The future of cartography in the 21st Century

Ian Delaney
London 51° 30' 23.112" N, -0° 7' 37.956" E

How is map-making organised, and its art and science progressed at a global level? Since 1959, the International Cartographic Association (ICACI) has met, discussed and published the work of leading map-makers, cartography and geographical experts.



We talked to the Association’s current president, Georg Gartner from Vienna University of Technology, to find out more.

First of all, what is the Association, and what does it do?

gartner_georg“The association provides a framework for those who deal with cartography, maps and mapping,” says Georg.

“Originally, that was quite a specialised group, of course. But nowadays our membership is likely to count computer scientists, data analysts and others within its numbers. A far wider group of people are involved in map-making, so our membership is more open.”

“We have several instruments that define our areas of concern, notably our commissions, which provide a framework for different areas of interest and research.”



“We provide a scientific journal. And in recent times have been given a seat on the International Council of Science. This is the highest level of authority in science, and while it was a tough challenge to argue our case. It’s good news for cartography that its importance has been recognised in this way.”

And in the world outside academia?

“The Association acts as the ‘go-to’ authority for map-making for governments and international organisations.”

“Part of the association’s mission is to help solve world problems. And the way we do that is by acting as an interface between all the experts in the field, and the organisations that need that expertise.

“For example, when the UN needs an expert map-maker, then they don’t want to have to phone round dozens of universities to try to find someone. Instead, they come to us and we’ll find them the right people for the task in hand.”



“We’re also about increasing competency around the world. For example, we recently organised capacity building workshops in modern cartography in Tonga, Uganda and the Caribbean.”

“We are very proud of our Global Children Map Making Competition, something which has proven to be very successful. Basically, kids get involved in map-making and map-using instantly with this and find it entertaining as well.”

“Also we are running an International Map Year 2015/16 on behalf of the United Nations Global Geospatial Information Management. This means that everybody who deals with maps is asked to participate by simply sharing maps or what is being done with them.

In the twenty-first century, a lot of map-making has become a mechanical process. We drive suitably equipped cars around and feed the results into a computer. Does cartography still exist?

“Yes, it still exists. And it goes to the heart of what maps are.

“Any map is an act of communication. You can compare the ingredients of a map to a spoken sentence. You could feed a dictionary and a set of grammar rules into a computer, but that wouldn’t make it a clear communicator.

“Spoken communication has three parts to it: the semantics – words and their meaning, syntax – the rules for putting them together, and then the pragmatic layer – which is how meaning is arrived at, not just through structure but through context and expression.

“In the same way, a map consists of three ingredients. The data that is captured about the world. The technology that parses that data. And then design expresses that in an act of communication.”

“It might be possible to make a wholly mechanical map, but you wouldn’t find it very usable, because computers don’t know very much about how to prioritise for human needs.”



“Creating a map might be compared to a newspaper front page. There are millions of things that are recorded every day, but it takes trained human editors to select and prioritise them to create a front page that gives a comprehensible digest of the day’s events. That’s just what cartographers do with the objects in the world.”

But is the creation of maps a ‘solved’ problem with all the recent technological advances?

“We’ve become very good at the mechanical aspects of map-making. The data gathering and representing that data using colours and symbols.

“But map-making is fundamentally about effective communication. How to communicate spatial information effectively. That’s something you can always do better at. But it can’t be solved once and for all. Communication can’t be ‘solved’.”



“But in some senses our role is widening as the tools for making maps have become more open and available. Every major publication features maps all the time and has its own map-making tools. My neighbour ‘makes maps’ at the weekend using computer tools, with no formal training in cartography whatsoever. I think this democratisation is great news: more people are interested and active in cartography than at any time in the past.”

“And so our role is often about being involved in the design of those tools. To create an ‘engineered serendipity’ – the invisible walls created by the rules that govern these programs that prevent people from doing something completely wrong.”

How are mobile maps still ripe for improvement?

“The cognitive processes of understanding maps is the subject of very interesting, ongoing research. To give one example: when people used paper maps, they developed a good understanding of the nature of places very quickly – they could find their way around in a general way, having used the map for a short period of time.”

“This is far less true when people use mobile phones. They’ll follow directions and get to their destination. But if they’re asked to find their way back without the map, they’re at a loss. They don’t develop the same sense of place.”



“Understanding how and why that happens, and thinking about ways to mitigate it, remains a key problem for cartography researchers.”

“Mobile maps are ripe for improvement in other ways, as well, because we aim at making the map an efficient interface to all processes which we might want to do with a mobile device, by applying context-dependent personalised location-based map communication processes. This is because everything happens somewhere and the location is a very good identifier therefore. Depicting this location-based context needs to be done by something humans can understand, thus a map.”

About the maps in this post

These maps are selections from the remarkable ICA Commission on Map Design blog, which has been posting a great map for every day of 2014. There are only a few weeks left till they finish the year, of course, but it's already an amazing collection of 300+ interesting and beautiful maps with the stories behind them. Highly recommended.

Topics: Cartography, Features, Fun maps