Before the business agenda of the 2020 Annual Meeting, attendees heard from keynote speaker Bennett Moe of Headwall Media, LLC, immediate past president of IMIA’s Americas group. Moe shared a few thoughts on IMIA’s past achievements and how it is evolving with a rapidly changing industry. Watch the video of the 2020 Annual Meeting here

I was chatting recently with a colleague about the changes in the mapping world over the last 30 years, a career path aligned to the evolution of the IMIA. There have been a number of inflection points along the way, with survivors and casualties at each turn. I like to think that the IMIA and I are both survivors.

Bennett Moe

When I started at a small mapping startup as an intern, right about the same time that the International Map Trade Association (IMTA), as it was then known, was getting off the ground, I was a graphic design student and learned traditional cartography methods and practices on the job — scribing, typesetting and platemaking were among the skills that cartographers needed to have back then.

The first big market shift happened when computers were first adopted in the early 90’s and began to replace film-based production. It wasn’t without bumps. I recall one particular interaction we had with Peter Muller, who with Harm deBlij were probably the most well known authors of geography textbooks at the time. The DeBlij Muller World Regional Geography textbook was one of the first that was produced entirely with digital cartography. The only problem was that laser printing tech lagged behind the capability of the computers and try as we might to explain to Peter that the low resolution prints that he would receive as proofs were just that – low resolution proofs that were for content proofing only. When he saw the first prints, he went ballistic, accusing us of defying every cartographic convention in the book. It was foreign to him that the proofs that he was looking at were not exactly how the maps would appear in print. We ultimately had to prove that we knew what we were doing by making film-based proofs to reassure him. Thankfully, the digital printing tech caught up.

Ultimately it took years, half a decade or more, for digital cartography to fully supplant the traditional methods and in the process literally tons of film was sent off to the silver recyclers.

That startup was ultimately acquired by the company that would launch and then become MapQuest. While digital cartography changed how maps were made, the Web and digital routing technology like MapQuest changed how maps were consumed. Before it was launched, I don’t think that anyone was predicting it would cause demise of the street map market, but yet that’s exactly what happened. Travelers were no longer buying the folded street maps, now they could print out their own route map right at home (though I’m sure that Peter Muller spit out his coffee when he saw what the maps looked like — and even our own cartographers referred to them as ‘map-like objects’). Even so, other sectors of mapping continued to thrive, from education to geographic information systems, which were really coming into their own.

Likewise around this time, the renamed IMIA adapted to support a worldwide membership that included the mapping ecosystem from paper manufacturers to retailers, and precipitated its division into three regions to better support the global constituency.

The evolution of mapping took another step further with the introduction of the smartphone, allowing people to use their location to interact with their environment in new ways. Google and Apple enabled apps and devices with highly accurate location awareness. The power of geolocation data enabled a whole new generation of companies that harnessed its power to create applications that power everything from finding a virtual Pokemon to autonomous navigation (an area in which I worked post-MapQuest). And yet the art of cartography endures. The value of a paper map, whose extinction was often predicted, continues to increase. Sure there are segments of the traditional map market that will not return or will survive as a shadow of what they once were, but the continual innovation across the value chain will ensure the industry’s prosperity. The mapping world now includes the traditional cartographic arts as well as the emerging geolocation tech that drives and informs so many aspects of our modern lives.

And no matter our position in the ecosystem of the mapping world, be it on the production, manufacturing and distribution of traditional map products, to the creation and application of the data and software that enable geolocation applications, there continues to be a place where leaders can gather. And if we’ve learned anything over these recent months, connections matter. Keeping in touch matters. And I’m thankful that the IMIA continues to adapt to help us maintain connections across our industry.