they’re not interested in anyone’s individual data: the commercial value lies in the patterns they can detect in the aggregate. But you’d be forgiven for not being entirely reassured….
“There’s kind of a fine line that you run,” said Ed Parsons, Google’s chief geospatial technologist, in a session at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, “between this being really useful, and it being creepy.”