Monthly Archives: October 2015

Raf Roset: “If it weren’t for old maps, we would have been lost long ago”

Raf Roset
Raf Roset
Rafael Roset has been working at the Institut Cartogràfic i Geològic de Catalunya (ICGC) for the last 28 years in different positions related to information technologies and geospatial content. Since his training as a computer specialist in 1985, he has been involved in all major projects dealing with paper and digital map dissemination and diffusion, as well as digitization and georeferencing of old maps. For seven years he lead the digital map library of the ICGC. He has published articles and given talks on content management, geoportals and spatial infrastructures, georeferencing, digitization, and other subjects in renowned journals and magazines and international conferences and workshops. 

As a side personal project (in his 0.7% time) he has been deeply involved with the geocommunity in Barcelona, collaborating with the organizing committee of the FOSS4G 2010 congress in Barcelona and also as co-founder, organizer, community manager  and driving force of Geoinquiets Barcelona, the local chapter of OSGeo (@geoinquiets).

Q: You’ve been organizing the Geoinquiets meetups and mailing list in Barcelona for several years now. Tell us about your event and the Catalonian geoscene. Surely a city as hip as Barcelona is producing geocoolness — what should the rest of the world be aware of?

A: We started the Geoinquiets group right after FOSS4G 2010 with the same people who helped organize the conference. Slowly but steadily the number of members has increased, and right now we are a bunch of passionate geonerds meeting, organizing events, providing geocoaching to whoever asks our help, and giving presentations to anyone interested in maps, as wide as the concept of maps can be. The “scene” in Barcelona has changed and is evolving to a more atomized ecosystem of geoenterprises, each with its own specialization and almost all intertwined.

Q: Catalonia has been in the global news lately as the question of independence from Spain rises in the political agenda. Since time started, maps have been a political tool, literally defining who owns what. How does this influence life at the Catalan National Mapping agency? How does the multi-lingual aspect of modern Catalonia play out in maps?

A: The Institut Cartogràfic i Geològic de Catalunya, which is the national mapping agency in Catalonia (the national mapping agency in Spain being the Instituto Geográfico Nacional) has been producing maps in its modern era since 1982. But the first mapping service in Catalonia, from whom we have inherited the tasks and the tradition, was created 100 years ago all because the map the Spanish army (all mapping agencies started in the military everywhere, is it not the case?) produced of Catalunya was not good enough and had a low refresh rate. There’s a good virtual exposition online that tells this story more precisely and with better detail.

As for the multilingual aspect, all maps of the ICGC are published in Catalan, which is our language. And no one questions that since toponymy, and specially local toponymy, does not bear well with translation.

Q: We met up at SotMCAT — the Catalonian State of the Map. Like everywhere else in Europe, OSM is thriving in Catalonia. How do you see the relationship between OpenStreetMap and national mapping agencies, particularly of smaller countries or regions like Catalonia?

A: It’s a tense relation, because natural-born cartographers think of maps as highly detailed and highly precise documents for a specific job or market, something that can be achieved only with high standards of production and specialized tools and personnel. On the other hand, society, and increasingly this collaborative society we live in which is characterized by immediacy in all aspects, needs really up to date maps and is forgiving with the precision of the 6th decimal place of coordinate pairs. So it’s a trade-off, but eventually user-generated content will enter the workflow of mapping agencies, thus producing richer maps at an increased pace. And in turn projects like OSM will benefit of the knowledge and methods and collaboration with mapping agencies.

Q: You are a long time veteran of the geo-industry. Today everyone walks around with a smart phone, consulting digital maps all the time. Have you seen a change in how society relates to maps and cartography over the course of your career?

A: Yes, absolutely, but not really in how but in how much. At some point everyone has had a paper map in their hands, usually on the go, which provided more or less information depending on the map reading skills of the one using it. And nowadays everyone has a digital map within reach, directly or indirectly, more than once a day and not only while moving. Maps are ubiquitous and have colonized areas of life far from their original purpose, and they will reach farther goals yet to come (think of the challenges maps for autonomous vehicles will bring).

Q: A focus of your role at the ICGC is making the historic collection accessible. How are you doing it? We’ve talked a bit about tools like the NYPL’s Map Warper, but what other cool things are out there in this space that geohipsters should know about?

A: Since its inception the ICGC has been increasing the funds of the Map Library of Catalonia, which right now includes almost a million objects like old maps, old atlases and books, aerial images, and private collections related to cartography and Catalunya donated by individuals to be preserved at our facilities. Back in 2006 we started putting maps and images online, and now the Digital Map library ( is close to 100,000 online maps and images which can be downloaded for free and reused under a CC-BY license. The collection management software CONTENTdm by OCLC has been key in the success of this huge project, but also two other pieces of software because of its innovative approach to cartographic heritage: Georeferencer and Maprank, both by Klokantech lead by genius geogeek Petr Pridal.

Q: What are the most impressive old maps in the collection? Which map is your favourite? Why?

A: That’s a tough question, because there’s plenty to choose from that will suit any taste for old good cartography. But my favourite map is the “Nueva descripcion geographica del principado de Catalunya” from 1720 by Josep Aparici. Three original copies survive, (links: copy 1, copy 2, copy 3) one from 1720 and two from 1769, and are preserved at the Digital map library, one purchased long ago by the ICGC, and the other one from the funds of the Club Excursionista de Catalunya (CEC, mountaineering/hiking club of Catalunya) which we host, while the 1720 copy arrived at the ICGC almost by accident from a particular collector who wanted this piece to remain in Catalunya and specifically at the ICGC. Reasons are multiple: one because it is a good example of different institutions (ICGC, CEC) and society (private collector) collaborating. The second because it is the first printed map of Catalonia drawn by a Catalan author. And third because it’s the first example ever of an easter egg in a map: the author replaced part of the name of his hometown “Caldes de Montbui” and instead wrote “Caldas Patria del Autor” (Caldas, hometown of the author).

Q: I just moved to Barcelona myself, and can confirm it is hip. But from a geo perspective the craziest thing by far is that none of the city’s public maps are oriented with north at the top. Instead they all are oriented to show the coast , which runs southwest to northeast, at the bottom. So as a society Barcelona literally has a different view of itself than the rest of the world has. Any comment on that?

A: Barcelona has always been an open and welcoming city and the port was also the main door to the city. But later on, when Cerdà designed his proposal for a new rational urbanization of Barcelona, he designed the grid in parallel to the sea and mountain areas because these were limiting. Have you tried looking at a modern map of Barcelona north up? It looks awful because Cerdà’s beautiful symmetry is lost.

Q: Most recently at the ICGC you’ve been involved in the Geostart group, where the focus is to innovate and create disruptive products and services. Tell us a bit about this work. What kinds of projects are you focused on, whom are you disrupting?

A: Almost three years ago the ICGC organized a small dynamic party of six with technicians and coders/programmers already working on projects focused on delivering services over the internet. The idea was to produce, at fast pace, modern-looking prototypes of products and services to validate their suitability in different business areas with the goal to increase the reach and diffusion and usage of the geodata of the ICGC and at the same time approach other sectors and the public. All these prototypes have been reunited at our own Betaportal, and a few have graduated and started their own life in production, like Instamaps (an easy online map creator) and Cloudifier (a service that turns any georeferenced image into a map in Instamaps and also produces WMS and TMS services to be used elsewhere).

Q. Every year millions of tourists flock to Barcelona to wander through the medieval maze of Barri Gòtic. One of the projects you’ve worked on is “BCN, Darrera Mirada” where you overlay old maps of this world-famous district one top of a modern satellite view. What has the response been, and what were some of the challenges and learnings of the project?

A: In that project, carried out by Arxiu Històric de la Ciutat de Barcelona, I provided geocoaching regarding the digital processing of the documents (from scanning to georeferencing). The response has been awesome, especially among researchers. The most difficult part in that project was georeferencing the images, but because the original map at 1:250 was so precise and detailed it made it way easier.

As a side note, many maps of the Digital Map library of the ICGC have been georeferenced by crowdsourcing (yes another innovative project I lead in my years at the map library) and are available at the Old Maps Online portal (by Klokantech) which has an app, both for iOS and Android, so that these maps can be used to travel in time: using your smartphone you can load an old map of Barcelona and use the GPS to show your position in it, effectively walking in nowadays Barcelona while looking at how it was on paper back in the day. Really fascinating what technology allows us to accomplish.

Q: Thank you so much for the interview. Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers?

A: If it weren’t for old maps, we would have been lost long ago.