Not only can the super powers of Google assist users to view the rooftops of their house using Google Earth software, but their map-making ventures have also proved valuable in industry projects such as pipe-line laying and tracking CO2 emissions.

Oscar Wilde wasn’t the first to point out that we’re all looking up at the stars. In the Lascaux Caves of France, the earliest known maps are not of land but of the heavens.  Dating back to the Upper Palaeolithic, they are over 17,000 years old.

For G. Malcolm Lewis, writing in “The Origins of Cartography”, map-making may have had more to do with reducing fear of the unknown than getting from A to B1. Thus mapping the stars might have meant taking a little power back from the cosmos, celestial gods and the afterlife. Whatever its origins, a map — a simulation of terrain or cosmos — gives its owner power over earth, sea, travel, people and politics.

Cartography has long since been kissing cousins with the cadastre, a much newer field of mapping (in comparison to the Stone Age, at least). More or less, a cadastral map is a map of property — a register or survey of the exact boundaries and locations of properties, their uses and their values. Some of the earliest cadastres were used to settle land disputes in the Roman Empire (read: get the emperor his land back).

The cadastral shape of the world has changed significantly since Vespasian laid claim to Roman farmland. In 2007, the International Federation of Surveyors predicted that 50% of the global population — over 6.5 billion at the time — live in privately owned dwellings on the mere 3% of Earth’s surface that is urbanised2 (reference 2010 ).

With humans now numbering over seven billion, those densely populated areas increasingly have their work cut out for them. Cadastres and traditional mapping are closer pals than ever. Cadastral surveys play a key role in the United Nations’ push for “inclusive cities”. These urban models emphasise greater communication between citizens and higher-ups, along with policies that promote economic and social equality. But as well as planning for our future, cadastral systems can also protect our heritage.

Google remains the powerhouse at the forefront of 21st-century mapmaking. Satellite imaging and global positioning systems (GPS) allow accurate mapping of every inch of Earth’s surface. Google Earth tells us where we are and how to get from A to B, certainly — and, in the Upper-Paleolithic sense at least, has allowed us to conquer the world from our office or smart phone. But it has also become invaluable to cadastral planning.

Google Maps (along with open-source alternatives like OpenStreetMap) allow cartographers and surveyors to map cadastral data. These range from the entertaining —the Zombie Apocalypse Survival Map (let’s hope it doesn’t prove useful!) — to the vital: maps of real-time CO2 emissions from specific public buildings, daily world oil consumption and safe polling booths in warzones.

A related technology, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) modelling, allows urban planners and engineers to ensure that any project is the safest, most efficient and most fair. Gas pipelines, for instance, crisscross the globe — hundreds of kilometres long. Potentially hundreds of landholders must be notified, surveys conducted, and plans made — and only then can construction begin.

It becomes a major management exercise to not only identify each affected property but also to track and manage the documentation that is generated.” David Donaldson, Project Manager at LandPartners

GIS modelling can visually represent the scenario, simulating the pipeline’s path underneath our feet — and its effects. That means property owners can access plans at the tap of an iPad and, most importantly, give informed feedback.

If cartography allows us to take on our fear of the geographic and celestial unknown, cadastres give us a glimpse into our possible futures — and help us set course for the best one.

1 Lewis, G. Malcolm. “The Origins of Cartography.” The History of Cartography Volume One. 50. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1987. Print.

 Words: Zenobia Frost and Deanna Hutchinson

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