TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr. März 2010

Sektion 2.10. Kartosemiotik und geographisch-räumliche Abbildungen / Cartosemiotics and geographical images
Sektionsleiter | Section Chairs: Alexander Wolodtschenko (Dresden) und Dmitry Zamyatin (Moskau)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Web GIS Semiosis: Building a Plural Space

Emanuela Casti (University of Bergamo, Italy) [BIO]



Abstract: The present study applies a semiotic perspective to cartographical studies with the aim to show the iconizing role of webmaps, i.e. their ability to generate meta-geographical knowledge. Our analysis focuses on a specific type of maps known as Web GIS, whose relevance lies in their effective overturning of paper-based cartography. Rather than figuring as the static outcome of intentional representation, Web GIS maps exhibit unique interactive functions, which enable them to make sense of territory through the perspectives of the web user and to bring forward a sense of place whereby the appeals of culture and identity are restored. Eventually, such interactivity gives rise to a plural cartography and yields a sense of place which relies on a postmodernist view of territory. In that view, new common spaces, stipulated by unofficial groups of social intervention, successfully challenge the definition of “public place” held up by a dominant society.


A threshold leap in cartography

Browsing the web, we are faced with a plethora of maps which on the whole defy a conventional representation of the world by replacing it with a multi-faceted and frayed image we can only partially grasp in its many, elusive sides. Innovation is present under the form of new-generation WebGIS-based maps. It is precisely within the realm of Web GIS maps that we witness what could be called a threshold leap in cartographical research. What we are dealing with is an altogether peculiar system with respect to technique, to communication and to content, for this system boosts interactivity, addresses a wide and varied range of users and takes up issues of social and political consequence.

In the course of the last ten years a new theory has taken form in the field of cartographical studies: the theory of cartographical semiosis, that can be followed to interpret all cartographical systems. The aim of the present study is to show the peculiar semiotic features of Web GIS with particular reference to iconization, that is is the communicative process that results in circumstances and contingencies being communicated as truths thanks to the self-referential nature of the map.


Semiosis, self-reference, iconization

In order to understand the revolutionary impact of Web GIS, we need, as stated above, to take into account cartographical semiosis. There are two features of a map that cartographical semiosis helps us regain: the idea of the map as a social product showing us the ways in which a given society sets up its own items of territorial knowledge and the idea of the map as a means of communication whereby these knowledge items are circulated. Maps will thus function as symbolic agents that may directly affect those who interpret them and act independently inside the communicative process. Insofar as maps are granted an active role both in the process of construction and in that of communication, emphasis is shifted from what part of reality they represent to what they tell us about the meaning of territory. And this is where we start perceiving their power for iconization and for the production of truly meta-geographical knowledge.

The interpreter, who turns to a map to obtain information that may suit her goals, plays a momentous part in cartographical semiosis. It is by virtue of an interpreter that a map can be seen as a semiotic field where signs - as suggested in broader terms by C. Morris - effectively become sign vehicles, endowed with relevance only when their meaning is established or made sense of. The rules underlying cartographical semiosis must be investigated with reference to a number of realms. In the realm of semantics meanings are produced by encoding signs, while in the realm of syntax new meanings are derived by setting up mutual links between signs. Finally, in the realm of pragmatics maps act both as interpretative tools and as behavioural patterns for a given society.

We cannot take up each of these realms in detail to show how they specifically affect cartographical communication. We need but keep in mind that a map functions as an elaborate system of communication, whose significance depends as much on the information produced by an interpreter in the course of the communicative process as on the set of data previously encoded into the map by a cartographer. This makes sense if we keep track of the main result of cartographical semiosis: i.e. self-reference. By self-reference we mean on the hand the map’s ability to get accepted for what it is and on the other the map’s capacity to manipulate communication in modes that are quite autonomous from the intentions of the map’s initial encoder, so as to produce iconization. Iconization describes the map’s aptitude to stipulate how territory ought to be conceived and experienced. Iconization refers in fact to the most elaborate phase in the production and circulation of meaning brought about by a map. It may be defined as the communicative outcome whereby conditions that are actually highly conjectural are expressed as necessarily true by virtue of the self-referential quality of the map itself. A map is thus an instrument whereby a transformation of the world is carried out; a metamorphosis that turns out to be particularly intriguing when applied to the virtual world, as we shall soon see.


Cartographical semiosis and Web GIS

We will not be dealing here with web cartography in general. We are not interested in breaking down the communicative processes behind all the maps posted on the web. No sufficient data seem to have been collected so far to define a new semiotic paradigm within cartographical studies. We will instead focus on a special type of cartography: Web GIS cartography, that comes from the combination of two information technologies: that of the global network, better known as World Wide Web, and that of Geographic Information Systems (GISs). Web GIS cartography entails the disruption of a number of traditional cartographic assumptions as to how meaning is conveyed and circulated.

To bring into focus the main feature of Web GIS, i.e. motion, let us draw up a diagram of the map based on three main axes (Figure 1). First we have the axis of semantics (or the building up of signs), then we have the axis of syntax (or relationship between signs); finally we have the axis of pragmatics (or usability of signs). Each axis runs along a range of increasing values for specific features. Thus, the axis of semantics follows a course that stretches from fixity to mutability. In this case resolution of the computer display plays an active role in building up the map since it affects the selection, the degree of simplification and the encoding of geographical information. The axis of syntax stretches from immobility to dynamism,via intermediate phases such as transformation followed by animation which, in our definition of the syntactical links between cartographical signs, mark the shift from an essentially metamorphic to a properly cinematic quality. Lastly we have the axis of pragmatics which - to borrow Lev Makovich’s terms - goes from zero interaction, i.e. the absence of interaction, to closed interaction and finally to open interaction. Five types of on-line maps may be derived from this scheme: static, animated, sensitive, multimedia and - what matters most for our purposes - Web GIS.

Figure 1 - Online cartography as articulated through the three realms of semiosis

Figure 1 - Online cartography as articulated through the three realms of semiosis

The features of mutability, dynamism and interaction are well suited to Web GIS. In fact, of all online maps, Web GIS are the only ones that can be said to represent an open system. These are maps generated “dynamically” in response to specific user input.This is made possible by the fact that such maps are designed and intended from scratch as the visual result - computed by a dedicated piece of software we may broadly call map generator - of automated processes triggered by querying one or more electronic archives, or databases. The most intriguing aspect of this cartographical type of maps is the fact that they are dynamically generated via a Web browser interface that is linked to a database. This has far-reaching implications. First of all, it means that possible changes will not be merely cosmetic, but may well be recorded as variations - albeit temporary ones - of data within the database. This in turn leads to a potential real-time refreshing of information displayed on the map. Secondly, one could easily generate an infinite number of single maps, since the possible combinations of queries made by the web user tend to infinity.

We need to stress once again that the truly revolutionary aspect of Web GIS lies in their unique communicative setup, i.e. interactivity. That is where a threshold leap occurs, for once a GIS is posted on the Web we are left with no final product. The quality of Web GIS comes forth in their endless making, in the dynamism of a cartographic building up that may never be said to have finished or concluded. Web GIS are the chance anyone is offered to make or un-make maps. It is product in the making, no fixed thing but ever changing, indefinable entity. This is what really marks the most striking and crucial point of disruption from conventional cartography. And here we get to the core of our discussion. For behind this peculiar feature of Web GIS one cannot fail to see that a special type of semiosis is about to emerge. In other words, although Web GIS may be conceived as the natural heirs of traditional cartography, once we highlight their communicative aspect rather than their technical layout, we will see them as altogether new tools which re-use the semiotic devices of conventional cartography to develop their own.

In order to make sense of territory as conveyed in this new system, we need to reflect upon the kind of language used and upon the many texts it brings about. We need to look at how syntax changes and at the unprecedented shapes it takes on. Also, we need to assess the extent to which interaction between the parties involved carries Web GIS onto a level where it can dynamically build up the meaning of territory to be conveyed while also unveiling the process whereby this meaning is achieved. The first problem that gets in our way has to do precisely with the attempt to set apart two phases of semiosis that are in fact quite closely knit together. As we turn to semantics we see, for one, how the limitations imposed by a computer display - leaving out what paper would otherwise have made visible - are tackled through syntax. A sequence of consecutive maps are displayed at different scales via the zoom and pan commands, which enables users to work both on wider and on localized views. Also, while a Web GIS does retain the geometric layout of Euclidian cartography, it meddles with its abstract results by bringing in other languages and other senses of territory. Such interweaving depends on the interactivity of the pragmatic realm, which now summons one initial interpreter, the cartographical developer, to take the place of the traditional cartographer, whose institutional service in cartographical practice has long been discontinued. The second interpreter, or broadly speaking addressee, is the web user. Unlike classical cartographers, both interpreters play an active role at the level of communicative goals. Thanks to the interactivity of Web GIS, a web user can finally take part both in data processing - by querying the database - and in the later phase of cartographic rendering. Also, we should not forget that interaction between the two interpreters of the map is strongly affected by cartographic self-reference, which leads to the final outcome of the map - i.e. iconization - by virtue of its mimetic way of encoding and linking up cartographic signs.

We reach a process of cartographic mediation, via multiple agents who participate in map building and thus help create a plural cartography and a new view of place. A Web GIS may then appear as a public arena where single subjects are shown as they contribute to shape social identity. One cannot fail to see that this is perfectly aligned with our current societal view of territory. The multitude of single and collective actors voice their presence by founding new spaces that have been called the spaces “of insurgent citizenship” where new forms of decision are tested out as alternatives to the ones sanctioned by the prevailing culture. They are plural spaces, which enable us to see space in a different light, and make it possible for the idea of open spatiality - a realm continually re-definable through social and identity practices - to gain wider and wider acceptance. As we shall see, Web GIS is one of the most important of these spaces.


Web Gis maps interactiviy: a communicative revolution

Web GIS maps are currently enjoying wide circulation on the net, not only on privately owned sites designed for the territorial promotion but also on institutional homepages: ministries, research organizations, public agencies and public associations. To all, this new way of managing information appears as a very powerful means for social communication, whose most attractive feature is interactivity. Let us take a closer look at how interactive applications are built and how they work. Interactivity may be said to play a central role at more than one level: at the level of 1) reference; at the level of 2) content and codification in the map; at the level of (3) informational densification and lastly at the level of 4) production of thematic maps. The World Wide Web offers a variety of Web GIS interactive applications: here are a few instances.

We are going to start with an example of custom-made reference taken from a Web GIS (EnviroMapper) that is meant to promote the circulation and consultation of a wide array of environmental data and may be found on the EPA USA (Environmental Protection Agency) website (figure 2). Interactivity enables users to control reference in a number of ways: by scaling up or down; by deciding at any given time which and how many names should be displayed and, consequently, which points should be taken into account in identifying territory to be visualized. The outcome of this process differs from the kind of informational selection that traditional maps undergo when scaled up or down. We need to remember that scale in Web GIS must of necessity match the choice of “a center” for the map, i.e. the selection of a portion of document to be displayed on a pc monitor. And this entails a combination of designators - which varies on the basis of the portion of territory being panned - as well as a different referential grounding. By zooming and/or panning within a map, a user can activate a sequence of views which expand the boundaries of representation and make it virtually unlimited while at the same retaining a fixed display frame and adjusting to the level of detail picked by the web user. Custom-made reference, then, offers web users the chance to take communicative control of the information bundle and thus select and provide their own targeted interpretation.


Figure 2: EnviroMapper: customizing reference

Figure 2: EnviroMapper: customizing reference

Clearly, insofar as it allows for a selection of information, Web GIS interactivity takes part in the encoding of information to be displayed on the map and in establishing content. This may perhaps be illustrated in the example provided by cartography found on the website of the Italian province of Cuneo WebGIS. On that site, every web user can build up his own map, and pick one of the many formats made available online. He then may choose to modify this map at will, for instance by inserting personalized icons, with custom-made shapes (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Province of Cuneo WebGIS. Customizing the encoding and content of a map

Figure 3: Province of Cuneo WebGIS. Customizing the encoding and content of a map

The user may even choose to manipulate captions, which are known to play a central role in cartographic representation, by acting at two levels: either by altering the map title, and thus laying down how the map ought to be read, or by inserting, at specific points on the map, informational tags which highlight these points, ranking them in a prescriptive hierarchical set that may affect the self-referential outcome of this communication.

Another type of interactive application strictly related to the ones discussed above has to do with customizing the densification of the meaning conveyed by the map both on a denotative - i.e. referential - level and on a the level of connotation, which impinges upon cultural values. A good instance of this may be a Web GIS for the city of Venice found on the Venice town hall website. Here, a web user affects the degree of informational densification of the map by selecting for display only those icons that best meet his needs or suit his purposes (Figure 4). By so doing, the web user establishes the level of densification for referential information and turns on a set of rules based on multiple and variable links between icons. There is another function linked to informational densification: by moving the mouse over the map and clicking each time on a different icon, the name of the selected object is displayed together with an informative popup window about that object. To be sure, option here depends on the connotative meaning of each single icon, and yet the semantic mode whereby selection is made - i.e. the linking together of multiple codes and captions - ends up affecting syntax just as well. For the web user makes his choices on a hypertext that is known to produce self-referential meaning on the level of syntax. Having been given the chance to intensify a map content both at the level of reference and at the level of culture, the web user is persuaded to pick information autonomously and is entrusted to the iconizing outcome of his choice.

Figure 4: Web GIS for the city of Venice: customizing informational densification

Figure 4: Web GIS for the city of Venice: customizing informational densification

What is left to discuss is the role interactivity plays in the construction of thematic Web GIS maps. To do that, we are going to look at online cartography found in the USA Census Bureau website. Web GIS based on the American FactFinder (AFF) system open up to web users a wide field of action for building Thematic Maps (figure 5).

Figure 5: U.S. Census Bureau’s On-Line Mapping Resources: building complex Web-GIS thematic maps

Figure 5: U.S. Census Bureau’s On-Line Mapping Resources: building complex Web-GIS thematic maps.

More precisely, this Web GIS makes it possible for users to select and combine datasets from different informational layers of the map. One may even click on the “Legend” caption and access the “Classes” dialogue window. From there, one may then pick the number of data classes to be displayed, along with other coloring and sorting options. The “Boundaries” dialogue window enables one to select the data source to be used, or the layers to be displayed together with their possible captions (Census 2000, 2004, Population Estimates, 1997, Economic Census,…). And it does not end here. A web user may choose to download his own custom-made map in Adobe PDF format, to be printed or stored as needed. And--even more surprisingly—the web user is granted access to the database, and may decide to export it to his own computer in txt or MS Excel format. Provided he owns his own GIS software then - Arcview in this case - he is free to re-use the database he has downloaded. Rather than being a mere addressee, the web user is quite clearly endowed with full authorship: he actively participates in each phase of cartographic construction.


Toward the construction of a plural space

While still in its drafting phase, the study of new cartographic systems in a semiotic perspective opens up a wide range of issues dealing with the specific features of this type of cartography. Following the first results of this research we can argue that cartographic semiosis can help creating a new conceptual model that can be applied to these new cartographic systems, as for example Web GIS or participatory GIS, having a social and political role.

The extraordinary semiotic potential of these systems hinges on one term, often abused if still largely unexplored: interactivity. Interactivity meets the web user’s expectations as to the potential of this technology by placing emphasis on system transparency. And this entails an enhancement of the map’s iconizing power, of its ability to substitute for reality and “give shape to” another reality.

In the case of Web GIS we are faced with a revolutionary shift. Maps generate an unlimited number of realities. That is achieved by a novel form of interactivity, not limited to the conventional interaction between cartographer and map, but involving both interpreters (developer and web user) who now draw a map by tapping an unprecedented repository of information: the database. This is where we witness that “cartographic threshold leap” whereby a new sense of territory comes to the fore. For territory may now be incessantly altered, in a discourse that endows “place” with ground-breaking value and acknowledges its far-reaching social implications. And map production enters “a new world,” not much because it occurs and it spreads on the World Wide Web, but because it is finally redeemed from the stigma of representing a “denial” of place. Place can now be regained in its plural value, from a standpoint that is finally democratic.

By trying to abandon Euclidean logic, the research is now moving on, searching for a reflexive cartography to explore new forms of mapping, while making different actors participate to its creation and interpretation. The aim is to build a conscious information and a reflexive knowledge.


Bibliographical References

Web Sites:

2.10. Kartosemiotik und geographisch-räumliche Abbildungen / Cartosemiotics and geographical images

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups| Groupes de sections

TRANS   Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  17 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Emanuela Casti: Web GIS Semiosis: Building a Plural Space - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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