The science and passion behind the modern cartographer

Bradley Walker
New York City 40°42'52" N, 74°00'26” W

Mapping is the science of transforming data into information. That transformation is influenced by the mind and intent of the cartographers who make the maps, with results that range from militaristic, to economic, to artistic.

Jennifer Allen introduces herself as a Geographer. She’s quick to follow that introduction with an explanation that nobody employs Geographers anymore, and that now she manages a team of engineers at HERE. That aside, her love of maps and cartography lives in her work – in which she has an impressive background.

Before joining HERE, she earned degrees in Geography and Geographic Information Science (GIS). She was employed by the Geological Survey Ireland, and later went on to work for Ordnance Survey – an organisation she considers to be deeply important.

“What makes [Ordnance Survey] interesting,” she said, “is they are actually a very old organisation. They’re over 200 years old. The word ‘ordnance’ is a consequence of the fact that they once were part of the British Army. That’s where I got my primary experience as a geographer, working there, and this is an organisation which is frankly, probably the world expert in collecting data and turning it into beautiful maps. Because without a doubt, they do produce things that are quite beautiful.”

Cartography as a funded endeavor

Jennifer explains that maps and the practice of map-making initially received significant funding for two reasons, the first of which is to document boundaries and taxable assets.

With a map, a land owner has a definitive document that shows the boundary of their property, and the livestock or other assets that exist on that property. With that map, land owners or authorities can claim ownership, or tax the people and things within those boundaries.

The second reason maps received funding was their military application. Maps were required when armies needed to move from place to place. Military maps could show lines of transport, or waypoints to help soldiers navigate the landscape. They could also show features of areas where soldiers could hide themselves or equipment. This was of particular concern for Ordnance Survey, as they were founded to map the British landscape in preparation for an invasion by Napoleon.

In both examples above, one can imagine how the intent of the map maker (or the organisation paying the map maker) finds its way into the style, usability, and accuracy of the map.

Accuracy and art

Without question, maps need accuracy. Cartography in the mid 1700’s was refined to a science through the application of triangulation, which is a technique still in use today. However, working with piles of stone and reference points, it took 10 years to collect all the data of Kent (on the Southern coast of England) and transform it into a map.

Early cartographers had to be artists as well as scientists, making design decisions about what parts of the landscape to feature, and how those features should be represented on a map. Once they decided on those features, they had to be used consistently in style, so that map users could easily recognize what they’re looking at – which is one of the first examples of employing consistency in user interface design.

This was done all over the world and, over time, the art and usability of maps evolved into a system that was governed by rules. Those rules became a standard, and this is what brings us to the maps we use today

“You know that if you look at a map of New York, and then you look at a map of Glasgow, and then you look at a map of Delhi,” Jennifer said, “it’s going to be written in the same style. Therefore, you know what you’re getting, and if you encounter any surprises, those surprises are in the context of that consistent style.”

Jennifer continues to pursue her passion for map making by working with the talented engineers that produce HERE Traffic data. Her team helps to create meaningful and timely content that enables drivers and services to make more informed decisions – all from the careful transformation of data into information.

Speaking with her, one realizes how she views maps not just as a diagram of roads and fields, but as a story that the map maker still tells us – all determined by the details that they chose to provide, and the features they found important. This is reflected in the opening lines of a poem she shared, titled “That the Science of Cartography is Limited.”

--and not simply by the fact that this shading of
forest cannot show the fragments of balsam,
the gloom of cypresses,
is what I wish to prove.
(Eavan Boland)

Topics: Cartography, Community Mapping, Editor's Picks, What HERE Does, We Are HERE

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