CARTOGRAPHY—the discipline of creating maps — has a very long and rich history. It’s tools and techniques have been well developed over hundreds of years, arguably thousands of years. Today, mapping is experiencing a clear ascendancy, with numerous (digital) tools enabling the mediation of all kinds of spatially-referenced data, by almost anyone.
This resurgence is made possible by the increasing number of readily available (democratised) tools for the practice of mapping, such as Mapbox, MapTiler, Leaflet, Kartograph, CARTO… and numerous other libraries and frameworks. We also have access to unprecedented levels of data, often projected on top of Google Maps and the open source project, OpenStreetMap.
“Mapping is an increasingly vital activity, one that undergirds diverse disciplines and transcends the supposed physical/digital divide.”
—Janet Abrams & Peter Hall, Eds. Else/Where: Mapping New Cartographies of Networks and Territories
A role for cartographic practice
This post is not attempting to define or summarise cartography or cartographic practice, but simply to highlight a vital role for cartography in professional practice and society in general. It’s very hard to gain an education in just cartography these days. Fields such as GIS and similar only concern themselves with the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of established cartographic theory, techniques and practice, so there is a worry that centuries of accumulated knowledge may eventually disappear. Fortunately, there are still strong national and international bodies dedicated to cartography that may mitigate this doomsayer viewpoint. In the UK, there is the British Cartographic Society; internationally, there is the International Cartographic Association. Most countries have there own organisations, so investigate.
A definition of cartography
It has become clear that there is significant transformation taking place and it’s been necessary to (re)define cartography over and over again as technology advances. It’s become fundamental to many new disciplines and fields of study such as spatial information design, digital landscapes, communicative environments, landscape urbanism and geo-visualisation. However, there seems to be little appetite for the historical and theoretical lessons of cartography — realising ‘new’ approaches and techniques that are in fact often not new at all. We seem to be in age where we can jump from discipline to discipline much more readily than in the past, but do not make the effort to gain enough understanding of that discipline to effectively make use of it in a truly transformative (transdisciplinary) way.
“In a world where more maps are being made than ever before, cartography doesn’t need reinvention; it needs understanding … 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.”
—Dr Kenneth Field, ESRI
In support of cartography
Cartography is very mis-understood. Public and professional (mis)perception are entrenched in an archaic view of the profession, considering it outmoded and not relevant today, as they see it. It’s harmful to the profession for those who occupy it, becoming map-makers migrated from other disciplines, to try and differentiate themselves with terms such as ‘neo-cartography’ and other attempts to rename what is essentially the same core practice. This reinvention is somewhat pointless and time-wasting; embrace the profession, learn from it and make some truly outstanding maps. Dr Kenneth Field presents the case in more dept in the article, ‘In Support of Cartography’. It truly is both an artistic and a scientific profession, and like many professions, there are practicing cartographers with different skillsets and interests, so you naturally get a variety of mapping outputs.
When Jason first trained as a cartographer, he learnt to create maps by hand with rOtring and Staedtler pens, rub-down lettering, self-adhesive tints, patterns and tapes — even scribing film — a very hard technique to master! Modern technology has made workflow so much easier these days, releasing you of most of those tightly constrained production and reproduction restrictions, which often also required very well developed manual skills. More importantly, technology has enabled seemingly endless representational opportunities!
“It’s [still] a great time to be creating maps!”
What maps could Jason produce for you? In a nutshell, anything — just ask. From simple business location maps to complex transport infrastructure networks; decorative rural estate plans to city-wide pedestrian wayfinding maps; and choropleth maps to ‘big data’ map-based visualisations. The maps find homes in books, on street signs and on digital devices. Almost any media can be a substrate for reproduction, from water-proof non-tearing paper to vitreous enamelled metal panels.