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What Are Electronic Maps?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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Electronic maps are digitized representations of geographic areas. These tools can be used in everything from in-car navigation to the mapping of ethnographic data. Many are freely available to members of the public who can download and use them on a variety of devices, including in editing programs that allow them to make certain changes. Manufacturers of electronic maps and accessories may also permit crowdsourcing, where users submit data to exchange it with each other across a network.

The most basic form of electronic map is the raster map, which acts much like a scan of a traditional paper map. This provides all the same features, and the user may be able to zoom in and out. With each zoom, a map at the new scale is displayed for the benefit of the user. Some programs allow the user to draw routes and make notes on raster maps. These maps are not, however, interactive, and may have limited functionality for the benefit of the user.

These are in direct contrast with vector maps, where the map contains layers of information that provide rich functionality for the user. For example, a street map may be aligned with global positioning satellites so it can interface with a navigation device. The user's position on the map can be pinpointed, and the device can give the user directions between two or more points. Vector maps may also connect with services like restaurant reviews, gas station locators, and other tools the user could find handy.

In research, electronic maps can be a valuable tool. Researchers can embed data directly into a map to generate a variety of charts. For example, people interested in income could create a regional map of different income levels. The information might cross-reference with age, gender, and other statistics to allow the researcher to manipulate it in a variety of ways. With each refresh, the electronic map could update to show the changes and provide a visual reference for topics under discussion.

People can also use electronic maps for activities like tracking weather patterns, altitude, climate conditions, and other environmental factors. In this case the map might tie into a database maintained by a government agency. Some electronic maps offer real-time updates like alerts when earthquakes occur within a given zone. This functionality can be useful for scientists as well as members of the public who might be planning trips or following natural events.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a EasyTechJunkie researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By bluespirit — On Sep 24, 2011

An electronic map can be very helpful and a time-saver, but just with anything else, it has it's limits and flaws.

I purchased a GPS for my car a year ago because I moved to a new city and state. It messed up after only 6 months of having it! The company said I can mail it to them and they will give me a new one, but I haven't gotten around to it yet.

It is nice having a GPS for information that a paper map can not tell you, like points of interest, restaurants, gas stations, etc.

I think it is good to have both an electronic map and a regular paper map.

I also think if you have time and gas money, it can be useful and fun to just drive around a city and figure some things out on your own.

By BabaB — On Sep 23, 2011

The GPS systems in cars are quite an invention. I can't decide if I like the woman's voice or the man's. I've found these devices to be quite accurate. That is unless you are looking for a new location.

I've found that you really need to have your passengers not talk, or you can easily miss an important direction.

It is important to use a regular, paper map some of the time. We don't want to lose our map reading skills!

By PinkLady4 — On Sep 23, 2011

I enjoy the electronic weather maps that the weather station uses on the TV. It is fun to watch the graphics they use to show what the weather is all over the country.

You can see weather patterns developing and where they are headed.

The weatherperson just has to change windows and we're transported instantly to see the weather conditions in other parts of the world.

By strawCake — On Sep 22, 2011

@Monika - Your posts makes me think that electronic vector maps are probably great for businesses. I'm sure you and boyfriend tried some places you wouldn't have discovered without using your navigation program.

I also think the idea of crowdsourced electronic maps is a cool one. I know I would be willing to post updates on maps of my area provided it didn't take too long!

By Monika — On Sep 22, 2011

I use a navigation program on my phone that has electronic maps. I'm pretty sure they are vector maps because they show landmarks in the area!

My boyfriend and I find this feature very handy when we go visit new cities. We are both fairly adventurous, so we'll just search for a diner or another type of restaurant on the map. Then we check a few reviews and head over! We've made some great finds this way.

By honeybees — On Sep 21, 2011

I often find myself relying on my GPS if I am trying to reach an unfamiliar location. Even though my car is only a year old, the GPS unit that is there is not up to date.

If I am trying to find an address that is fairly new, it will not register on my GPS. I know there are newer versions that I can download but I haven't spent the money to do that yet.

Even though electronic maps can be very helpful, it never hurts to carry an old traditional paper map with you as well. This is something my husband always makes sure to have in the car, and more than once I have been very thankful for it.

By Mae82 — On Sep 20, 2011

When I am driving I always make sure to have my GPS up and running. I love how electronic maps that are hooked up to the satellite feed can show you exactly where to go and can even warn you about traffic conditions.

My GPS system has saved me a lot of time over the last few years and was definitely worth the investment. Also, a good tip is, that if you can't afford a separate GPS system for your car, you can always download a GPS application to your cell phone. They are pretty pricey as apps go, but they work just as well as any GPS system that you could have installed in your vehicle.

By wander — On Sep 20, 2011

Whenever I go traveling I always makes sure to download electronic maps for whichever area I will be visiting. I have a smartphone and the apps you can find are pretty amazing.

Often you can download free maps that will show you where things like all the night spots are, or where the best shopping is. Of course, there are also maps made specifically to show you around the biggest tourist sights.

I really can't imagine how people used to get around before electronic maps became so popular. It must have been a real pain digging through all the maps and books you would have had to carry.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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