Should You be Making Maps?

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A couple of recent blog discussions reminded me of an age-old controversy around computers. Computers automate tasks and allow wider information access, making it easier for more people to do more things with more information. The computer tools continue to improve as more data goes online, thereby accelerating this ongoing trend. Clearly, this has changed many common human activities and given the masses the tools to do things once done by limited circles of people.


Activity in the world of maps, with the rapid growth of online mapping technologies and geographic data, reflects this trend. However, along with the automation comes some heated discussions about the role of professionals.


Google’s Ed Parsons, in “Cartography is dead, long live the map makers” argues that because the display mechanism for maps is now usually computer screens and not paper, that the skill is becoming less relevant.  As I commented on his blog, 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. Ed’s definition limiting cartography to print is erroneous.


Importantly, and often overlooked, 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.

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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.


Along these same lines, Sean Gorman recently wrote “The Professional vs. the Amateur: Thoughts on the ESRI UC” about the delineations between “professionals” and “amateurs” made at the user conference. Sean thinks ESRI and other vendors define GIS professionals as those knowing how to use their software, rather than those with expertise in the field of study. This may be true, yet I’ve heard Jack Dangermond discuss this topic and his main issue seems to be on the data side – people with questionable authority providing geodata to be used by others. There is risk in the map making for sure, but if the data sources are unreliable, the resulting visualization will be questionable regardless of the level of expertise of the map maker.


Simply put, good maps come from good data combined with the application of sound cartographic and geographic analysis principles. Both are necessary and whether they come from certified professionals or not is a side issue.

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