Tim Bray's recent blog post about maps and atlases totally resonated with my experiences at TouchTable, where we make the modern equivalent of map tables.
Historically, map tables were the "professional upgrade" to atlases - you had drawers full of large-scale maps and a table big enough for a few people to stand around them. TouchTables are the modern version, using mapping applications from ESRI or Google instead of physical maps, and large format display tables instead of wooden surfaces. While these technologies give you a baseline set of capabilities, what really turns these systems into true collaboration systems is TouchShare, the system software that surrounds the mapping application. TouchShare enables collaboration by: a) providing an extensive, but user-friendly, touch-based interface that gives anyone immediate access to the power of large, digital maps, and b) system-to-system synchronization that allows people in different locations to approach the experience of standing around a large map together. Today TouchShare runs on large TouchTables and PCs, but tablets and other personal devices are just around the corner.
The amount of information squeezed into a two-page spread like this is staggering; Edward Tufte has argued that quality cartography is without equal in visual information density.
Digital maps have helped us move a step farther: if we are thoughtful in how we bring other complex data sets into the realm of maps, we can take advantage of our inherent ability to process large volumes of information in map form. TV weathermen have understood this for a few decades, bothering to stand in front of a weather map instead of reading from a desk like their cohorts. From the weatherman we also get a glimpse of our ability to view dynamic data when displayed on a map, as we watch the vast amounts of information flow by in the radar image sequence of a storm or hurricane.
Shifting from local collaboration around big maps to distributed, net-based collaboration, san obvious question arises: as we get better and better at remote, map-centric collaboration, will the interest wane in sharing large format tables and maps in-person? We doubt it. Like Tim I think there's something special in that shared, physical experience.
Watch for TouchTables on this season's Deadliest Warrior!