Mapping a country: history, geography and archives meet in Cartesius project


The Cartesius tool is the latest initiative from the long-established National Geographic Institute in Brussels

Charted territory

Four key local institutions have created an innovative tool that allows them to work interactively with an extensive collection of diverse maps. The National Geographic Institute (NGI), Royal Library of Belgium, Royal Museum for Central Africa and the State Archives of Belgium have together launched the Cartesius project.

The NGI was the driving force behind the project, the latest in a long line of applications initiated by the organisation, which was founded at the same time as the nation of Belgium.

Cartesius, launched a few weeks ago, brings together digitised maps from the four institutions, each with a different focus. “Cartesius offers viewers maps with information from a geographic, historical and archival perspective,” explains project leader Rink Kruk of NGI from the institute’s headquarters at the Ter Kameren abbey in Brussels.

Cartesius doesn’t just assemble maps, it also includes intelligent features. It can automatically provide relevant, detailed charts related to the royal palace if you select it on the portal website, from 16th-century maps to more recent versions.

NGI researchers have also put together all the old large-scale maps of the Belgian territory – for example, those created between 1860 and 1873 – so you can see on one image how Belgium looked at that time and directly compare it with more recent periods.

Via the Mycartesius application, a sort of digital lab, visitors can experiment with the various maps. You can visualise the urbanisation of Brussels, the extension of the port of Antwerp and the densification of the Flemish road network over the centuries.

Visitors can also integrate their own information, such as situating remains of castles in their home region. However, only a limited number of trusted experts from museums and research centres are able to embed this kind of detail on the portal’s main gallery. 

Living history

Cartesius has a long list of practical applications. History researchers can use it to analyse trends like industrialisation. “The tool can also help to establish environmental policies, by showing things such as the scale of deforestation,” explains Kruk. 

Our application is developed according to the highest professional cartographic standards

- Ingrid Vanden Berghe

The tool could also be useful in schools. Teachers could ask students to determine in which year a canal was developed by comparing maps from different periods. The tourism sector should also benefit. “With Cartesius, it would be possible to create an app that allows visitors to Bruges, for example, to walk around digitally in the medieval city centre, by enabling them to navigate on a medieval map,” declares Kruk.

The NGI has recently proved that it can provide the necessary knowhow for a tourism app. It helped create the BeCarto14-18 app, which allows users to quickly find relevant locations and events related to the commemorations of the First World War in Belgium.

Such digital applications and the current way of mapping – with 3D technology, aerial photos and satellite navigation systems – were still futuristic visions when NGI was founded. It was established immediately after Belgium became independent, in 1831, as a military organisation.

“The main function of the NGI then was to map the borders with the Netherlands, from which Belgium had seceded,” explains Ingrid Vanden Berghe, head of the NGI. Gradually, its goals were broadened to other policy areas. And the NGI is no longer just a producer of topographic maps, but also co-ordinates the integration of specific geographical data created by bodies such as the national rail authority NMBS.

CartoWeb 1, Google 0

With all the information it has gathered, the NGI provides customised advice to organisations from all domains, from government departments to companies. The NGI also constantly updates its CartoWeb web service, a digital map containing its most recent topographic data. “You could compare it to Google Maps, but our application is developed completely according to the highest professional cartographic standards and includes more specialised info,” says Vanden Berghe.

An anecdote from a few years ago illustrates how Google cannot achieve the same precision as the NGI. The mayor of Mürringen, a town in Liège province, claimed on the basis of Google Earth data that the highest point in Belgium was in his town. NGI experts, however, showed that the nearby Signal de Botrange was correctly considered the official highest point in the country. “Google Earth didn’t take into account the height of the trees on the terrain,” explains Vanden Berghe.

The police can use NGI data and CartoWeb to get a good overview of an area if they need to track people, while for ambulance services, the application is equally essential. Companies are among NGI’s clients as well: Garmin based a navigation system  for mountain bike riders on NGI’s data.

To make sure they provide the correct information, NGI staff don’t just work with innovative 3D technology: they also go out on the terrain. “You can’t always identify whether a building is a sports centre or school through images on aerial photos,” says Vanden Berghe.

The content of maps is also constantly being adapted to changing needs. Vanden Berghe: “While information about lodging opportunities for soldiers at farms was once important, it is not anymore today.”

One of NGI’s current focuses is naming more streets and paths and adding more information about locations, so they can easily be found. “The exact location of individual windmills, for example, is still difficult to determine,” says Vanden Berghe. “Fire departments need to have this information readily available if there is a fire at one of these installations.”