The world of mapping is a vibrant ecosystem of technology, entrepreneurs, operators, and a host of incidental contributors. From the drawing compass and printing press, to airplanes and small sats, new technologies press the mapping ecosystem forward, enabling businesses to benefit from new insights previously out of reach.

Organizations have gained a competitive edge using maps for thousands of years. As visual representations of spatial data, maps allow users to rapidly understand circumstances as they relate to the physical world. The more accurate and easier maps are to understand, the better the insights and decision making capacity of their users.

While talented technologists and entrepreneurs work deliberately to improve the representation of the physical world in digital maps, the mapping ecosystem is incidentally advanced by a multitude of technologies and industries.

In the beginning, folks would go out into the world, observe their landscape, gather data and use that data to create maps of the stars, cities, or landscapes in rock. Traditional archaeology identifies the Babylonian Map of the World from around 700 B.C. as one of the oldest surviving maps, but independent researchers such as Graham Hancock would argue that ancient monolithic structures such as Gobekli Tepe may be astronomical maps from prior to 10,000 B.C.

It may be surprising, but map making isn’t all that different today. The same basic steps must be followed: observe, gather data, process data to produce maps, analyze maps to make decisions.

So what’s the difference?

Today’s sophisticated maps benefit from advanced engineering, manufacturing, and computing technology, enabling data collection, processing, and analysis on a scale previously out of reach. But we didn’t get here overnight. Today’s advanced technology has deep roots in inventions and innovations empowering the masses to compete with behemoth organizations.

In 1440 Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press, thereby democratizing the collection and dissemination of knowledge and data. While the printing press allowed independent map makers to distribute their work more widely, in the 16th century advances in trigonometry and its application to cartography yielded more accurate maps of larger areas. This made reliably navigating the world’s oceans and the transoceanic trade that followed possible.

Advances in lens technology and engineering led to the modern theodolite in the late 18th century. By the mid 19th century, this accurate instrument was being used to survey the globe as railroads and industry required accurate maps of terrain to efficiently push new frontiers.

Every technological advancement progressing the mapping ecosystem has in common a contribution to the collection, processing, or presentation of more accurate data that enables more people to analyze more of their environment faster.

While there have been many contributions since the theodolite, there are few more impactful than the ability to launch earth observing satellites into orbit. Satellites have made possible everything from global positioning systems to near real time remote observation of global events. Yet, it was not until recently that satellite solutions became widely accessible to anyone but nations and large corporations.

Let’s face it, it’s expensive to launch satellites into space! But with the commercialization of launch capabilities and recent innovations pioneered by SpaceX, launching satellites has never been more accessible. Moreover, no longer must companies build school bus sized satellites and launch them high into geostationary orbits. The standardization of small satellite dimensions and components makes ride and cost sharing possible for folks such as university researchers and start ups.

Add to these proliferating technologies advances in lens and sensors and collecting high resolution imagery in a wide variety spectrum bands is now easier than ever. These capabilities have produced vast amounts of data, pushing engineers to develop faster processing and more advanced analytical tools, enabling geospatial technologies to touch every sector of life from climate science, last mile delivery, and residential real-estate, to utility infrastructure, service contractors, and streamlined marketing.

Today’s vibrant mapping ecosystem consists of more than surveyors, cartographers, and printers, it includes satellite operators, SaaS providers, advanced hardware manufacturers, telecom providers, delivery drivers, environmentalists, multinational corporations, drone pilots, balloon operators, launch companies, a host of analytical platforms and custom software solution developers, and even you and I. Most of us carry around a mobile GPS unit in our pocket in the form of a smart phone used to gather location data and improve map fidelity around the world!

Large organizations have long recognized and wielded the value of maps to improve their strategic and tactical decisions. Now the trend toward GIS democratization, made possible by a host of proliferating technologies, is empowering everyone including local governments, startups, researchers, and small businesses to harness powerful geospatial insights.

As GIS technology continues to enable more organizations to make more informed and better decisions faster, we will continue to experience an acceleration of the innovation flywheel driving the vibrant mapping ecosystem.