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November 28th, 2008
Is cartography relevant today?

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Jeff Thurston — “Cartography is very relevant today. It is focused upon the representation of spatial information and knowledge through the use of traditional hard copy products and is increasingly being explored and used in creative new approaches in the digital domain. This is fostering a new appreciation and respect for the resources, knowledge and techniques needed to create truly effective and useful cartographic products.”

Matt Ball — “The art of cartography is always going to be of value, because it is a skill of effective map design for maximum and authoritative communication. Cartography is just as relevant as graphic design for the web or for the printed page, even though there may be less of both taking place. While computers have made it easier to communicate without artistic skills and sensibilities, they have also provided limitless tools for design and data amalgamation.”

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Cartography is very relevant today. It is focused upon the representation of spatial information and knowledge through the use of traditional hard copy products and is increasingly being explored and used in creative new approaches in the digital domain. This is fostering a new appreciation and respect for the resources, knowledge and techniques needed to create truly effective and useful cartographic products.

History and representation
One only has to read a good book about cartography to understand the significance and value of cartography.  Eduard Imhof in his book Cartographic Relief Representation captured the essence of cartography.

First published in 1965, then translated to English language recently, the issues and context for exploring the many issues impacting landscape representation are every bit as relevant today as they were then.

Intermap company has recently created the high resolution NEXTMap Europe digital topographic product When it initiated the airborne data collection process, it wasn’t simply a matter of flying over Europe. The company embarked on a quality control program that ensured the entire European data set was homogenous in accuracy and conformed to a specific level of error.

The Historical Atlas of Canada is authored by Derek Hayes. The book includes representations of the many map products Europeans developed as they explored the country seeking a northerly passage through the northwest – something which is more physically possible this year due to melting ice from climate change.  The many images in the book contain the stories of these explorers and how they perceived the routes and communicated about them. When the American Revolutionary War ended, Benjamin Franklin had a notion that all of Canada should be turned over by the British. The Scottish controlled a large amount of the Montreal fur trade at the time and liked the idea of having the rivers and lakes for transportation reasons. A 1755 map drawn by John Mitchell delineated the boundary (pretty much where it is today) but not without problems, namely that the cartography was incorrect. The Mississipi River rose into northern Canada no less. As it turned out the French and British agreed to the treaty dividing the land between Canada and the U.S. in 1783.

Arctic and cartography
A similar situation exists today with respect to the Arctic area. We have seen several countries including Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the EU itself become involved in identifying territory. In fact, the process returns back to 1783 in tone, with numerous maps and other graphics being used to signify who owns what and where.  In Canada’s case this has brought a renewed interest to map the north and the spending of 100 million CDN dollars no less.  And you thought cartography was not important?

In 2007 Great Britain experienced some of the worst floods in its history. To deal with these events, a large number of flood mapping projects have been initiated in the country and a review of the sitation was completed. Cartographic technologies figure prominently in the management and decision processes related to flooding.

Cartography and use
It is important to understand that cartography is not limited to the creation of products graphically. It extends to the use of these products as well. Today we find this use growing. A trend toward the use of graphics for displaying complex information (and using it) is contributing toward a growth in the development of new products and services. Much of this growth is directly related to awareness and education. As people learn what can be achieved with these products, they are finding an unlimited application environment. Cartographic products can be found in agriculture and food production, transport, consumer tourism, emergency, defense, environment and health applications, among many more.

People like to talk about neogeography as if it is new, it is not. It is cartography and owes its form of creation to a model that is not much different than the creation of maps two centuries ago, namely, individuals created maps with the technologies available to them.

Digital cartography
Today digital technology embraces both hardware and software for the creation of new cartographic products. Cartographic products today are both easier to make and easier to use. With access to a database (the data), anyone can assemble a map through the use of appropriate software. This has placed special requirements on the designers and manufacturers of mapping related products. These products must incorporate useful rules and functionality that not only allow for high quality maps to be created, but they must be useable by people who may not know anything about cartography and or spatial information.

This is a unique role for the modern day cartographic professional. Others depend on him/her getting it right and to enable them to use cartographic products. It can cause one to wonder sometimes why geospatial professionals get bogged down in debates about who can use these products, rather than simply taking a leadership position for taking responsibility to create the products and services that enable everyone to use them. If anything, we need more and smarter cartographic products today.

Future cartography
Cartography is very relevant today. As spatial information becomes more deeply embedded into society strategically, the products that people need and depend upon will require higher levels of cartographic functioning. These might take shape as process oriented cartography, feedback cartographic tools, cartographic design tools and products that interface GIS to leverage its data value more completely and effectively. Three dimensional cartography is also an area that will grow in the days ahead.

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More information:

United Nations Cartographic Section

National Cartography and Geospatial Center

Australian Cartographic Resources on the Internet

Visual Collections

International Cartographic Association

“How has the geospatial platform evolved, and what is the future for expert tools?”

 

The art of cartography is always going to be of value, because it is the skill of effective map design for maximum and authoritative communication. Cartography is just as relevant as graphic design for the web or for the printed page, even though there may be less of both taking place. While computers have made it easier to communicate without artistic skills and sensibilities, they have also provided limitless tools for design and data amalgamation.

Maps are a means to communicate and visualize landmarks through abstraction. Even when we get to the point of representing our world with a highly detailed digital reality, the quick, portable and easy means of communicating with a paper map will still have relevance. Where there’s a continued desire for this abstraction, there will be a need for interpreters of reality that can condense and represent our world in an artistic and accurate manner.

Motivations for Abstraction

The traditional paper format of a map allows us to record details about our planet in a portable form that doesn’t require electricity or connectivity to the Internet. While those of us in the developed world may believe there’s such connectivity everywhere, the fact is that only 22% of the world population has access to the Internet.

A paper map can be easily published and passed along so that others might find their way. While the need to navigate is a primary purpose, there’s also the interest in condensing the cultural, architectural, natural, and other details of a place. A map can become a means to get a mental picture of a place without traveling physically, and the better the skill of the mapmaker, the more readily this arm chair traveling can occur.

Authoritative Information

Digital tools and the highly accurate and easily updated aerial images of today mean that maps can be much more accurate today with far less effort. The fact that maps are looked on as authoritative sources of information means that the mapmaker holds a certain amount of responsibility for recreating a location with detail and accuracy.

There are liabilities of mapmakers, particularly in areas or applications of high hazard. There have been continuing discussions about the liability of GPS and navigation devices, but the same holds true for liability of those that map our world. This is particularly true when the map products are responsible for portraying or capturing risk, such as in flood mapping. Cartography becomes a critical skill here, not for its artistic merit, but for its exactitude.

Maps as Communication

A map will continue to be a necessary step to provide perspective for any conversation related to place. Words can only go so far in conveying details about a location. A map puts a place into perspective, with added detail that incorporates surroundings to put the place in context. A well-designed map diversifies itself by providing a visually stimulating and intuitive means of communication.

Distilling the essence of a location in simple written form is a skill that’s been important for centuries. The fact that we can now look an address up easily means that we use this skill far less frequently, but it’s not going to disappear from relevance.

Exposure to the ease of mapping tools and map representation might even spur more people to make maps, and add more personal details to online mapping tools. There’s already the possibility to add photos to mapping interfaces, and to create map details ourselves. We’re likely to see considerably more map customization tools that might border on the cartographic skill set. It would certainly be fun to share map creation tools more broadly, and to peruse a large virtual map gallery with many personal takes on the same place. We might even cultivate a few map making stars this way, following map makers in the same way that we follow other artists.

Cartography as Diversifier

I’d love to see an online mapping portal really distinguish itself by developing a stunning and user-friendly look and layout that incorporated better design. As part of this exercise, I went online to take stock of Google Maps, Microsoft’s Live Search Maps and Mapquest. And resoundingly my take away from the look and feel of these sites is a resounding blah. They’re just not visually stimulating the same way that a well designed map can be.

To date, the popular online mapping sites are designed for ease of viewing, but I’d take a local tourist map over most outputs from online sites if I’m traveling. The well-crafted tourist map is the easiest means to identify points of interest to a visitor, and does a good job of condensing points of interest without the need for a personal guide.

Cartography is a relevant skill set, but not as primary a pursuit as it once was. GIS has trumped cartography as a career foundation, but a background in geography and GIS, coupled with graphic design, has the potential to make some of the best cartographers we’ve ever seen.

 

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