Maps & mobile

I’m somehow dissatisfied with mobile cartography.

On the Hollywood Walk of Fame site, we’re currently using Google Maps. When I first saw Google Maps on the web, I was thrilled with the cartography. The craft of good map-making started to shine through after a decade of turgid MapQuest vectors.

(In a previous life, I lived for maps… so I take this very seriously!)

And on HWOF, sure, it does what it should. The now-familiar style has a comforting effect for users I suppose.

But, both with and without the ‘mobile’ option set in the API (shown on the right – worse I think!), and despite the huge watermark on the limited real-estate, I’m personally tiring of it.


Maybe it’s the burnish of familiarity. I’ve seen this style so much that it holds no allure or beauty any more. Maybe because it appeals more to drivers than pedestrians. Maybe because of the uninspiring Arial font. Or maybe just because I’d like to be more in control? All of the above.

Anyway, I’ve started to look at alternatives. On one hand we’re looking at some commercial possibilities with other map (and location data) providers.

But on the hand, I’ve been sucked into the thought of using CloudMade. Built on top of the excellent OpenStreetMap project, it allows everyone to become a cartographer – or at least, to apply new themes and styles to the map structures from OSM.

A great example? Check out Matt Jones’ lovely map:

Which, interestingly, immediately made me think of John Speed:

Nothing new in the world, eh?

Anyway… this is now interesting. I’m no graphic designer, but I’ve done my fair share of map-making. I do know how to make important features rise to the foreground. And make irrelevant aspects fade to the back. Serve specific purpose. A map is not just a dry record of geographic fact: it should be created entirely with the context of the user in mind.

Hey! Just like mobile web applications.

So I am on a crusade to in find the perfect mobile map. A cartographic style that jumps out of a handheld screen. A visual vocabulary that caress a mobile user’s spatial awareness. Maps that blend seamlessly into the device’s user interface, rather than merely rectangular crashups. A panache that brings vectors to life. That crosses the boundary into art.

And that can do so, effortlessly, in 176 pixels or less.

The world is full of brilliant maps of many kinds. But do any of them cut it in the mobile medium? Is that medium so different that we have to start again with some of our cartographic assumptions? Will I ever be satisfied?

Well, I don’t know yet. But I do know that I’m going to have a lot of fun fiddling with CloudMade.

What’s your favourite mobile map, cartographic style or service? And why?