Web Mapping is not "Maps on the Web!"

07-20-2018 09:56 AM
Esri Notable Contributor
1 0 1,665

"Web mapping? Sure, I use digital maps!" is a statement I hear fairly often. On the surface, it seems that these two concepts are the same. Indeed, for nearly 20 years, since the 1990s with MapQuest and in the 2000s with maps on mobile devices, interacting with maps in digital form rather than paper has been the more common everyday experience. But I submit that "web mapping" is not the same as simply using maps on the web, whether in health, energy, city planning, or, as is the focus here, in education.

In my view, using maps on the web includes looking up a place name, examining thematic maps such as ocean currents, world biomes, or demographic characteristics by neighborhood across your city, finding the distance between two points on a map, finding the route between two points, mapping locations that you have visited in the field, and so on. Nothing wrong with any of those tasks. Using maps on the web focuses on the "What's Where?" question.

But web mapping's purpose is for examining patterns, relationships, and trends. It examines change over space and time at a variety of scales, and across themes. For example, what is the relationship between the location of mines and water quality across a mountain watershed, or between median age and median income across a city? How does the land use change across a region over time, or the precipitation across a mountain range? All of these questions end with, "And why?" Charles Gritzner wrote a great article about geography being about what is where, why there, and why....  Web mapping focuses on the "Why there"? and "why care?" part of Gritzner's framework. 

To summarize in tabular form:

Maps on the webWeb Mapping


             Navigation       Navigation
             Visualization       Visualization
       Creating web mapping applications
       Collecting and exploring field-collected data
Where are the field sites I visited?Why does the water quality vary across the field sites I visited?
Where are the younger and less affluent neighborhoods in this city?Is there a spatial and attribute relationship between median age and median income in this city, and if so, what is the relationship, why does it exist, and does it change over time?
Where is the mountain range in a region and what is the precipitation regime across them?How and why does the precipitation regime change across the mountain range?

Using maps on the web is a stepping stone to web mapping, but is not exactly the same as web mapping. They are not exactly the same thing, but there is overlap between them to be sure.

In short, web mapping uses the concept of GIS as a platform, including web, mobile, and desktop, with its analytical, multimedia, and application ability, to its full potential. 

The educational implications of this are many.  How do we teach in this new paradigm of web mapping?  What concepts should we teach, and what skills should we seek to foster?  What tools and data sets should we use?  How should we incorporate new field techniques and apps?  How should we assess student work given the ease of creating web mapping applications such as story maps?  How should our primary, secondary, community college, and university courses and programs change to encompass this new world?  

In addition, Web GIS is not just "more and better" GIS, it also requires new ways of managing GIS. 

All of this is part of the continued shift from desktop-only GIS to web GIS.  This shift involves the movement:

  • from software products to platforms and APIs,
  • from client/server to web services and apps,
  • from standalone desktop to connected devices,
  • from print maps to web maps and data visualizations,
  • from static data to data services, streams, and big data
  • from custom applications to interoperable packages and libraries
  • from a single all purpose application to many pathways and focused apps
  • from proprietary data to open data and shared services.

If all this seems like mere semantics, this is why I believe this matters: Like all of you, I care deeply about meaningful student learning with geotechnologies. To foster spatial and critical thinking with geotechnologies requires more than looking up place names on a map, or routes from a certain point to another point. It requires that we be purposeful about using maps as the analytical, exploratory tools that they are.

Education for a brighter future with GIS

Using the Web GIS paradigm in education and society offers a brighter future for students and the entire planet.

About the Author
I believe that spatial thinking can transform education and society through the application of Geographic Information Systems for instruction, research, administration, and policy. I hold 3 degrees in Geography, have served at NOAA, the US Census Bureau, and USGS as a cartographer and geographer, and teach a variety of F2F (Face to Face) (including T3G) and online courses. I have authored a variety of books and textbooks about the environment, STEM, GIS, and education. These include "Interpreting Our World", "Essentials of the Environment", "Tribal GIS", "The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data", "International Perspectives on Teaching and Learning with GIS In Secondary Education", "Spatial Mathematics" and others. I write for 2 blogs, 2 monthly podcasts, and a variety of journals, and have created over 5,000 videos on the Our Earth YouTube channel. Yet, as time passes, the more I realize my own limitations and that this is a lifelong learning endeavor and thus I actively seek mentors and collaborators.