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 Ken Field

We’ve all heard and seen the meme’s 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 made by more people than ever before. Map-making is in rude health…but what of cartography?

There’s no doubt cartography has undergone significant change in the last decade. Change is nothing new because evolution radically alters the mechanisms of map-making. This is usually a technological change (engraving, lithography, computers, Google…) which has a massive impact on both the design and production of maps and also the people involved in map-making. New people entering the mapping landscape both challenges and reinvigorates but it usually goes hand-in-hand with cartographer’s moaning because it usually means they have to retrain, reinvent or let go of ageing techniques. Feeling threatened or at least a little frustrated by change is inevitable if your skills and experience are overtaken so frequently.It’s tiring to perpetually invest the energy to keep pace; and also to face the challenge of 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. Except it’s a term that many new to map-making are reluctant to use. Up step the neo-cartographers whose self-coined moniker describes the people and processes of making a map outside of the community of professional map-makers. That’s everyone right? And 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. Many are self-taught. The negative connotations of amateurism mean that sub-par work is often easily explained but that’s also broadly true as most of the time a non-professional will not be able to produce work to the same standard as a professional. So why do we need new terms to describe making and using maps?

New terminology describes a movement simply intending 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 they’re just bringing different skills to bear to cartography. Cartography isn’t as old as map-making any way. The term cartography is modern, loaned into English from the French ‘cartographie’ in the 1840s, based on Middle Latin carta "map". But it has become synonymous with the definition of the art and science of making and using maps.

The International Cartographic Association (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. Cartography just graduated but we need to re-establish cartography as modern and relevant, because it is.
We need to move away from the ways in which cartography is often characterised:

And move towards a recognition of the broad skillset that people with a cartographic background posess:

Before you claim that not every cartographer wants to be seen like this let me be clear…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 (actually, I’d be wary of any that do) but it shows the breadth and depth of the cartographic professional as distinct from a geo-professional.

Given the common perception, it’s no wonder people claim all we do is “colour in with computers”. This lack of understanding permeate across job adverts, specifications, pay grades and even within organisations that should know better. As a community we 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 is 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.

The ICA defines ‘cartographer’ as a person who engages in cartography and cartography as the discipline dealing with the conception, production, dissemination and study of maps. That covers it I think. Let’s not reinvent what it is – but let’s try and ensure the rest of the world understands cartography and what it is to be a cartographer a little better. And that starts with the geo-professions more broadly developing a better understanding of the broad church of cartographic expertise and practice rather than constantly trying to avoid it, ignore it or reinvent what it is they do.

Beyond the different ways in which we approach the craft, we can start re-establishing cartography by encouraging people inside and out to acknowledge the expertise a cartographer can offer and see them as vital in an organizational context. ICA are making efforts to underpin this with the designation (by the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management) of 2015-2016 as International Map Year which is formally launched at the international Cartographic Conference in Rio de Janeiro in August. As geo-professionals, we also need to help develop a better public image that allows people to understand how the map on their mobile phone arrived there. It’s not magic. It’s cartography.

About the author
Dr Kenneth Field is a self-confessed cartonerd. After 20 years in UK academia he now works at Esri in cartographic research and development. He researches, writes, teaches and blogs about map design, is Immediate Past-Editor of The Cartographic Journal (and current Assistant Editor) 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). He has won numerous awards for his mapping, writing and also for pedagogy in cartographic education. You can follow him on twitter @kennethfield and he blogs at

Insight authors have been invited to share their views with AGI Members. The text is as provided by the author and may not be the view of the AGI.


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