Thursday, 6 June 2013

Cartographic Identity Disorder

I have CID. There you go...I've admitted it. I can stand up in a circle of fellow sufferers and be open about it. I have Cartographic Identity Disorder. It's characterised by multiple identities; dissociated personalities that control what I do and how I do it. The problem is I don't know what to call what I do...but then again, I don't know that I ever did know and that might be the first step to understanding the problem. I don't mind this disorder. I'm quite happy.

My good friend Georg Gartner just published a blog titled How do we name what we do? as ICA President (that's International Cartographic Association for those that don't know...yes, there is such a thing). In it, he ponders the use of the term cartography its relevance in today's mapping landscape. Georg's blog got me pondering life over my corn flakes this morning and I think I had a moment of clarity. They don't happen often so here it is...

I have never been a cartographer but much of what I have done and do might bear resemblance to the work of a cartographer because I am involved in cartography. Clear as mud...

I grew up with a love of Geography and maps. My favorite classes were always Geography and my favorite teachers were the Geographers. Trouble is, when it comes to making a life out of a subject you enjoyed or were good at, the choices are somewhat limited. Unless you moved into teaching there was no such thing a 'geographer'. I was good at Physics as well...and Biology and both those sciences seem, with hindsight, to have more substance. As a kid I wanted to be a footballer, astronaut, surgeon and even a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer (too much time spent watching CHiPs). I was never fast enough or skilled enough to be a footballer...I didn't particularly enjoy Physics (maybe the occasion of our teacher spilling a beaker of liquid Mercury across the classroom affected my disposition) and though I loved Biology I was rubbish at Chemistry so no hope of going to medical school. I also lived nowhere near anywhere where I could be an astronaut or California Highway Patrolman. The school careers advisor's computer told me I should be a photographer or dental assistant. Hmm...no, I found a degree course at Oxford Polytechnic all about maps instead. It was called Cartography....and I found I was actually quite good at it. I could extend my love of geography and maps into a degree...perfect; that'll delay the inevitable even further!

I spent 3 fantastic years in Oxford studying (if that's what you can call it) cartography. The lecturers were great, mostly because they weren't really your archetypal lecturers. I met and made some great friends and it turned out I was on a course that seemed to feed the UK cartographic industry. So I went to the British Geological Survey in between my first and second years to spend 3 months being a cartographer in their drawing office.  This was 1990. 10 people in a room huddled over their prized personal light tables wielding Rotrings and getting excited over the nuances of a line drawn with consistent width. The morning coffee break at 10.30 (radio on, magazine out) lasted 20 minutes. Then lunch (always midday, always the same) and then home. For a couple of days I got to play on an Intergraph workstation with a digital table and a clicky thing that allowed me to turn movements of my right forefinger into bright dots and lines on a computer screen...this seemed quite interesting but it was serious equipment for serious people...not the work experience kid, so it was back to the drawing room for me. I had some of my work published in BGS materials but overall I hated it and vowed NEVER to be a cartographer. So back to University to finish my studies and then what...

When I graduated in 1991 I'd just taken a new course in something called GIS and I applied to be a researcher at Nene College Northampton to work on GIS related 'stuff' (it was poorly conceived as I later found out, because they didn't really know what it was). I was given the best computer on campus...a magnificent IBM floor standing unit with a massive 4Mb hard drive...enough to install PC ArcInfo and do some GISing. What I slowly began to appreciate at the time is this thing called GIS was rapidly killing professional cartography. Great! It was boring anyway...so what about this new thing. Hmm...two years into the research it became clear I was on my own. No-one else knew anything about GIS. I learnt a lot, self-taught, started a PhD, met some people I later found out were quite big in this GIS thing and then landed a lectureship.  Without even planning it I had gone from my love of geography and maps into...teaching. Dammit.

So I spent the next 10 years or so developing courses in GIS and digital cartography at Northampton. We did well. We expanded the course and students loved it. We got fancier clicky things and did more and more. I was the first person in the UK to teach using ArcView 3 and was delighted that I could finally get away from trying to get people to make maps using commands like "display999" and "polygonshades". Trouble was...it was impossible to make maps anywhere near as good as that boring lot in the BGS drawing office with their slide rules and pens. We were constrained by technology. I completed my PhD; proudly squeezing in 121 maps into my thesis which, by the way, contained a data fudge as several years into processing the data I realized I'd got one tiny thing wrong...I think it's time I admitted it and I apologise to the residents of Towcester to whom I incorrectly ascribed 'poor relative access to healthcare'. It seems Mark Monmonier was right after all...my maps lied.

My move into academia was complete. I was a lecturer, course director for Geography degree programmes, I had PhD after my name so I had the academic badge that meant I must be clever and I taught cartography and GIS classes using the currently in vogue tools so I was at the cutting edge of technology. I then had an opportunity to move to Kingston University...excitement unbound because Kingston was the first University in the UK to embrace GIS in 1989 as they delivered the world's first ever Bachelors course in GIS. I couldn't believe I had been appointed as a Senior Lecturer and soon after became Course Director for GIS, developed new Masters programmes and brought back a large proportion of cartography into the courses. I renamed them from names like 'cartographic techniques', 'topographic science' and 'introduction to GIS' to 'digital mapping', 'geovisualization' and 'digital Earth' and they became more popular! The first half of my time at Kingston was fun but we were always far more respected outside the University than within. We weren't a 'proper' subject apparently. During this time, the course at Oxford closed, others went the same way. We began struggling to recruit students at Kingston but with one or two careful appointments we rode a wave of innovation, won some prizes for our work and pedagogy, did some pretty cool stuff and, importantly, many of our students went on to become involved in the UK geoindustry. I began getting involved with the British Cartographic Society, Society of Cartographers, International Cartographic Association etc...all the things my Oxford lecturers had done I was now doing. I became Editor of The Cartographic Journal. I gave conference papers, wrote up research and...maps. Hmm...I'd become one of those people who happily talked about maps and cartography but when someone asked where my work was I had a fairly empty portfolio. Sure, I'd done a few bits and pieces but nothing particularly spectacular. So I'd become a cartography and GIS lecturer but without any maps to show for it. What's that about teachers only becoming teachers because they can't actually do the job?

I committed to undertaking at least one large map project a year. Not easy because as I found out, there wasn't much appetite for supporting academic work whose main output was a map. Along with a colleague I formed a new Journal...The Journal of Maps as a publication dedicated to publishing...maps and that went well for a time. I got involved in seminars and workshops encouraging better mapping and my maps started winning awards. Hmm...turned out I was actually able to turn what I said week in week out into decent products. I became Principal Lecturer and had risen to quite a high position...and students could see I actually knew what I was on about because I could do it as well. Kudos!

The clock was ticking at Kingston. Without getting into the details it became clear that internally there were agendas that were going to be impossible to turn around. Five GIS staff but the work was done by two of us. Pretty inept management (mostly geologists of the old school variety) and people in key positions that just sneered at what was openly called 'colouring in with computers' (Dean of Faculty!). I recall trying to get a teaching set of iPads to do some mobile GIS work but was told they were a passing fad, just a toy and a waste of money...and that was the decision of a committee of people...genius eh! You cannot work in that environment with people like that forever. I left, quite bitterly, because we were still hugely respected outside the walls of KT1 2EE and with proper support the future was incredibly bright. Internally everything was imploding becasue too many key people just didn't 'get it'. I feel that the two of us who passionately worked our backsides off did a good job ensuring students were kept shielded from much of this. We kept innovating; we kept the students well tooled and it is a constant source of pride that everywhere I go, ex-students turn up and say hi and thank me (and Dr James O'Brien) for giving them a path into something they love doing. All that I said about Kingston and GIS to senior management subsequently came true. GIS is now gone as a separate subject at Kingston after 23 years. They killed it. I am proud to have been a part of the Kingston story and to have followed some key people through that University...all of whom eventually left academia to join various mapping/geo industries. Time to leave and do the same.

I got a call from Esri and figured it was time to do something different. 20 years of marking and dealing with the increasingly bureaucratically driven consumer focused University system was enough. I packed my bags and headed to sunny California and began working on the Mapping Center team. New life. Fresh start at something new. The brief was simple...make maps, develop workflows for cartographic techniques using Esri software, support users in their own work and help solve their cartographic problems, deliver workshops and write about maps and mapping. Technically, I was called a "Senior Cartographic Product Engineer". For the first time in my life I had a business card with the word 'cartographer' on it....despite vowing never to become a cartographer. But let's not get too bogged down in that...the job title also has the word 'Engineer' in it. This was no drawing office though. My job was just like being a lecturer except there was no marking, no pressure to submit spurious research proposals for unlikely funding, no need to publish papers just to meet the requirements of a research assessment exercise; and most people I came into contact with really wanted to learn (unlike most students) and I loved it.

After two years in that role I recently moved into a new role on the Mapping Systems team where in addition to the above I get involved in the development of software. Now before anyone gets too concerned, no...I'm no programmer. I help with ideas, designs, testing and suchlike. My programming history has taken me through Turbo Pascal, Commodore Basic, GIMMS, AML, Avenue, ArcObjects and now a smidgen of javascript and suchlike. I dabble. I help the development guys figure things out and make daft suggestions about what map-makers might want to be able to do but they do the hard work. It's great...I love my job and I work with some really cool people. Serendipitously I made it to California but not as a motorcycle patrol guy.

So..am I a cartographer? Nope. I know about cartography; I teach it; I write about it; I blog; I make maps; I tweet; I edit journals; I sit on various national and international committees; I advise; I evangelize...but I have never actually called myself a cartographer. To me, that term died out in terms of popular use when the BGS drawing office closed and the Oxford polytechnic degree course folded. Cartography as a term did die a long time ago and yes, it is viewed as old-fashioned. It gives rise to the view of an industry from yesteryear; of people bemoaning technological progress; and of a person whose skillset is narrow. But...cartography DOES exist in what I do. I am a cartographic expert, a man of maps, a carto-nerd. I have knowledge and experience in a wide range of cartographic concepts, techniques and practices. What I do is certainly grounded in some of what cartography is about but the definition is no longer adequate to define what it is that people who work with maps do. GIS brought along a much wider array of requirements to add to the cartographer's toolbox. Democratised mapping and cloud computing has taken things further. We are certainly in a new golden age of cartography...but it seems we need to call it something else in order to remain relevant. If the term cartography and cartographer is to retain any modern relevance then it needs to be re-imagined and quickly. People used to call themselves cartographers when it commanded respect. As the value of the label has declined so we find other ways to describe what we do to avoid the sneering.

Calling yourself a cartographer does you no justice...it brings with it such baggage that makes it hard to persuade people you have something to offer in the modern mapping landscape. I see this myself. Calling yourself a designer or a coder is currently good currency. It's seen as progressive and there is far less baggage associated with those terms. I design, I also dabble with some code. I recently made a map that I called an InfoMap that, ironically, didn't have much of a map component to it at all but people loved it. What I did do though, was recognise what it was that was going to capture attention and how to create something map-based that would work for the audience it was targeted towards. I used my cartographic knowledge and experience along with a few other skills you wouldn't necessarily associate with the job of a cartographer. I used cognitive science...something we learnt in Oxford many years ago and a branch of cartography that is rarely uttered today. This is where the work of the modern cartographer can set us apart from mere map-makers. We 'know' how to make maps work...and make them work well. Assuming a consistent knowledge of the technology, giving me one hour of work with the same data as someone without my type of background will yield a better map. I don't advocate map-smithing the map to within an inch of its life and taking forever to perfect things (though I have done this on occasions when I'm not satisfied with the product) but there's a wealth of 'stuff' that I can draw upon to make what I do work and work well. I also come at my work from a tangent. I rarely accept defaults. I always stretch the tools at my disposal to the point of breaking to get what I want done...and I use the right tools for the right job.

So I have Cartographic Identity Disorder. Yes, my life with maps and my work with maps clearly means I engage with cartography. But to talk about them, write about them, do research, publish, present, design, code and so on requires so much more than what people might think I am capable of if I call myself a cartographer. I have been a student of cartography, I have taught it formally, I have developed courses in it, published about it and been asked to deliver keynotes and advise on it. I've held a number of academic posts and I now work in the geo-industry as a cartographic expert. If I could persuade my employer to put the term "Map Man" or "Cartonerd" on my business card I probably would. Cartography just doesn't cut it...or if it does we somehow need to overcome the stigma associated with the term. Cartography continues to see profound changes as a result of massively disruptive technological shifts but the term is still languishing behind. It never developed sufficiently to describe what it is we do. It got lost. Can we reclaim it and persuade people it is a good, solid term to describe what I, and others, do? It's a great word of that there's no doubt but that's the challenge. If not, I don't mind particularly. I'll continue to morph, chameleon-like through my career calling myself whatever might work from time to time. I do what I do. You can call it what you like. My daughter calls me a 'handyman when it comes to maps' which probably isn't far off the truth. I'm content with it that way.

I'm Ken and I have Cartographic Identity Disorder.


3 comments:

  1. I make maps. I know maps. That makes me a cartographer, and I don't see the need to apologize for it. If 'cartographer' is a term that needs an image lift, I don't see any better way to accomplish that than for the cartographic community to reorganize themselves around the term and wear it like a badge of honor.

    Yes, mapmaking has changed drastically in the past decades, and yes, mapmakers are a diverse bunch, but let's face it: mapmaking is such a niche expertise that we can not afford to further splinter our discipline by dividing ourselves into "Geoinformatics experts" versus "map artists" versus "GeoUX designers" versus "[insert buzzword-y title here]".

    If cartography is going to maintain its increasingly-wavering sense of relevancy, we in the community need to focus on what makes us all similar, rather than what makes us each different. What makes us similar is that we all make maps. We all know maps. We're all cartographers.

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