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July 22nd, 2014
Is mapmaking becoming as easy as PhotoShop for the planet?

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At the rate that earth observation platforms are advancing, daily and even more frequent images of our world are becoming available. These regular updates are coupled with more automated processing tools as well as an increasing number of digital tools for cartography and artistic mapping. The continuum for more accuracy in our work has been accelerated by this digital data, and the availability of more accurate information has made high-quality mapping accessible to so many more creators.

Images are already integral to the mapping process as the first source for making base maps and for comparison purposes to understand change. Professional tools make the most of digital imagery and cartographic illustration, but the ability to share maps and map stories is reaching the masses. Just as everyone with a camera now has a large number of tools such as PhotoShop to enhance those images, we increasingly can also access images of our world to create meaningful and visually interesting maps.

Painting vs. Photography

The progression of digital tools for mapping has traveled an interesting continuum from pixelated representations and actual pens on plotting devices and on toward much easier and true-to-life representations that can be reproduced by high-resolution large-format printers that spit out beautiful prints in quick succession. Imagery coupled with GIS systems are taking the path from film to digital photography where increasing access, and personal publishing platforms are largely replacing a service industry.

Today’s digital tools make it easier to find and layer data, to label and annotate a map, and to tell an underlying story with a progression of details related to places. It’s an era of great ease with mapmaking that has years of data collection to thank, and Web-based tools that provide for easy mapping through connections to significant geospatial data stores. As in photographic artistry, the years of digital progression have exposed and elevated true artists that stand out easily from the crowd with work that rises above the ordinary.

Accuracy and Aesthetics

Maps now have the means to become just as truthful as photography, but with the same underlying ability to manipulate. The always blemish-free Cosmopolitan magazine covers are one example of this caution, as it’s easy to make changes where there’s motive to enhance beauty. Just because the image came from a satellite or an aerial platform doesn’t mean that it is the truth. While such data collection can provide a great boost in accuracy, and unprecedented detail, it’s not beyond obfuscation.

While there is the power to shift and cover the truths about our planet, the multiplication of imagery inputs makes hiding the truth much harder. The same tools that can alter the image are also employed to beautify the map output. Digital artists can create their own pallets and processes to tease out the most visually compelling content that aids enlightenment. A new era of mapmaking is taking hold where those that artistically inclined are as likely to make maps as those that consider themselves professional mapmakers.

Pro to Go?

With this change, the role of the professional changes, but in the decades-long transition from paper maps to digital mapping, cartographic output has been just a sliver of what the digital workflow has enabled in mapping. Most GIS practitioners would hesitate to call themselves cartographers, even if they can make a mean map. They are instead skilled in many other things that have supported the missions of their respective organizations.

The fact is that GIS has taken over professional mapping for the most part, but instead of maps it relates to projects and products that convey plans or design or the underlying changes in our dynamic planet rather than simply static map products. Yes, mapmaking or cartography is accessible to a wider audience, but the shift in mapmaking to more people doesn’t include the professional skill set of managing via maps that is today’s geospatial professional. The professional’s niche of system administration, analytical mapping skills, development of application, and support of enterprise workflows is intact and on the rise in importance.

While we may not yet all make maps, even the most computer-averse person could do so with today’s technology. This new era of prolific mapping and map access has many realizing slowly that the next generation will scoff at the idea that geospatial is a difficult pursuit. The key to continued innovation and insight from mapmaking involves the embrace of newcomers and a will to take on the next challenge by applying skills and lessons learned, to unearth the next step in mapping’s progression.

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