DIY topo maps for wardrivers, geocachers, carto freaks

The latest edition of Kevin Kelly's terrific "Cool Tools" e-zine lists a bundle of websites and software applications for creating your own topographical maps. Also in this issue: very helpful recommendations on tool kits for documentary radio.

Cartography is a once-exotic specialty that is about to hit the mainstream. Making maps used to be supremely daunting. It required ultra-precise instruments and advance technical knowledge. A map could take thousands upon thousands of man-hours to build. And few might ever see it. Three technologies are overturning this profession: GPS, digital imaging, and the web. An inexpensive GPS device allows almost anyone to generate cartographic data. Plotting software allows almost anyone to map that data out. And web technology allows almost anyone to distribute and view these maps.

Most of this recent amateur digital cartography is taking place upon the solid foundations of government-funded topographic mapmaking. The story begins by digitizing the current set of government topo maps. A number of agencies, including the National Geographic Society have completed this heroic task. They employed huge scanners which devoured entire maps at once, and software that stitched all the maps together seamlessly into one huge digital map. Once you have a digital topo map, you can port that stream of bits into a GPS device. Now as you hike or bicycle or drive with your GPS on, your path is traced onto the topo map automatically, or you can pinpoint particular spots. Back at your PC you can annotate your data.