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EditorSpeak: Cartography & GIS: When the twain met

Prof. Arup Dasgupta
Managing Editor
[email protected]

Is GIS killing cartography? GIS simulates mapmaking; provides a dynamic, user-centric view of the world; provides perspectives from the ground, 3D and even 4D; works on new display devices, and is stimulated by digital technology. GIS has everything to do with digital and geography. So is it time to write the epitaph of cartography? Not yet! Cartography has rebounded with vigour using the same technologies that GIS uses and more.

GIS needs cartography and visualisation to present its analysed results in a meaningful manner. GIS needs inputs from various data sources like sensors, survey instruments, imagery and GPS, and these have to be cartographically registered to the system of latitudes and longitudes which had been developed by Ptolemy in the 2nd Century and revised from time to time. On the other hand, cartography has gained from the democratisation of GIS and has become accessible to the lay person. Thus GIS and cartography are in a symbiotic relationship; one cannot survive without the other.

Cartography was always about communicating vast geographical facts and figures through graphical representation. The earliest cartographic representations were stone carvings; parchment and paper were used later. Modern technology replaced static elements with computer graphics, which is ephemeral but enables viewer interaction. When the viewers are satisfied with the results they can publish the same on paper or the Internet to make it permanent and enable sharing with others. Neo-geographers and the VGI community have become important players. While the quality of the data they produce is under scrutiny by traditional cartographers, their importance as a source of data is no longer in question. It is therefore necessary that cartography should start exploring how this fertile but inchoate resource can be channelised into a significant contributor to cartography. A beginning has been made through research in to the cognitive aspects of cartography. What do people look for in a map? How can the art of visualisation turn the data into something that is easily recognised? Thus cartography has to make the leap from scientific art to popular and interactive scientific art.

For example, how can cartography help health services? In 1854, John Snow experimented with the use of maps in epidemiological studies. Today GIS and cartographic visualisation is being used to map and understand underlying causes for the spread of diseases like SARS, dengue and measles. The location of healthcare assets, their accessibility during epidemics and disasters and the routing of emergency services requires GIS and location– based services to create contextual maps.

In brief, cartography born in the 2nd Century is alive and well, and has entered the 21st Century in style.