This Earth Day, I’m reflecting on the power and necessity of maps. These navigation tools that humans invented in our quest to claim every square inch of the globe are evolving before our eyes into instruments that may help save the very planet we’re endangering.
In 1946, Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges published a one-paragraph short story called “On Exactitude in Science” in which he imagines an empire that’s so adept at map making that cartographers create a map that’s the same size as the territory it represents. The subjects of this empire quickly grow tired of living under a giant map and let it decay, and over time only scraps of it remain in remote, uninhabited places.
We’ve essentially found ourselves living in the fantastical reality that Borges imagined, though instead of a massive map made of canvas, we use satellites, the cloud, and our phones to overlay a digital version of the earth onto the physical one. Google Maps is so ubiquitous and useful that it feels strange to think we used to give each other directions. With a phone and a signal, it seems almost impossible now to get lost.
Maps used to be static artifacts that frequently went out of date when wars and treaties redrew boundaries. Now maps are dynamic, personalized, customized, composed of a multitude of layers, and enriched with data. This means we’re asking maps to do so much more than help us get around.
Innovations all over the map
Every day, it seems, there are fantastic new applications for mapping technology. I’m especially excited about Google’s Environmental Insights Explorer. This powerful new set of tools allows anyone working to reduce emissions with access to data on buildings, cities, air quality, and tree canopy coverage, for starters. Built upon the same technology that powers Google Maps Platform, which allows businesses and other organizations to develop custom geospatial solutions, EIE uses machine learning to surface insights and empower those confronting our toughest climate problems.
In addition to enterprise-level solutions for maps, individuals can use them to inform how they commute, find bike routes, and more. For some great examples, be sure to check out this post on 3 ways to navigate more sustainably with maps. And municipal governments are taking advantage of the growing potential of maps, too; the city of Los Angeles, for example, is using Google Maps to share critical information with its citizens, most recently vital data on wildfires.
At SADA, we’re constantly thinking of ways to leverage earth data and the latest mapping technologies in collaboration with the world’s cleanest cloud. SADA Associate CTO Brian Suk spearheads many of our most complex sustainability efforts, tackling such challenges as how to manage geospatial analysis with Google BigQuery. And a recent SADA hackathon project explored how to incorporate reforestation data with a video game.
Maps point the way to a cleaner future
On this Earth Day, our planetary crisis has never been more serious. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change continues to issue reports that articulate ever more alarming consequences for our inaction on emissions. And if those of us living in the northern hemisphere remain unconvinced by these reports, just take a step outside this summer on the day that shatters heat records, wherever you happen to live.
The seriousness of our climate crisis tends to put a strain on one’s composure, and some days it seems the only way to adequately express the severity of our situation would be to issue a tsunami of all-caps profanity. Or, we can seize tools that provide us increasingly sophisticated insights over the health of our planet than we could have imagined mere years ago, and use them to confront this existential crisis head-on.
Personally, having experienced the Pacific Northwest heat dome of last summer, I am terrified and bracing for what’s to come. And yet I can’t help marvel with growing hope at the acceleration of the technology I encounter every day.
Maps in particular appear to be on a hockey stick-shaped trajectory of exponential innovation, rushing to meet this perilous moment. Whether it’s creating new tree shade with AI and aerial imagery, using maps to identify buildings ideal for solar panel installations, or using wildlife tracking data to develop augmented reality experiences, among many, many other use cases, maps have evolved from simply describing the surface of the earth to coming to its rescue.
Now when we look at a map and ask ourselves where we want to go, the question encompasses more than just landmarks, borders, and roads. Today’s data-rich maps offer routes to a future in which the planet we share begins to recover from our ignorance and abuse, if only we insist on charting the path forward.