The World’s Greatest Atlas

More traveller’s thoughts: this time one of those ideas you

have when you wake up in a strange hotel room at some time of day

when you’re really meant to be going to sleep, not waking up,

and you’ve just had the weirdest dream about old Ordnance Survey

maps, not of the UK but of the world, and they fit together onto a

big table, six of them, side by side, and they’re relief, with

the Amazon rainforests burning real flames and the Gulf Stream shown

in the Atlantic in real blue water, and it’s all dated circa

1955 or thereabouts, and you’re trying to get people, including

your ex-boss, to see this amazing old thing which you’ve discovered

on the shelves of a second-hand bookshop which is packing up to move

elsewhere, but it’s down the end of a dark alleyway, and it’s

really hard to make them interested – you don’t know what

I’m talking about? Never mind, this is great idea anyway. It’s

not original, I’m sure, but I’m loving thinking about it,

and because this is my website, I can put up on it whatever I want.

So… The World’s Greatest Atlas. As we all know, maps are

all computerised now: it was a lot of work to take all of the information

which had painstakingly been immortalised in print and transfer it

into a huge relational database, but now it’s been done, and

both Bertelsmann and the OUP now have incredibly detailed information

about pretty much all of the surface of the earth, which they can

print out in various different forms for different atlases aimed at

different markets all over the world.

So: put it all on a DVD-ROM, or something like that: I have no idea

what the ratio is of the sort of information I’m talking about

here to the storage capacity of a multimedia disk, but if it can’t

be done, then just put it all on a big fast web server (actually,

come to think, that’s even better, because then all the information

is kept up-to-date in real time) and sell the software which is required

to read it over the high-bandwidth pipes we’ll all have in next

to no time. I’m not joking here: this could be the high-bandwidth

killer app which finally gets people to upgrade from dialup en

masse, and which also manages to be the first website outside

the business information and pornography industries which millions

of people are actually prepared to spend money for. (The economics

are great: you can have annual subscriptions, or just pay on a per-visit

basis; the kind of things you can find on the internet anyway can

be free, but higher levels of granularity can cost more, that sort

of thing. Hell, if it gets big and fabulous enough, you might even

need some sort of CIA clearance to get to the really detailed stuff!)

Now the software’s the real beaut. Pick up any world atlas

in your local bookshop, and you’ll see that the maps in most

of them are hideously garish. Maps used to be things of real beauty,

but now most publishers don’t have the resources to make beautiful

maps any more. They just hit a button on their relational database,

pick a few colours, and let it fly; some peon in the graphic design

department then spends maybe a couple of hours on each one making

sure that the place names don’t overlap too badly, and it’s

off to the printers. The problem is, the maps have to show far too

much information in far too little space: they have to be all things

to everybody. Someone looking up a small town in south-western Germany

has to use a map showing the topography of north-eastern France. With

a computer generating maps on demand, however, all of that is a thing

of the past. If all you want is the cities of south-western Germany,

that’s all you’ll get. If you want a general topography

of western Europe without bothering with lots of useless place names,

you’ll get that as well. Everything can be done to the scale

you want, with only the information you want. The mapmaker’s

art is that of fitting lots of information into an enclosed space:

this software will do away with the mapmaker’s art (to be honest,

it’s pretty much dead already anyway) by having much less information

in an essentially unlimited space.

The latest edition of the Times Atlas of the World did away with

the city maps. On the one hand, you can see why: they’re certainly

of no use compared to the sort of city maps you can find for free

on the internet. But at the same time, it’s a real loss to the

atlas. Our new software can drill down from the world to the Americas

to North America to the United States to New York State to New York

City to Manhattan to – and this is where New York City’s

own map gets integrated into the atlas – the very block you live

on, with its water supplies, its buildings, street numbers and everything.

You can even see it in photographic form if you want.

This atlas will do things no one has ever been able to do before:

pull up a topographic map of the world, say, and then at the touch

of a button evaporate all the water: see the surface of the earth

without the arbitrary cut-off at sea level which most maps make. With

the three-dimensional data available, you won’t even need to

confine yourself to the standard bird’s-eye view: you can move

around the canyons of the earth and sea just like you can move around

an unbuilt house using a CAD program.

Political boundaries will be constantly updated, of course, but

the old ones won’t be erased: type in a year, and the political

map of the world for that year will immediately appear. Press a button,

and you can fast-forward through wars and treaties and see Europe’s

states alter over time, watch the African independence movements slowly


You want a road atlas to get you from Peoria, Illinois to Nashville,

Tennessee? You’ve got it. You want to see where the world’s

known oil reserves are? Here you are. You want a map of caribou breeding

grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve? Pronto. Add in data

from space satellites, and you can see a pictorial representation

of just about anywhere on the earth’s surface, as it looks right


We’re not there quite yet, of course, although we’re not

that far away. The great thing about this atlas is that it doesn’t

need to be up to full strength immediately: just the ability to manipulate

the information available right now would be something incredible.

There’s nothing the software needs to do which hasn’t already

been written in some form. Getting the information together in one

place and in one format is the tough bit, sorting out copyright issues,

that sort of thing. But this isn’t just a cartographic version

of the Humane Genome Project I’m talking about here: its usefulness

far outstrips the relatively small world of maps and mapmakers. There’s

something in it, literally, for everyone. Please let me live

to see it!

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