Have you ever seen a map? No, not the digital map on your smartphone or iPad. I’m referring to the old school printed map that your parents used to find directions for their impulsive road trip across the country. These maps are hand-drawn by cartographers with great care and details including roads, railways and even complete cities. One of the very first maps ever discovered dated back to 600 BC which was a Babylonian map. While the ancient map is not a world map as we see today, it held significant and detailed geographical information.
The first ever world map was made by Flemish geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569 which introduced the cylindrical map projection. The projection, now also known as the Mercator projection, is still used as the standard of every map across the globe. However, excluding the printed maps on our geography and history books in school, printed maps have become rare and mapping has changed drastically due to advanced technology.
Cartography: Now and Then
It’s obvious that printed maps are no longer in demand as almost every single person on the Earth owns a smartphone that has a built-in map software. However, to learn what really had changed, no one knows it better than Patrick van der Hoeijen, a trained cartographer with more than 27 years of experience. When Patrick first started as a mapping apprentice, he was trained to make maps with just a pen and ruler. Information and data of maps are collected through satellite images and aerial pictures while in some cases, Patrick is needed to go to the site himself and measure the land manually.
After technology had improved and maps could be digitized, the industry of cartography changed forever. The classic drawing-by-hand methods are no longer in demand and hand-drawn cartographers have to learn and catch up with the growth of technology in order to avoid being thrown out of the business. Monika Suchwalko, another trained cartographer with 10 years of experience puts it the best:
“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.”
Today, just like Monika, many cartographers prefer to call themselves a webmapper as today’s cartography is based on digital maps and geographical databases, instead of printed and hand-drawn maps. While digitalization and technology have provided convenient tools for these map makers to do their job, there are challenges as well.
Webmappers have to make sure that their data are always updated and consistent. They also have to learn how to categorize the data and how the applied rules we choose will represent other parts of the world within the map. With the world constantly changing – new buildings, demolition, structures, the responsibility of webmappers is heavier as their maps must reflect reality at all times.
Patrick further adds that the most drastic shift in cartography would be the change from analog to digital mapping and digital publishing. With digitalization, making maps has become less time consuming and enables cartographers to create more and unique types of maps such as interactive online maps. These maps offer even more insights into a location compared to a static map. Monika also suggested that mapping had changed for the better as now, maps are even more accessible and updated for every user.
A Modern Cartographer: It’s Not What You Think
Today, even if you don’t have any cartographer skills or degree, everyone can create free maps nowadays. No matter if you are using a mapping software or even Google Maps, you can easily add a new location – complete with pictures, videos and events happening in the location. Today’s mapping software and technology introduced tools that everyone can easily understand and design in order to make good maps, even without cartographic knowledge. This is because software development would take care of big cartographic mistakes made by users and apply the most important cartographic design principles.
Does that mean cartographers are no longer needed? They are still relevant but their job scope has changed. Instead of learning how to draw maps like they used to, cartography students, today, would focus on processing data from satellite images and managing geographical data. Moreover, cartographers are still required to create good maps for specific map projects – even for both print or online purposes. So don’t worry if you’re interested in cartography, your skills are still needed for collecting good geographical data.