Enormous, glossy ravens caw from the wooden handrails of row homes as an outlandish figure trudges into view on Sinaa Street on Iqaluit’s south side. Clad in a goose down coat and bushy sealskin mittens, Chris Kalluk would pass unheeded were it not for what’s strapped to his back: a large green battery pack topped with a futuristic-looking blue sphere that bobs nearly half a metre above his head. Each time he pauses, his frozen breath wafts straight up, but evaporates before it can fog the cameras that peek out of the orb in every direction. Faces materialize at living room windows and nod knowingly before disappearing again; truck drivers and snowmobilers gear down and crane their necks. Many wave. Kalluk crunches through the snow past a polar bear hide stretched taut to dry on a four-metre-tall wooden frame, past leery stray dogs and the red-roofed Arctic Ventures general store on Queen Elizabeth II Way.

Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic

Kalluk, a 28-year-old mapping and geographic information systems expert from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, a small hamlet on Victoria Island, is using this alien device, Google’s “Trekker” Street View camera, to help collect imagery of every kilometre of Iqaluit’s snowy streets. And he’s doing it in late March because, like many other citizens of the North, he wants to tell the rest of the world what it’s really like to live there. He came as part of a fiveperson Google mapping team whose mission is to tell the story of the country’s northernmost capital by building out its map. To ensure that the story is told right, they’re enlisting the help of locals.

That impulse to share stories and to preserve information through their telling has deep roots in the North. American explorer Charles Francis Hall saw this when he came to Frobisher Bay in 1860, near the site of present-day Iqaluit. He was searching for remnants or word of the disastrous 1845 expedition of John Franklin and also collecting the oral traditions of the “Esquimaux.” The local Inuit told Hall about the last white men to visit, many years before, who sailed into the bay in two huge umiaks (boats) with “white wings.” The following year they returned in three umiaks with white wings, and the year after that a great many of these vessels appeared in the bay. The story, to Hall’s astonishment, perfectly matched the recorded exploits of Martin Frobisher. The British explorer had surveyed the area almost three centuries before, first in 1576, but returned two more times to load his ships’ holds with what turned out to be fool’s gold.

The Inuit grandmother with whom Hall spoke was able to recount every essential detail of Frobisher’s ill-fated expeditions. The events had been layered into centuries’ worth of rich oral tradition, told and retold and yet maintained without compromise. The ancient storytelling medium of cartography, meanwhile, has changed much more over the last few centuries. The ornate, hand-drawn European maps of Frobisher’s day — many with wide and beckoning straits leading across the New World to Asia, and sea monsters terrorizing ships at the edges of uncharted territories — are still mesmerizing, but the age of discovery gave way to eras when many geographic mysteries were solved, and to more scientifically plotted, spatially accurate maps. Satellites have since revealed the whole world from a bird’s-eye view, and GIS databases store vast masses of basic geographical information.

This raw material, though, is only the germ of a meaningful map. “Base data is not cartography,” explains Chris Brackley, owner of As the Crow Flies cARTography and cartographer for Canadian Geographic. “Cartography is adding the layers of symbolization; it’s graphic communication.” And making decisions about how best to illustrate and communicate stories through maps — whether geographical, ecological, historical, cultural, economic or political — has traditionally been the charge and privilege of trained professionals.

The Google team visits Iqaluit. (Video: Justin Nalepa/Canadian Geographic)

Within the last decade, however, mapping has undergone a dramatic reshaping, beginning with widespread access to usable base data. OpenStreetMap, founded in the United Kingdom in 2004, is an “open source” geographical database (free to use, modify and distribute). It relies heavily on amateurs, “citizen cartographers,” the world over, many of whom tramp out into the field equipped with only consumer-level GPS units to survey the spaces around them. Any OpenStreetMap user can retrieve virtually endless geospatial data, which can be used to frame original maps, be it a mashup of a city plan from Victorian-era Toronto overlaid onto a modern map of the city or a response map of a zone in the aftermath of a natural disaster. In January 2010, hundreds of these amateur mappers were able to draw on a combination of data and images to provide aid workers with an accurate map of post-earthquake Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after much of the city was decimated.

Google introduced its own version of this geographic data crowd-sourcing, the Map Maker tool, in 2008, three years after the launch of the now ubiquitous Google Maps. Anyone with a computer and the urge to contribute to the precision of Google’s maps can add or correct geographical features and other information. This includes everything from a shrubbery to street addresses to a major political boundary. And in case someone decides to reroute Iqaluit’s famous Road to Nowhere and circle it back to the city, every change is reviewed for accuracy and relevance by moderators and other users.

Canada’s North, where long winters dominate isolated communities and the Internet runs molasses-slow, presented a challenge that Google’s Canadian Arctic project manager Aaron Brindle and his mapping team couldn’t resist. The seed of the project was planted in September 2011, at a Google-hosted mapping event in Vancouver. There Kalluk, who works for the Inuit land-claim management organization Nunavut Tunngavik Lands, first insisted that Street View, the Google Maps feature that allows you to virtually walk through cities and down highways, should include the Arctic. “When Google Earth was introduced, the whole North was a blur, even the communities,” he says. “By the time Street View came out, we had high-definition satellite imagery of our towns, but we didn’t get Street View. We’ve always been left behind. This is a way for us to share our communities with the rest of the world.”

So Google’s engineers invented new Street View cameras fit for places the standard image-collecting Google Street Cars couldn’t reach by road. The results include a 110-kilogram tricycle and the bulbous, 18-kilogram Trekker, which features 15 cameras, a GPS and accelerometer system and the ability to go anywhere that a human can clamber.

Cambridge Bay was Google’s first northern stop, imaged by the Street View Trike in 2012. With Iqaluit now also complete — and the seamless, geotagged scenery ready for exploration in early July 2013 — the next steps are yet to be determined, but might be the hamlets of Chesterfield Inlet, Rankin Inlet, Whale Cove and Arviat. Strung like beads along the northwest coast of Hudson Bay in mainland Nunavut, they could all be trekked in a single week.

Street View is a key aspect of Google’s cartographic quest to stretch the already staggering reach of its maps (more than eight million kilometres of roads have been mapped in Street View since 2007). Additions and edits made by citizens using Map Maker also serve to improve these ground-level photographic renderings. But can Street View be considered “mapping,” per se? Brackley makes the case that traditional maps are abstract representations: “They let you grasp more than you could possibly conceive of or possibly see at once, and that gives you context,” he says. “A photograph occurs at a human experiential scale, as opposed to a human conceptual scale, so it seems to me that Street View may be something else.”

But for hundreds of millions of people around the world, there is no distinction between Street View and Google’s maps — the former is simply a further layer of information to explore. (More than 3,000 cities in 50 countries can be viewed this way; most people search for their own house first.) This “human experience” perspective won’t show you how to get from one point to another at a glance, but it takes you down to the potholes in the road, to the storefronts and to the children chasing the mapping team down muddy Nunavut streets. Even though faces are blurred deliberately, you can still see they’re laughing. “The stories that we’re telling can be very simple, like ‘that’s what Iqaluit looks like in the winter,’ ” says Brindle. “Or it could be a story about development and a burgeoning community, or about a city that has challenges. We’re laying out all these tools for communities to be able to then say, ‘this is who we are.’ ”

Half-empty cups of coffee and about 30 pairs of mittens lie scattered about the Iqaluit visitor’s centre and library. Some of those crowded up to the low computer desks are still wrapped in their heavy Canada Goose coats as they click away at Google Map Maker. Members of the Google team flit from screen to screen to facilitate the “MapUp” event — a callout to citizens to come collectively scrutinize Google’s maps of their home. “We have a lot of info about Iqaluit, but members of the community know more than we do,” says Karin Tuxen- Bettman, GIS specialist and Google project leader. “We want these maps to reflect back to them the world that they know.”

The MapUp, like the Street View imaging, is a pillar of these trips; Google relies on the concerted local input for reliability, comprehensiveness, efficiency and currency of data — a sort of “ground truthing” through citizens’ knowledge of both physical and social geography. Before the MapUp, for instance, the label for Iqaluit’s Pentecostal church appeared about 10 kilometres offshore, floating in Frobisher Bay, and residents noted a number of other more subtle inaccuracies and omissions. Susan Duncan Scullion, who once worked in Ottawa, recalls being asked whether Canadian dollars were used “up there.” “And then there was always the ‘Do they live in igloos?’ question,” she adds. “So you can see that this, and Street View, will help educate Canadians, many of whom have no clue about the North.”

“Iqaluit” is the Inuktitut word for “place of many fish.” Inuit attach descriptive names to land features, and many still journey from communities to the places where their ancestors went, and still use the same ancestral names for their hunting and fishing grounds and landmarks. As one Iqaluit elder explained, “Landscape doesn’t change unless a man changes it.” The city of Iqaluit, conversely, has grown and changed dramatically since it was founded as a United States airbase in 1942, and other northern communities reflect similar shifts. Google’s mapping projects, chiefly urban undertakings and products of a digital age when being current is key, are interactive snapshots of specific places now. In many cases, locals can respond to change and other issues of the day faster than any organization or single professional cartographer.

“When I make a map, it’s a fingers-crossed thing every time,” says Brackley. “I trust the data providers to give me content that’s right, and if it’s wrong, I have no idea. If that content was created by the people who know it, there couldn’t possibly be a better map, because it speaks to the people who are there, and for the people who are there.”

Map Maker makes its mark

Since the advent of Map Maker (which now sees more than 40,000 people making contributions each month), Google Maps programmers and on-the-ground mapping teams have been able to collaborate with individuals and community groups to develop accurate snapshots of remote or otherwise difficult-to-map regions. Changes submitted to Map Maker eventually migrate into Google Maps, where they could conceivably benefit millions of users and help to complete a story about a place.

The most detailed public map of North Korea ever sketched, for example, was released by Google in early 2013, thanks to the efforts of citizens with intimate knowledge of places like the capital city of Pyongyang, including labour camps and nuclear facilities. “When Map Maker was first introduced, only 15 per cent of the world’s population had detailed online maps of their neighbourhoods,” says Aaron Brindle, Canadian Arctic project manager for Google. “Today, due in part to the contributions of citizen cartographers, more than 30 per cent of people have detailed online maps of the places in which they live.”

A Google Street View scene of Apex, Nunavut. (Photo: Google)

Chris Kalluk, wearing Google's Trekker camera, pauses to look out over downtown Iqaluit. (Photo: Matt Marek/Google)

Google's Aaron Brindle shows off the Trekker camera at a local elementary school. (Photo: Nick Walker)

Google believes Street View can tell Iqaluit's story as well as pictures do, such as this photo of children playing hockey. (Photo: Matt Marek/Google)

A woman walks down an Iqaluit street. (Photo: Matt Marek/Google)

Colourful houses overlook a street in Iqaluit. (Photo: Matt Marek/Google)

An Inuit elder prepares a traditional meal for the group. (Photo: Nick Walker)

The Google Street View images of Nunavut's capital will give many Canadians their first glimpse of Canada's North. (Photo: Google)

Street View imagery shows a view of Nunavut's territorial legislature. (Photo: Google)

The Trekker captured this image of Iqaluit from across the bay. (Photo: Google)