The word “cartographer” brings to mind an old, bearded man working diligently by candlelight with a scroll, compass and pen made from a feather to create maps of the New World. Modern cartographers are anything but old and dated -- they do seriously cool work with top-secret data that keeps your car or phone GPS and map app running smoothly. Without them, getting around in this busy, crowded world is ridiculously challenging. But the modern day cartographer plays many essential roles that help us navigate our world.
Data Accuracy and Manipulation
Cartographer or map super spy? Many modern cartographers pull data from a variety of public and private sources, such as local governments and large corporations -- some of it shockingly top secret. Street-view pictures and video, satellite imagery, and database information from private utilities are only some of the data cartographers gather. Why on earth would they need data? Well, cartographers want to create the most accurate maps possible, so they gather as much information as possible and transfer it into magical map-creating software databases known as geographical information systems. They verify the data to make sure the maps created are accurate and won’t guide you down the wrong road.
Map Creation and Updating
While some cartographers still create maps on paper, many are computer nerds who use complex software programs and GIS data to create detailed and sometimes interactive maps. The coolest part about this? Data is exchanged between mapmakers, so modern maps are more accurate than their hand-drawn counterparts because the available data is more accurate. Cartographers also update existing maps with new or improved data and, because the process is computer-driven, can make changes quickly. If a road washes out during monsoon season, it can be reflected in a digital map in minutes; seeing this change in a printed map could take months. Cartographers consider themselves guardians of accurate and up-to-date map information.
Many cartographers work as sly map superheroes, looking at existing maps and satellite imagery side by side. This is done on a computer program that overlays the satellite image with an existing map. If there is an inconsistency, such as a misplaced road or point of interest, the cartographer can quickly identify and fix it. For local governments, this process often repairs mis-marked property borders and land boundaries. Cartographers ensure that large real-time map data often seen on website such as Google Maps and MapQuest is precise. Because these sites are used to give you directions via your GPS or mobile app, it is essential that the maps themselves be clear and accurate so you don’t drive into a lake that was misrepresented as a road.
Cartographers are often in the background, but they serve an essential need -- and future generations of these map-creating wizards have to be trained in the science and art of mapmaking. Current cartographers often instruct novice mapmakers at the university or trade school level in how to create maps manually and digitally using GIS data. Several things make an effective cartography instructor: solid geography knowledge, real-world experience creating maps both traditionally and digitally, and a master level with GIS data. With these capabilities, instructors give their students the best foundation to go out and save the world via good maps.
Based in the Pacific Northwest, Arin Bodden started writing professionally in 2003. Her writing has been featured in "Northwest Boulevard" and "Mermaids." She received the Huston Medal in English in 2005. Bodden has a Master of Arts in English from Eastern Washington University. She currently teaches English composition and technical writing at the university level.