Towards an Understanding of Sustainability of Web-Based Digital Mapping Projects

Kurgan, Laura J.; Maron, Nancy; Rockenbach, Barbara A.; Sá Pereira, Moacir P. de; Trinidad-Christensen, Jeremiah

The making of maps is no longer restricted to the rarefied realm of cartographers. Students, scholars, and researchers in all fields have recognized the power that maps can bring to data of many kinds. Architectural scholars can integrate digitized historical maps and demographic datasets to analyze changes over time in different neighborhoods; oceanographers can marry the bathymetric measurements to the configuration of the coastline and layer that with storm-related data to estimate storm surge in coastal communities. A historian explores geopolitical change over time, by layering political boundary lines and other features over a map of Africa. Thanks to easily available mapping software, it is increasingly easy to experiment with and build mapping projects to answer questions and share data.

And yet, many of the tools and platforms that make this possible are part of for-profit businesses, such as Google or ESRI. Others, like Mapzen, are open source, but subject to the same vagaries of many small organizations. Started in 2014 with over 70,000 users, Mapzen announced in 2018 that it would be ceasing operations, and its team disbanded, off to continue developing parts of the code, in the service of other organizations. Scholars and others in the academic sector whose work is built using these tools and platforms need solutions they can rely on to endure.

On May 30 and 31, 2019, Columbia University Libraries convened a group of 26 experts, practitioners, developers, and project leads from a range of disciplines to discuss the sustainability and preservation challenges specific to web-based digital mapping projects. The meeting was designed as a series of discussions, brainstorming, and planning exercises, with the aim of identifying the issues and scope concerning the sustainability and preservation of web-based digital mapping projects. Workshop leaders sought to identify specific challenges, as well as some concrete types of solutions that might begin to address them.

The findings of the workshop and post-workshop survey suggest a deep and growing interest not only in mapping tools for academia, but in exploring ways in which the academy itself can play an active and strategic role in supporting them. Certain details in our recommendations will be expanded in an addendum to this white paper after an in-person meeting of several Task Force members in January 2020 to continue developing the solutions outlined in that meeting, particularly the best practice/guidance and infrastructure solutions. This will be enabled by a no-cost extension on the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant that supported the conference.


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August 13, 2020