Cartography is dead, long live the map makers

Seems like only last year, ah yes it was last year, that the bored press hits upon it annual “shock horror – nobody can read maps” story. This year there is a slightly different spin, due to the input of the British Cartographic Society (BCS) complaining that nobody is creating maps like they used to.. 

Modern online maps and satnavs don’t display as much detail, it is argued by the BCS, missing out features like churches, village greens , etc., of course this is rubbish! Most online maps contain more detail than any traditionally designed map could ever do, but that detail is hidden behind an interactive interface, features are displayed dependent upon the level of zoom (scale) or the purpose of the map itself.

Cartography the craft of compiling maps by selecting the information to be displayed and how it is to be represented in print, has a long history, but the traditional skill is becoming less relevant as the final media used to communicate is rarely paper, hence this desperate cry for attention. 

That’s not to say the principals of design are not important in the creation of “maps” for screen display, indeed one could argue for the need of a “new” cartography which adopts rather than ignores the capabilities of screen based maps to portray information dynamically.

The criticism also fails to take into account the biggest impact of the online revolution as far a mapping is concerned, now anyone with a web browser can be the publisher of maps, you no longer need to be a government institution or a large commercial company to produce a map and publish it to a global audience, Mash-ups anyone ?

Will the people mapping the impact of Hurricane Gustav over the next few days, care that perhaps they don’t have the academic qualifications and experience to call themselves cartographers or will they just get on and share useful information more quickly that could every have been done before ?

As the courses offering to teach cartography close down, there is no dedicated course in cartography taught at any UK university anymore for example, the craft/science of cartography has a choice adapt to a new world or face the same fate as  Coopers, Millrights, Locomotive firemen, and Chimney-sweeps!

“Cor blimey Mary Poppins, they don’t need us cartographers to make their maps anymore and no mistake”

If you think this seems farfetched, there is reason behind my Disney reference..

In the early 1990’s Disney Animation Studios was having great success with movies such as the Lion King, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. Indeed they opened up an animation studio as part of the theme park in Florida, so that visitors could see animators working on the next film in production. I visiting this studio two weeks ago on vacation, it was shut down in 2004, when Disney stopped it’s traditional animation efforts, as it began concentrating on its own computer generated efforts and the outputs of the young upstarts at Pixar.

I’m sure at one point the animators of Disney looked at the crude early output of pixar and had similar comments to those of the BCS president, lets hope she and the cartographers she represents are able to adapt to the new technology, as the change is coming and the pixar of the cartographic world is an army of thousands of map-makers contributing to the most detailed global map every produced.. The GeoWeb.

Written and submitted from the BA T5 Lounge at Heathrow Airport, using it’s free 802.11 network.

25 Replies to “Cartography is dead, long live the map makers”

  1. Hearing the BCS make an argument of “missing details” is quite funny. The BCS represents what may be a long line of folks who determine what gets on a map. The act of mapping something elevates it’s relative level of existence. Something “off the map” exists in a grey area where there may “lie dragons”.

    The GeoWeb gives the map user control over what is on the map (or, you could argue, Google controls what’s on the map based on what they can index). Mashups give the “neogeographer” the ability to mix in their own data in ways that doesn’t involve an advanced degree in cartography.

    And yeah, you don’t need to read a map the same way you used to because the map now knows where it is! Why is being able to triangulate your location using a compass and landmarks such a necessary skill? How many people driving cars know how to change the oil or even change the tire?

  2. I think that to say cartography is dead and then go on to say that on-screen map design is needed – shows a misunderstanding of cartographic principles.
    These principles (of which “cartography” is made of) can be applied to ALL mapping. It’s about choosing the right scale, generalising the data, text placement, colour choice, etc,etc, that means the map is useful to the end user. Cartography is not exclusively paper-based, it applies to all forms of media and is easily transferable.
    I think you’d be hard pushed to find any cartographers with only the traditional pen and ink skills anymore – we have moved with the times – trust me… Just look at the OpenStreetMap Project (as Mary Spence said in her BBC interview – the first step in the fight back against “corporate blankwash”) – we like OS maps but are hard up due to the credit crunch and unlikely to pay for it!!.
    And yes – I’m a cartographer – and proud of it!

  3. I attended an AGI conference recently on cartographic design – given by Mary Spence plus someone else. Now I’m not a cartographer, but I do make maps and work in a group that publishes both hardcopy and online maps. Whilst a lot of the material presented was useful and the concepts apply across all geodata, what staggered me was the complete lack of reference to online mapping. There was one oblique reference to Google Maps, but nothing else. They need to realise, the principals are as relevant to online maps as printed ones (perhaps more so – no excuse for bad design) but please realise the medium is changing very quickly and they are about to get left behind. Disney have made some wonderful dinosaur movies too.

  4. I’ve often considered that the role of “cartographers” originated from their ability to present information. As the people discovered more about the world they lived in, there was a need to portray it. Cartographers created maps, adorned with all sorts of information and pictures.

    Today’s medium has changed – but the need to present information spatially has not. Perhaps this is the challenge cartographers face: embrace today’s technologies for presenting information spatially. Its always been more than maps!

  5. I think online mapping is great but I have problems with “mash-ups” and allowing anyone to create/publish maps. “Mash-ups” is a hideous term that suggests the map has been bodged together. Surely a better term is needed than one I first came across with bootleg records where the vocals from one track are mashed-up with the instrumental from another.

    In the worst case scenario, bad data can be presented badly and lead to bad decisions being made. Does it ever get updated, and if so when? Publishing the foot and mouth protection zone on Google maps is great but did the Google map get updated as the zones changed on a daily basis?

    Of course, there’s no guarantee that official or expert bodies will get it right. The plans to publish UK crime data are a good example of this. (see BBC website article)

    Online maps and “mash-ups” are great but you can’t just throw a load of data on a map and expect it to work.

  6. So an online map shows minimal detail and is good for driving but doesn’t show you much about the landscape. On the other hand navigating through London with an OS 1:1250 map would be a nightmare. Is she advocating that people should always use more detailed maps or simply complaining that people aren’t taking any notice of their surroundings?

    At least with an online/electronic map the potential is there to add detail at different zooms or on demand. I would have thought that a cartographic group would be getting excited about these possibilities.

  7. The mainframe is dead too? I get the point here, however I think the paintbrush treatment of a complex subject does it some disservice. Do we need cartographers to make all maps? Absolutely not. Do we need them for some maps? Absolutely yes. We also need maps, online or paper, to reflect sound cartographic principles because those principles are based in years of research. Your definition limiting cartography to print is erroneous.

    Just because it is easy to make maps online does not mean that it is easy to make good maps online. Anyone can use a word processor to write, yet much of what is written is useless to most people.

    Much about online mapping is problematic, not only to cartographers but to many disciplines. So called mashups can combine data that is, yes, geographically overlapping. Yet the data is often from sources of different accuracies, time, and scale. Data sources vary in reliability also. So what results from the mashups? Without proper oversight and discipline, mashups are often meaningless or worse, misleading.

    I’m all for the explosion of maps and wider uses of geographic information, online and off. But to cast aside cartography, a discipline that was, in part, responsible for us getting here in the first place, and is still actively improving geographic visualization, is simply wrong.

  8. When I started out in the geospatial industry, part of my job was to author maps for custom web applications. the first thing I was taught (told to do) was to strip out as much detail as possible for one main reason – use the map to get the right answer as simply as possible, with minimal clutter.

    Ed says “the final media used to communicate is rarely paper…” Interesting, as when I head to office printer there are often a few printed maps and directions waiting to be collected. The recycling bin has a collection of discarded directions. I’m sure if an objective is to direct someone from the office to the sandwich shop you draw them a map with 4 lines and a circle. Of course there is a geeky way of sending them directions to their phone. But having witnessed 2 suited and booted techno geeks back in 1999 spending 10 mins trying to swap “e-business cards” via infrared on their phones – paper and pen sometimes rule.

    Finally, I have watched non-geo people looking at online maps (in a non-sinister way). It never ceases to amaze me how excited the unenlightened get when looking at aerial photography “It even shows Fred’s extension up at number 32…” – not much in the way of cartographic skills required to set-up that layer.

  9. Traditional cartography generally focused on printing technologies and methods of getting maps printed on paper, using many methods and standards developed during the 16th century and later. Until approximately three decades ago, cartography was entrenched in the printing and publishing domain.

    Computer-generated map-making technology emerged in the 1985-1995 period following developments from 1965-1985. When government agencies switched from map scribing and plate-making for printing to the use of computer-generated graphical representations, it marked the end of the old cartographic paradigm. It also marked the beginning of the current situation when new mapping developments expanded into many new markets outside government.

    Traditional cartographers generally switched to a GIS focus or, in some cases, retired. The fundamentals of cartography transitioned to digital mapping and GIS software, so that many of the principles of cartography were applied using algorithms rather than by the acquired skills of the cartographer.

    The reality today is that GIS greatly lowered the cost of making maps and created many new geographic visualization opportunities. Map making functions moved into the mainstream of information-based technology and away from older printing technologies. In making the transition, the knowledge and skills of data manipulation, data analysis and geo-visualization pushed the mapping knowledge domain into the IT and management domains. Knowledge of how to organize complex geospatial data and communicate its meaning still requires advanced geographic knowledge of geospatial organization and graphic representation. Many online mash-ups are basically push-pin maps created using little geographic knowledge, but provide great value to many users.

    By ignoring trends outside their field, cartographers slow-to-change attitudes led to their own decline. Other examples show that elevator operators were replaced by a panel of buttons and complex map printing technologies have been replace by the print button on a graphic browser interface. The world has moved on for the better, I believe.

  10. Cartography does matter.

    Just imagine the response if Google took the moderately well rendered stack of TeleAtlas maps out of GM and replaced them with a stack that contained OS 1:250k mini scale, 1:50k Raster (very possibly the ugliest map ever), StreetView and 1:10k Raster. People would respond with a yuck!!! The attractive maps are one of the reasons that people preferred GM to MultiMap or

    Have a look at the styling of the maps in OSM and you will see what can be achieved with good styling.

    Cartographers need to focus their skills on the way information is presented on the web rather than bemoaning the decline of paper maps.


  11. Steven,

    I’ve got to stick up for OS mapping here!

    OK it does not look great at the wrong scale in web mapping apps – but it is still the UK’s favourite mapping (Multimap certainly got a lot of complaints when there was a brief period without OS mapping on the site). Remember a lot of people still use web mapping sites to go and print a map of an area of interest and look to OS mapping as a familiar cartography.

    Go for a hike somewhere else in Europe and you will soon be missing your excuisite manual cartography on OS 1:25k.


  12. Tim,

    I agree OS 1:25K maps are great for walkers and can work well online is displayed carefully, but Steven does also have a good point about 1:50K mapping. We both know from our time at the OS, is only exists because people are too afraid to kill it, it’s really not useful for very much any more (1:25k has in effect replaced it), and cannot be commercial viable.


  13. Ed,

    There is nothing wrong with the OS 50k per se, the problem is nothing has been done to innovate its cartography for the last 20(?) years. Which brings us back to the need for some fearless modernising cartographers…

    If it was automatically rendered it could be commercially viable. Now I wonder if anyone thought of doing that at the OS…


  14. I am another that has to stick up for OS maps at 1:25k. Great looking maps and a work of art for the fine detail that goes into them. Can happily sit at night and read a map, and plan and visualize my long weekend run in the mountains. There is a bit too much detail sometimes, especially in rocky terrain. The 1:50k falls down with not enough detail.

    No mention of the Harveys 1:40k maps. The (relatively) new people on the scene. The Harvey BMC mountain maps are great! They fit the balance nicely between enough outdoor detail, but also the scale is large enough not to have reams of paper flapping around.

    What is needed is more “free” online OS or Harvey’s mapping apps. Mimicking the currently expensive mapping software from anquet and memory map. These work well and are very popular so why wouldn’t properly created online apps.

    There is a trend towards mapping your sports activities and OS are missing this boat and letting others take the lead especially google maps)

  15. I keep meaning to write a long, long blog post about this yet haven’t got round to it yet (well, I did start one, but it was way too potty-mouthed even by my standards).

    But I can’t quite believe the venom directed here at the OS 1:50k. Single best cartography in the world, bar none. And if OS 1:25k is so great how come that it (in Explorer form) isn’t offered via OpenSpace?

  16. indeed technological advancement has taken another dimension and cartographers need to see ways of improving web based map and information rather than just sitting back

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