Tuesday 7 January 2014


Via my geopal Ed Parsons I read an article in today's New York Times entitled 'A makeover for maps'. It's effectively an interview with Eric Rodenback of Stamen Design that frames an argument for how he is trying to rethink how data is presented...graphs, maps, animation etc. Time was when we called a graph a graph, a map a map and the art and science of making them... cartography. Not any more.

Ed pointed out that, unsurprisingly, the term 'cartography' is not mentioned once in the article (though it subsequently is in the many comments). This isn't the first time we've seen this apparent glossing over of 'cartography' and I've mentioned this issue before in a previous blog.. Is this a problem? Do maps need a makeover? Does everything new have to be described as 'rethinking' as if in some way that elevates it to some new, more profound level of importance for which we should be eternally grateful for the insight?

Maps have changed. The people making them have also...and so have the tools of production. Data is now seen as different (but possibly it's just because there's so much more of it and it's more complex to sift it into something meaningful). All of the components of cartographic practice have evolved immensely. Consumption has also changed. We demand immediacy in our information so waiting for weeks to publish a map or to see a map is no longer acceptable to most. It has to be done rapidly and with maximum visual impact to resonate and satiate the appetite of our fleeting interest. So we end up with people creating new 'visualizations'...and there we have another term to throw into the mix to avoid using the term 'cartography'.

Cartography undoubtedly has an image problem otherwise there wouldn't be so many people re-thinking it. It has for years been seen as old-skool, stuffy, populated as a disipline with people who yearn for the long lost age of the scribing tool. Even the modern ones are seen as archaic if they dare to suggest their tool of choice is Adobe Illustrator...heck, even GIS is now considered as 'paleo' if that's how you make your maps. But as much as some of this is true, people 'new' to making maps are also fundamentally responsible for perpetuating the myth that what they are doing is something new. They don't want to be seen as belonging to something that pre-existed because that dilutes their relevance. They want to be modern, clean and avant-garde...just like the 'visualizations' they create. They claim there is a gulf between what went before and what they are doing and it demarcates something fresh and different. It suits them to be different because different is good and it sets them apart as new and important players in the landscape. They need to be seen to be doing something 'new' to fulfill that destiny.


I challenge you to look at any modern map or data visualization or whatever you want to call it and not be able to see clear lineage to cartographic theory or practice.  The challenge of how to present data meaningfully has been what cartography has been concerned with for centuries. The number of times I see something that purports to be a 'new way of seeing this or that' when I can probably pick out an example from 5, 10, 20, 50 years ago is becoming laughable. There is prior art for most of what we see today. Just because some people are unwilling to acknowledge it or aren't aware of it doesn't mean it never happened. Yes, people are experimenting and pushing boundaries. Yes, they are doing exciting things in the cartographic space. This has always been the case in any generation of cartographic evolution. Occasionally some seriously great work emerges to add to the canon that is truly a progression of note...but by and large I can see the use of Bertin's visual variables, cognitive theory or a particular projection, or the development of some experimental time-space animations from 15 years ago or a range of almost all other cartographic stuff.  Computing and technology are making it easier to implement. Graphics engines are making it possible to do things that are more polished, faster and more visually arresting...but the lineage is still there. It's cartography by whatever other name you want to call it....except most call it anything but cartography.

Making maps is now considered part of what designers do...but also what data scientists, journalists and artists also do. The pool of map-makers has expanded and people are now finding out about cartography in their own ways but if the output is a map-like object you are doing cartography to some extent even if you hate to think of it that way. You might do it well, you might do it poorly (depending who you show your work to), you might do it having read up on a technique or you might have stumbled across a way of representing stuff that makes sense to you and which you never knew had been done before. Whatever the process, you're doing some cartography. Cartography, though, is probably the last term you would use to describe your work.  It continues to have an image problem. It's just not a sexy term and old stuff doesn't sell well unless you invent a new way of selling it.

Digging a little deeper, most cartographers would probably concur that a lot of what they see isn't very 'cartographic' because use of that label implies a professional touch...a professional cartographer's touch. That doesn't necessarily make the work amateurish. Far from it...but that view does tend to support the philosophy that there is cartography...and then there is the new way. That distinction is crucial because it feeds the divide. Cartographers have a skill set learnt and practiced. It's their professional area of expertise yet as a discrete profession it's been on the slide for years. Unfortunately, when the rest of the world decided to get busy mapping, cartography was still slumbering and failed to pick up the pace. It got overtaken so the high ground of modern map-making is no longer ruled by people from that profession. Consequently their voice is diminished and their ability to influence is weakened. That's not to say others cannot become proficient or, indeed, far better at making maps. Many great maps are made by non-cartographers. But as long as that distinction of 'us and them' and the notion of what skill-sets new and old map-makers can bring to the table remains, the divide will grow...the term cartography will become even less attractive and it will slowly die. More people will seek their advice on making maps from designers, coders, data scientists and anyone else who has stumbled across cartography...rather than getting a cartographer involved. That would be sad to see because so much of what is being re-thought already exists. You've just got to talk to the right people, read the right books/blogs and engage with the past as a way of informing your desire to shape (not reinvent) the future.

Cartography is a great term and it's entirely appropriate for most of what we see today. Rather than being seen as elitist or defining a small group of like-minded old-skoolers its use should be expanded to encompass modern thinking and practice. As the President of ICA, Georg Gartner, said at the International Cartographic Conference in 2013 "It's OK to be a cartographer". Well yes, it is...but only if you want to be frowned at, ignored, derided  and so on...until some of the newer crowd get over their hang ups about the term and accept what they are doing is not profoundly new (as in not a new paradigm) but is, in fact, simply a development of what went before supported by changes in technology. It also requires those with a longer cartographic history to get with it...change has happened and fast but you might need to modify your view of what you do to be seen as relevant until people come round to using the term cartography in a positive way again. This is more profound than just semantics. This is about us potentially consigning a great term to history simply because different tribal tendencies have seen it fade out of fashion. We need to encourage some carto love (as another of my geo pals Gary Gale said) and once again see cartography as something more than just worthy...it needs to become fashionable once again. It needs a good re-branding job. Then we genuinely can begin to think of a new golden age of cartography.


  1. I think that we have failed, as a discipline, to articulate our relevance (or the most basic facts about what we do) to the outside world. I'm hoping that will begin to change, and I'm hoping that NACIS will be able to be a leading voice that educates people on who cartographers are and why we're important. We have some outreach/PR ideas cooking for this year; more ideas are welcome.

    c.f. http://blog.visual.ly/is-cartography-dead/ — a slightly unrefined version of a talk I gave at NACIS.

  2. Thanks Daniel...I agree, there is much work to do and it takes work on both sides of the equation. I look forward to working with you on these initiatives.

  3. I read this post with interest because I often encounter people who, upon my explaining what I do (make simple boundary maps for a state legislature), reply, "So, you are a cartographer?" I always shirk the title because I fear claiming it oversells what I do -- makes it sound cooler, not antiquated or old-school, as you say. But perhaps you've given me the confidence to embrace it!