Why Cartography Still Matters

September 16, 2020
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In 2003, I published a study titled "Profiling Cartographic Education in GIS Certificate Programs." Much has changed in the last 17 years. Instead of repeating that project on the metrics of cartographic education, I thought it would be more insightful and relevant to interview some of the brilliant people who teach the subject currently, and offer their perspectives.

 I had the privilege to spend time with several leaders in cartographic education, specifically:

  • Shannon White, GIS certificate coordinator and interim director at William and Mary University in Virginia.
  • Jim Meacham, senior research associate and executive director of the InfoGraphics Lab at the University of Oregon.
  • Amy Rock, geography professor and director of the GIS Certificate program at Humboldt State University.
  • Joseph Kerski, education manager for Esri.
  • Christina Friedle, coordinator of the GIS Certificate program at Portland Community College.

 Each of these individuals have different perspectives. Some teach certificate programs; others contribute to graduate degree programs; others include cartography in two-year associate degrees. Despite their various programs and delivery methods, many of the same messages resounded during the interviews. My own experience in teaching GIS and cartography falls well in line with these as well.

 The good news is that cartographic education is alive and well, and is becoming more relevant than ever. GIS has become an almost ubiquitous skill for many professions in many fields, but as I always say, having the hammer and wood doesn’t mean you can make a cabinet.  The massive amounts of data that we have available need to be digestible to many different audiences. Craftsmanship is critical.

 The running themes that emerged from these interviews were:

  •  Collaboration with other programs is essential.
  • Peer to peer engagements encourage learning and growth.
  • There are many future opportunities for graduates, and geospatial skills are an essential tool.
  • GIS and cartography are organically interrelated.

“An organic evolution”

That was how the program began at PCC, in Christina Friedle’s words. Success led to demand, and demand led to support. And as we know, few GIS programs work alone.

 At Humboldt State, GIS is the most popular minor. Along with the natural resource students majoring in wildlife biology, forestry, botany, fire ecology and other fields, they also enroll students from anthropology and sociology. Their courses in the geospatial track cross multiple departments. Geography teaches cartography, and forestry delivers the remote sensing component.

 At my school, the Oregon Institute of Technology, the basic GIS course is required for all majors in geomatics, environmental science and civil engineering. We don’t teach a cartography class, but it is woven into the curriculum, with more emphasis in the upper-level courses.

 Teaching at the University of Washington, I had no specific cartography courses, but I was able to emphasize the importance of skills to make effective maps that would speak to your audience. One important and eye-opening exercise was to make a basic population map of U.S. states using various classification methods.

 “I like, I wish, what if?”

 This is the set of questions that Shannon White has her students consider to begin their map evaluations. Peer to peer engagements encourage learning and growth, and bring visibility and vitality to the programs. Who doesn’t love a map gallery? When we post our students’ maps for evaluation in the College Union, almost everyone passing by will pause to look.

 At a cartography symposium in 2018, I spent a lot of time in the student section and I was impressed by many of the maps, especially the ones from PCC. When I asked Christina Friedle how a two-year program could produce so many professional quality maps, the short answer was “constructive collaboration.”

 One of the many lessons that I have learned is the importance of having others review your maps. We can often spend so much time on a map that we don’t see it any more. At OIT, we do an annual map review of the capstone projects. Professors, local GIS specialists and other students offer constructive feedback on the maps. The students get to revise their maps, and the best ones go on display at our regional conferences.

 At PCC, students begin their critiques with third-party maps, those not made by their fellow students. These aspiring cartographers first learn to evaluate a map impersonally and learn the proper etiquette for delivering constructive feedback. After that, they evaluate one another’s maps. This technique is inspirational. Some students are keen with data analysis, others are natural graphic designers. They not only learn techniques, but see a map from a different perspective and use tools that they never thought of before.

 At HSU, students are assigned “random trios” for collaboration. Since there are so many different majors, this leads to amazing and sometimes unexpected cross-pollination.

 “We have GIS, why do we need cartography?”

 Amy Rock at HSU was asked that by somebody important. GIS and cartography are organically interrelated, so to separate them is a fallacy.

 Jim Mecham at the UO has mentored cartographers who now make maps for The New York Times, the National Park Service and National Geographic. They have great design talent, but as he told me, “You can’t make good maps without understanding the underlying data and how to manipulate it.”

 Amy Rock put it more bluntly: “If you can’t make a good map in GIS, you’re in trouble.”

 Few programs delve deeply into design software, and often map requests come on short notice. Shannon White teaches with scenario-based exercises. On Monday, they get an assignment from ‘the boss of the week:’ “I need this by Friday!” Students then have a week to mine and vet data, and make it into a digestible map ready for peer review on Friday.

 Cartography distills data into meaning. Knowing one’s audience is essential. We all know the power of maps to deliver information in ways that other media can’t, but we can also add a lot of noise to the message. The best data doesn’t mean anything if your audience can’t digest it. As E.H. Silayo says “a graphic output should be purposeful and therefore selective[…] ” We’ve all been there. One of our rangers at the NPS made his request clear, in his self-deprecating manner: “I need a map that a cop can understand.”

 The software in most of these courses is ArcGIS, with a migration from Desktop to Pro, which has better cartographic tools. Some programs touch on the Adobe suite, and others use open source like QGIS. Regardless of the software, everyone agrees that teaching the foundational principles of cartography are essential for anyone who uses GIS.

 Joseph Kerski visits many programs every year and offered this perspective: “There are so many other things needing to be taught along WITH cartography, which is actually good. On the positive side, most GIS and geo faculty I know spend SOME time on cartographic principles and design.”

 That’s what YOU said!

 In addition to instruction and peer review, Shannon White has real cartographers speak to her class. They reinforce her message and the messages that students deliver in their peer reviews.

 When we bring students to conferences, they come back both humbled but inspired. “Wow, I just talked to somebody from National Geographic!”

 Students benefit immensely from networking. All of my interviewees discussed the positive feedback loop. With peer review, instructional guidance and, of course, practice, practice practice, their maps improve. When they take their work to conferences and win awards, that shows the university that their efforts are worthwhile, leading hopefully to more funding and enrollment.

 Everyone spoke to the importance of networking, and the support that organizations like The North American Cartographic Information Society, ASPSRS The Imaging and Geospatial Information Society, and local and regional groups offer. In my decades of “conferencing,” I can’t recall anyone turning away a student in a conversation. I advise them, “Be respectful, but don’t be shy. Listen patiently, have some good questions and be confident enough to ask them. If you have enough material, bring a portfolio to the meeting or your interview.”

Maps are never going away.

 Without GIS and data, cartography is art, and without cartography, GIS is data on a map. The two are inextricably intertwined. Even if cartography is not taught as a stand-alone course, everyone agrees that it is a key component in any GIS curriculum.

 I am grateful to have been able to mine the minds of these wonderful educators. All of them have a vision, that of a geographically aware generation. There is so much noise about divisiveness and disparity, but geography, as represented through cartography, will always be a powerful force for facilitating constructive dialogue.

 Well-made maps are instinctive attractions. They inform, and entertain, and inspire. Writers, biologists, archaeologists and even cosmetologists gather around them.

 

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