The Death of Cartography and the Rise of the Machines
This article explores how technology has influenced map making and how cartography requirements have changed, and what skill sets one needs to make the modern map.
Cartography: Back in the mid 1980’ in geology departments hand drawn maps were given to the drafting department, who meticulously drafted the maps onto transparency, copies were made and one spent weeks colouring them in with pencil crayons. Five years later the computers and A0 printers came; the drafting department started shrinking, and today has disappeared. Being replaced by head office GIS-geologists that fulfill a coordinating role of data “QA/QC”, which is more of an IT role. Most industry professionals generate their own maps and technologies like GIS are nothing more than a tool of the trade. If one need a flood map made, get a hydrologist who use the tools of the trade.
Cartography had gone from trained drafters/cartographers to professionals from all walks of life. Producing detailed and artistic maps with perfectly designed outlay has fallen by the wayside. On local television they used to give detailed weather forecasts with isobars and standard 18 character weather station symbols. Today one is shown an icon graphically depicting percentage cloud, sun cover and animated rainfall. Watching CNN the other day they came up with a breaking story of a 7.8 earthquake on the Iranian Pakistan border and showed worst map I have ever seen, a big red dot in a desert area (satellite image) with no identifying borders or towns locations or legends. It is rapid quick information exchange; map is put together in less than 5 minutes.
In the company board room company directors and decision makers want to explore and question the information by panning, zooming, adding and removing overlays. They don’t want a north arrow or scale bar, but a distance and area measuring tool. The A0 printers now stand idle. There is no time for the finer cartographic touch-up’s. When it comes to the cartographic design of maps I apply the Pareto (80/20) principle, gets the map to 80% correct using only 20% of the time and further effort is not warranted. Fiddling around with colour contrasts is redundant when every 5 minutes it is let’s try this overlay or add this and remove this!
Coding: A bit more than a year ago while completing my masters in GIS & RS I was on the lookout for GIS opportunities. I came up with a very long list for example while attending a course on designing sediment catchment dams. One need to refer to about six data tables including a rainfall intensity contour map to get all the parameters for the calculation, which are then processed in a spreadsheet, how easy would that be on a web-GIS. All these small industry specific online GIS applications that are being developed are such that a clerk can operate them. Where does that leave the GIS analysis (non programmer)?, as the piggy in the middle trying to catch the odd ball bouncing past. Is there any wonder why the vast majority of advertised GIS positions require some coding ability?
Software is going through another evolution. Even Microsoft whose software is based on easy to use GUI (Graphic user interface) has now gone back to command prompt and scripting methods of configuration. For example if one want to add a name to an outlook server it is done though a PowerShell prompt, because all configuration functionality of the software can’t be put into single GUI window. The same applies to a modern GIS where there are too many options to put them all into menus. I often use ‘Jscript’ in ArcView to customise label selection and format the output.
It is a fallacy to think because a person can do computer coding they aren’t creative enough to make good maps, look at the computer gaming industry real-time interactive war game where the limits of spatial interaction and graphics are pushed to higher levels. It was after all computer gamers that started Google Earth, which has revolutionised GIS. Gone is the fancy locality map as everyone has interactively explored the project area on ‘Google Earth’.
Do Programmers make better cartographers? Yes for the following reasons:
- Better able to utilise the full potential of software and add customised features;
- Can produce dynamic online maps where the end-user has control over which layers they view, and can change colours and formatting of objects to their personal likes;
- Embed data tables give the user more information,
- Digital online maps have much better formatting and contrasting options ( e.g. http://maps.stamen.com/ )
- Automated methods generate the maps quicker getting the information to the user when it is needed.
I have a strong opinion that spending the time and pain that is required to learn to code will reap long-term career benefits and likely become a mandatory future requirement for GIS professionals. Likewise I encourage graduate and students that come through the workplace to learn to touch-type; when I see them using the mouse excessively and only typing with 2 fingers. I get a lot of negative response like ‘I am not a secretary’, but if one is going to spend the next +40 years of your working career behind a keyboard why not learn to utilise the system to its full potential and get the touch-typing and scripting skills.
Conclusion: There is a fundamental shift in software design requiring uses to interact with software through command prompts and scripting, and online dynamic maps is now what industry requires. Formal Geomatic courses should teach both cartography and programming, as both are essential skills, and being able to code does help one produce better cartographic products.