How modern technology changed cartography forever

30 January 2019

Almost everything becomes digitized these days, creating maps is no exception. Drawing out roads, railways and even complete cities by hand, is not necessary anymore. Mapping has changed, so cartographers have to change as well. But how?

One of the very first maps was a Babylonian map created around 600 BC. You can’t call it a map of the world as we know it today, but the clay tablet held significant geographical information. The first real-like map of the world was a map by Flemish geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator. This world map of 1569 introduced a cylindrical map projection. This projection is still used as the standard, known as the Mercator projection. Of course, mapping has changed a lot since then.

From cartographer to webmapper

Someone who was trained as a cartographer 27 years ago is Patrick van der Hoeijen. When he just started working, he still needed to draw a lot by hand. Patrick: “I have been trained making maps without using any electronic devices. I was using a pen to draw manually. Collecting map data included analyzing satellite images and aerial pictures. It also included measuring in the field. The mapping process was only just starting to digitize.” After the digitization, the classic ‘drawing all maps by hand’ cartographer wasn’t necessary anymore. Monika Suchwalko was trained 10 years ago, when computers were already very much a thing. Monika: “I am always careful with saying that I am a cartographer, because I know that some people would categorize me as a person who’s drawing useless maps by hand. That’s why I prefer to call myself a webmapper. Nowadays cartography is based on digital maps and geographical databases, instead of hand drawn maps. The biggest challenge is to look at the map creation from a wider perspective. Before we make any decision, we need to consider how to keep data consistent, how to categorize the data and how the applied rules we choose, will represent other parts of the world within the map. Our work carries now more responsibility, because the maps are representing the reality. It really needs to be correct.”

"Everyone can create a good looking map, of any location of the world, in just a few clicks"

The importance of maps in the modern world

We can’t imagine life without maps. If maps didn’t exist, we would be lost (pun intended). Ever since people started creating maps, they have been used to help us define, explain, and navigate our way through the world. Monika: “Maps play a huge role in data visualization. By looking at a map you can access information in a faster and easier way than by reading text. Moreover it is very useful in geoanalysis, where you are analyzing something based on geolocation. This is being used more and more within security, tourism and the news.” Patrick agrees: “Nowadays, there are many more ways to use maps. Many people use maps daily, on their phone to check where a location is, to show other people where they are, in the news they use maps to show where something happened. We use maps when jogging to see the route we ran, we use them to explore the world before going on a vacation or to navigate when driving”.

The relevance of the modern cartographer

Everyone can create free maps nowadays. Just go to Google Maps, type in a location and there you have it. So, with everyone making maps, does that mean we do not need cartographers anymore at all? Monika: “Cartographers are still relevant, but their job is changing. In universities they know that students need to learn more about processing data from satellite images or about managing big geographical data.” Patrick agrees: “It is true that it has become much easier for everyone to create maps. However, some of the tools that everyone can easily have access to are designed in such a way the users will be able to make good maps without cartographic knowledge. This is taken care of during the software development process to prevent big cartographic mistakes and to apply the most important cartographic design principles. Besides that, for specific map projects, cartographers are still required to create good maps, for print as well as for online purposes. For collecting good geographical data you also need cartographic skills.”

Modern technology and cartography

According to Patrick, the one thing that changed cartography most is the change from analog to digital mapping and then to digital publishing. “This saves a lot of time. Making the same maps as before, enables us to create a lot more and different types like interactive online maps. Those can give readers even more insight into a topic than a (printed) static map.” Monika thinks mapping changed for the better: The changed technology made maps more accessible and better updated. Not so long ago you had to have researching skills to understand a map. Now everyone can create a good looking map, of any location of the world, in just a few clicks.

So, modern technology changed cartography a lot, primarily for the better. Even though it’s very easy for everyone to create a map nowadays, cartographers are still necessary to support this. Maps are, even if we don’t always notice it, a big part of our lives and still rely on cartographers.