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ICA angle: Maps Take a New Turn with Tech Renaissance

From being cartographic ‘artefacts’, maps have evolved to become interfaces for ‘efficient communication of geospatial information’ and cartographers are necessitated to be interdisciplinary professionals.

Modern cartographer needs to be an interdisciplinary professional

Modern cartography is everything we do in our daily life as a cartographer or GI Scientist in order to produce maps, or, to be more precise, to design cartographic communication processes. The role of the map has changed now. Maps used to be artefacts earlier, they had to look beautiful, well-designed, and had to store information for a long time as they were used over a long period of time. In modern cartography, a map performs more functions than just these. Besides its old function of acting as an artefact, a modern map is an interface that gives human users access to information stored in the map, and beyond the map in databases. The map has therefore the function of a table, structuring information through spatial attributes. And if a modern map is such an interface giving access to structured information, then the concept of modern cartography in one sentence would be ‘efficient communication of geospatial information’.

That is why a modern cartographer needs to be an interdisciplinary professional. For cartographers it is not only important to know about computer sciences, but also about GIS, photogrammetry, remote sensing and geodesy. He has to know about design, art, modelling and analysis techniques must be willing to adopt new technologies. All these fields are influencing the product that the cartographer delivers in the end. One can visualise this in a triangle: art, research and technology that will make up for the best cartographic products. The modern cartographer is in the middle, better in the heart, of that triangle.

Challenges of modern cartography

The challenge that cartography is facing nowadays is that the maps are eventually becoming more prominent than ever, but cartography is losing ground in institutions. Almost all of us have witnessed some transitions in our domain, not only in what we do and how we do it but especially also how we name it. We have seen the move from terms like ‘cartography’ to terms like GIS, geomatics, geoinformation science, geovisualisation, visual analytics, geospatial information management, just to name a few. All these terms have a short history that basically dates back to using computers to make maps. Sometimes it is hard to describe this ‘geospatial-visual something’ to non-industry insiders, but there are universal terms that everyone recognises, and that is maps and cartography.

Maps have become a must-have thing on smartphones and Web applications are further making them attractive to many

Influenced by companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft, maps are creating waves right now. Maps have become a must-have thing on smartphones and Web applications are further making them attractive to many. The term ‘map’ seems to see its repeated revival as a contemporary, relevant and attractive term for something contemporary, relevant and attractive.

However, it seems as if the term ‘cartography’ is seen differently, interestingly enough, especially by those who are the experts, specialists and closely related to the domain. Maybe this is because it feels like a different name is required to describe the job we are doing in dealing with maps. Often different technologies and methods are used to deal with maps, something which demands new and often very complex competences. How can it then still named the same? Is it not necessary that the name describing what an industry is doing, what an expert in a discipline is doing needs to somehow reflect these changed competences which change methods and technologies? Is it not very much needed that I can name what I am doing as something most modern, complex, contemporary, as this will lead to respect, appreciation and recognition? And if I am calling myself a ‘cartographer’, being involved in ‘cartography’, will this lead to the same respect, appreciation and recognition? Or will I rather be associated with something old-fashioned, out-dated?

There are for sure a lot of rationales for terms being used in our domains, and they all have their relevance. However, it seems as if the term ‘cartography’ is being avoided, especially by cartographers, while many of the things being done under the umbrella of other terms could simply be called ‘cartography’.

In communication science, we use the theory of semiotics to explain communication processes. In this model, syntactical, semantic and pragmatic dimensions are used. Unlike semantics, which examines meaning that is conventional or coded in a given language, pragmatics studies how the transmission of meaning depends not only on structural and linguistic knowledge of the speaker and listener, but also on the context of the utterance. In this respect, pragmatics explains how language users are able to overcome apparent ambiguity, since meaning relies on the manner, place, time etc. of an utterance.

If this is true, then it is an always ongoing process in how we use and understand terms. This use and understanding can be influenced. This applies to the term ‘map’ and ‘cartography’ as well. It is therefore in the interest of the International Cartographic Association to contribute to this process, which fits into the ongoing ‘renaissance’ of maps and map-making.