In Support of ‘Cartography’

In a world where more maps are being made than ever before, cartography doesn’t need reinvention; it needs understanding.

By Kenneth Field, Esri

We’ve all heard and seen the memes that have heralded the death of cartography, the death of the printed map, and so forth, but these slow-news-month scare stories couldn’t be further from the truth. More maps are now made by more people than ever before. Mapmaking itself is in rude health…but maybe the term cartography needs some new PR.

There’s no doubt cartography has undergone significant change in the last decade. Change is nothing new because evolution radically alters the mechanisms of mapmaking. This is usually brought on by a technological change (engraving, lithography, computers, GIS, Google…) which has a massive impact on both the design and production of maps and also the people involved in mapmaking. New people entering the mapping landscape both challenge and reinvigorate it, but this usually goes hand-in-hand with a challenge to cartography itself because of technological change. Feeling threatened or at least a little frustrated by constant change is inevitable if you are perpetually retraining or re-tooling. That inevitability becomes tougher when the very essence of your discipline is challenged by people trying to rename what it is you do.

Cartography is the discipline dealing with the art, science, and technology of making and using maps. The International Cartographic Association (ICA) is the global organization that supports the disciplines and professions of cartography and GIScience in an international context. The ICA has recently been accepted as a full member of the International Council for Science (ICSU) which is the international non-governmental organization devoted to international cooperation in the advancement of science. In essence, cartography just graduated, but for some reason the term ‘cartography’ remains obtuse or outmoded for many. It’s certainly a term that many new to mapmaking are reluctant to use.

For instance, neocartography’s self-coined moniker describes the people and processes of making a map outside of the community of professional mapmakers. That’s everyone, right? But don’t we have a term for that? It’s called ‘amateurism’; and I say that not in a derogatory sense but merely as a perfectly good differentiator. An ‘amateur’ is a person attached to a particular pursuit, study, or science in a non-professional way. Amateurs may have little professional training and many are self-taught, yet they are still engaging in cartographic activity. Historically, many of the world’s greatest maps were made by amateur cartographers. Why, then, do we need a new or modified term to describe how a specific group make and use maps?

New terminology tends to be introduced by the practitioners themselves in order to be seen as different from the past. New. Fresh. Exciting. Maybe being unencumbered by the perceived shackles of formal training is what defines a neo-spirit, but it’s arguable that neocartographers are not actually doing anything that different to what’s gone before in a cartographic sense. Different data sources and using the internet doesn’t in its own right define them as different to cartographers. Everyone who has ever made a map uses what is available to them in terms of data and technology. Defining a different species of the genus ‘cartographer’ to demarcate from others seems unnecessary and tends to reinforce some of the negative sterotypes that have built regarding cartography itself. It’s a bypass to acknowledging the broad work that cartographers have, throughout history, been involved in.

This issue with the label cartography, then, goes deeper. It’s about people’s perceptions and misconceptions of what cartography is and what a cartographer does. Of course, the term cartography isn’t as old as mapmaking anyway, and so the claim that it’s the defining framework for mapping can be plausibly challenged. The term cartography is modern, loaned into English from the French ‘cartographie’ in the 1840s, based on Middle Latin carta “map”. While relatively new, it has nevertheless become synonymous with a discipline (and now an official science). Yet the public perception of cartography is also awash with a lack of understanding of what a cartographer does. To many, cartographers just make maps ‘pretty’; they are more concerned with finessing the aesthetics of the map than the need to make a map and publish it. Maybe that perception bears fruit in some instances, but it’s a gross generalization, and most professional cartographers take a healthy approach to the graphical marriage of form and function.

In pondering how to encourage people to value cartography; to encourage cartographers to stand up for their profession and expertise; to show those new to mapmaking what cartography is about; and to encourage them to be comfortable as cartographers, I was inspired by some parallels in the debate on User Interface design (UI) and User Experience (UX). Up until only a few years ago you’d never hear of a job title with either UI or UX in it, let alone in combination with the ultra-trendy ‘designer’ or ‘architect’ labels. Erik Flowers’ excellent look at the differences between how User Experience wants to be seen and how it is seen (www.uxisnotui.com) has many parallels in how cartography and cartographers are viewed and how they might wish to be viewed. For instance, this is perhaps how many view cartography, and what a cartographer might be capable of offering:

And in thinking about all of the various roles and expertise that I see in professional cartographers, this perhaps more closely reflects what they can offer:

Before you claim that not every cartographer wants to be seen like this, yes…I agree. The list is a list of expertise and skills that cartographers will possess in different combinations and to different levels. Possibly not every cartographer can claim they are proficient in every part of this list but it shows the breadth and depth of the cartographic professional as distinct from a more general geoprofessional and even an amateur mapmaker.

This lack of understanding permeates across job adverts, specifications, pay grades, and even within organisations. As a community, cartographers have possibly been the architects of this perception. Where once cartographers were Royal appointments they are now backroom staff and, to be frank, you’re likely to need to be a coder or something else first and foremost. The ability to know how to make a map has become tangential to many other job requirements. It’s also the case that when you make a map many employers wouldn’t know the difference between a good and poor map anyway. Quality is low on the list of priorities for many. Speed and turnover is more useful. But cartography is what you’re engaged with if you or your organization makes maps.

We’re currently awash with neologisms like neocartography because, frankly, if you’re a new player in the mapping landscape you want to be seen as new and avant garde. You want to make your mark and not be viewed as simply a cartographer with all the perceived baggage it entails. These neologisms have become personas. They take on new meaning as they attempt to shake off the past and define a new set of skills and expertise. They also define a way to divide the past from the present which seems to be divisive for the sake of it. There are clearly now improved ways of doing cartography that replace older ways, but it’s evolutionary, not revolutionary. Whether you use GIS, a GUI or CSS or an API or graphics package to make your maps, it just means you do your work in a particular way according to your knowledge and preference. You may be an amateur cartographer but you’re still a cartographer.

The ICA definition of cartography covers it. Cartography doesn’t need reinventing. What it does need is for people to come together in support of what cartography is and what it represents and to ensure the rest of the world better understands cartography and what it is to be a cartographer.

As part of a strategy to embrace cartography, 2015–2016 has been designated ‘International Map Year’. The ICA sees this as a valuable means to promote the importance of maps. Maybe it’s also a way of bringing us all together to share our various cartographies and appreciate it for what it is.


Dr. Kenneth Field is a self-confessed cartonerd. After 20 years in UK academia he now works at Esri in cartographic research and development for the Mapping Systems team. He writes, teaches and blogs about map design, is Editor of The Cartographic Journal and is on the advisory board of the International Journal of Cartography. He is Chair of the ICA Map Design Commission, a Fellow of both the British Cartographic Society and Royal Geographic Society and a Chartered Geographer (GIS). You can follow him on twitter @kennethfield or check his blog.

Originally published at blogs.esri.com on February 11, 2015.

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