The future of maps

This talk was given at the National Library on 11 May as part of the series of public events associated with Unfolding the Map – The Cartography of New Zealand.

Aaron Jordan is the Group Manager of Topography and Addressing at Land Information New Zealand.

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The following is an abstracted version of the presentation, and not a transcript.

What does LINZ do?

A lot! Land Information New Zealand:

  • Manages around 8% of Crown land
  • Runs Landonline, the Survey and Titles Register, and Geodesy, New Zealand’s positioning framework
  • Manages NZ’s hydro charts
  • Manages addressing information

This is all useful to surveyors, lawyers, property owners, Māori, builders, planners, and many more.

We also map. Why? To describe, defend, explore, navigate, and manage land, which leads to a safe and secure society. Maps are also used to understand, analyse, and inform, which leads to a healthier and more prosperous society and environment.

Various maps created by LINZ.

By mapping our natural and built environment, we can connect people to the land, and tell stories.

Specifically, LINZ maps:

  • New Zealand and offshore islands
  • Areas of interest in the South Pacific
  • Areas of interest in the Ross Sea region

The history of LINZ and maps – before 2010(ish)

The Department of Lands and Survey was established in 1876 with a wide range of responsibilities, including survey, health and tourist resorts, immigration, Crown lands and roads. Forests and agriculture were added in 1886. Over the years, many of these responsibilities passed to other departments, and by the 1980s Lands and Survey's core responsibilities included survey, land development, mapping, lands and deeds and Crown land.

Logos for Lands and Survey, Survey and Land Information, and Land Information New Zealand.

In the 1987 restructuring, the Department of Survey and Land Information was set up to provide government civil and military survey mapping and land information services. Land development activities were placed with a state-owned enterprise. Conservation management roles were placed with new departments. In July 1996, the Department of Survey and Land Information was itself restructured into Land Information New Zealand, vested with core government land-related regulatory and purchase functions, while the former department's commercial activities were vested with Terralink NZ Ltd.

Changing standards

In February 1936 an interdepartmental committee chaired by the Surveyor General, H E Walshe, established the first national topographical mapping series at one inch to a mile (1:63360). This allowed national coverage to a consistent standard, across 359 sheets published between 1939 and 1976.

Map of Napier and Hastings from the NZMS 1 series.

In 1969 NZ adopted metric measurements. Many of the inch-to-a-mile maps were old and out of date. The time was right for a new National Series.

The new series was created from new aerial photography and photogrammetry. These maps use the scale 1:50,000 (one centimetre = 500 metres). The first sheet was published in 1978, and the last in 1997 – 297 in total.

Map of Auckland from the NZMS 260 series.

Since then, we’ve moved from terrestrial observations and measurements to space-based observations and measurements, creating a new standard.

In September 2009, we released all 451 sheets of the NZTM2000 projection, a 1:50,000 national map of New Zealand and the Chathams.

Maps from the Topo50 series, showing how the South Island is covered by multiple plates.

Mapmaking – before 2010(ish)

In LINZ’s earlier days, map production was aided by machines called stereoplotters.

Women using B8 and A6 stereoplotting machines.

Traditional map production also involved some very detailed hands-on craftwork, like scribing contours, hill shading, and text placement.

Men working on handcrafting maps, including scribing contours, shading hills, and placing text.

In the 1980s we started on the digital cartographic database, in which each of the plate copy films for our NZMS 260 sheets were manually digitised and converted into manipulable data. We finally completed the project in 2000.

Digital mapping

We could edit this information directly on the screen, instead of starting from scratch and using the stereoplotters. This meant we could see the effects of changes immediately, speeding up the process enormously.

We still start from source images, but now the features are extracted using digital tools. We pass that data through some processing, and get maps (and reusable data) out the other side in about 15 minutes.

Screens showing digital mapping data output.

Those maps and data are available on the LINZ site, and RadioNZ has more about how we make maps now.

Imagery – before 2010(ish)

Imagery is the source of our information – without it we couldn’t make the maps we do. We take pairs of images in stereo, which lets us map in 3D.

We used to own our own aeroplane to take images from flyovers, before that service was branched off to be NZ Aerial Mapping. In those days it was all black and white.

Plane used to gather aerial photography and some of the photos taken from the air.

Then, we got colour photography.

Colour aerial photo of land, a river, and some simple roads.

And now we use satellite imagery.

Paired stereo satellite images.

Changing world

That takes us roughly to the state of things in 2010. But things have continued to change, and the early 21st century has seen a lot of it.

Google fundamentally changed the way people use maps. They offered a free, dynamic, and largely current and accurate interactive map – something we hadn’t seen before on a global scale.

Google maps view of the National Library and the surrounding area.

Microsoft soon followed suit with their own maps, as did Apple. Open Street Map didn’t like the locked up nature of the data used by these mapping tools, so they created a community-based platform that allowed anyone to contribute and use that data.

In-car navigation has taken off – it’s now a standard fixture in new cars. Smartphones have exploded in use, with maps as a key feature. Tablets have followed in kind.

More recently, we’ve seen smart watches, with map apps of their own.

Maps applications shown on a smart watch.

Open data and coordination

Today, we’ve switched modes a bit, and put more energy into open data and coordination efforts. We’ve been running the LINZ data service since 2011, making hundreds of layers of data available for anyone to download.

View of the LINZ data service, showing the many layers of data available to view.

We have around 140 independent layers of Topo50 data. If you needed all of the digital data covering a specific area previously, you had to choose them one by one. We’ve instead set up ‘sets’, which associate connected individual datasets so that you can download them all at once.

One such dataset, Aerial Imagery, is of national importance – it provides a location-based reference for policy and decision makers, and has many used across industries, including forestry, engineering, and land management.

View of the Taranaki from above, centred on the mountain.

We ensure a coordinated approach to the acquisition and dissemination of imagery, and aim to improve access and encourage greater use of this important resource. We hold imagery to consistent standards, with open licensing making it available for anyone to use.

Coordination between central and local government means imagery for 95% of the country is available on an open licence. Fresh updates to these images are always ongoing...

Combining data

Probably this most value comes when people combine our map data with other types of data. They can do this in Geographic Information Systems to map things, plan construction, or help understand how location impacts an issue.

Conservationists can use our data combined with other data to analyse species habitats, where predators might be, and so where traps should go.

Utilities companies can use it to scope options for underground services, like whether to dig up a road or a field. We also know of one company that uses it to plan windfarms and then, by factoring in landscape and tree cover, to calculate how much energy they’d produce.

And if you search on your phone’s app store, you’ll find quite a number of different apps offering our maps – when combined with GPS they provide quite a handy tool!

New strategy from 2015

With all these changes going on, it was time to develop a new strategy. The 2015 Topographic Strategy is now available on our site.

Goal 1: Actively engage with customers, stakeholders, and the international topographic community

A tramper using a map in the bush.

Technology is changing at ever increasing rates and so too are the expectations for geographic information. We are also seeing a broadening range of users particularly those seeking to use geographic data and digital products and services. LINZ will need to engage with customers and stakeholders to understand and respond to their changing requirements.

To aid LINZ to remain informed on the current and emerging technologies and techniques for creating and managing Topographic data and products, we will need to continue to engage with other National Mapping Organisations to learn from them and also share back what we have learnt.

Goal 2: Ensure topographic data reflects real-world change at levels of spatial, temporal, and attribution accuracy that maximises its value

Aerial shot of a small town, centered on a roundabout.

LINZ needs to ensure that real-world change is reflected in topographic data and products in a timely and accurate manner. However, we also need to reflect that that some features will have a higher maintenance priority than others. For example, road and track information will have a higher priority than fence or vegetation information. By prioritising our activities, we can ensure LINZ’s limited resources are being used to give the most effect.

LINZ needs to ensure the spatial, temporal and attribution accuracy of topographic data meets the needs of both enduring and emerging customers. For example, for important features such as roads, we will target higher accuracy standards so that data we manage and maintain can be reused by others for applications beyond mapping.

LINZ also needs to preserve historic features (features that have been updated or removed), so we can maintain the ‘topographic record’ of New Zealand.

Goal 3: Coordinate other sources of topographic data into open national datasets to maximise opportunities for its reuse

Map of area around Paparangi.

Many organisations in New Zealand already collect and maintain information about features on the land that LINZ could use to supplement the information we maintain. For example, we already source track and hut information from the Department of Conservation and Transmission line information from Transpower. Basically, we want to do this more.

The underlying theory is that for any given feature we hold information about, there is probably another organisation who holds even more detailed information on the same feature – either because the feature is in their back yard – such is the case for local councils, or the organisation has a very specific interest in that feature, such as Transpower and their transmission lines.

Therefore, the goal here is to coordinate these other sources of topographic data and create national datasets that LINZ can use to update our maps, and so others can also reuse for their applications.

Goal 4: Coordinate the acquisition and release of imagery and elevation data into open national datasets to maximise opportunities for its reuse

Angled view of a large mountain.

Goal 4 is a special case of the previous goal, with a specific focus on imagery and elevation information.

LINZ will continue to coordinate the procurement and release of aerial imagery data for NZ, an effort that has seen data availability grow from just 5% coverage of NZ to 95% in just a few years. This imagery data has been downloaded tens of thousands of times from the LINZ data service and has been used in a large number of applications.

LINZ will now start to investigate how we can achieve something similar in elevation information for New Zealand.

Goal 5: Expand the production of topographic products and services to include those specifically for digital use

World maps on various current digital devices.

We need to acknowledge a large change in customer demand. While we saw a mild dip in paper map sales, we saw a big surge in digital downloads. It makes sense to change our focus to data with roads, buildings, and rivers our initial priority.

Chart showing customer demand for print and digital maps. Print demand has decreased slightly since 2012, while digital demand has climbed substantially.

We’ve already started making new services available on the LINZ data service. The Imagery Basemap and Topo Basemap (gridless) are live, and the Colour Basemap and Graphite Basemap are in the works.

And today it’s not just about imagery. Lidar is becoming more and more important to get heights, at greater accuracy.

Lidar views of Auckland, showing detected points on buildings and elevation data visualised.

Degrees of elevation accuracy compared on the same part of a city. The greater elevation accuracy makes a significant difference to the readability of the map.

More applications

We’ve seen all kinds of interesting applications using our data:

  • • Flood modelling for Wellington
  • • Visualising future roading and building developments
  • • Solar gain analysis of Dunedin roofs
  • • Building compliance assessment in Queenstown
  • • Mapping between the land and the sea
  • • Fuel-efficient route calculation
  • • Interactive sessions in the Library’s Unfolding the map exhibition

What else is happening in the world of maps?

So much!

  • Mobile mapping creating street level point clouds
  • Drones carrying cameras and lidar
  • More and more satellites, with higher resolution imaging, more spectral bands, faster coverage – and some providing their images for free
    • Faster change detection
    • Terra Bella plans – capture high resolution images and 90 second video clips at 30 frames per second, everywhere on earth, multiple times a day

This means mapping today is all about the data, and managing it well. It also means anyone can be a cartographer. See Andrew Douglas-Clifford’s map of New Zealand’s highways, or Bjorn Sandvik’s open source maps of New Zealand.

And for a national mapping organisation? We can explore automatic generalisation, where data at smaller scales can be quickly processed to create maps at larger scales, to get ahead of some potential future problems.

We can work more with municipalities to combine local data sources. We can get into 3D visualisation, such as by combining datasets. There are also opportunities to explore crowdsourcing of feedback services.

Ultimately, an organisation like ours needs to understand and stay in touch with its users, collaborate, response, communicate and share, and do data well.

Questions for the far (near) future

Could we see maps with high detail like this in the future?

A potential new standard for map detail and accuracy, shown from above and at an elevated angle. It's very detailed.

And what about VR, like the new Oculus Rift? What about digital paper?

If you have questions or feedback, please let me know by emailing

By Aaron Jordan

Aaron Jordan is the Group Manager of Topography and Addressing and LINZ.

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