Geography 970

March 14, 2010

On the Future of the Paid Cartographer

Filed under: Uncategorized — Daniel Huffman @ 5:02 pm

So, an Australian blogger was asking me a few questions about cartography the other day — including a number about where I see cartography fitting into the digital world where “anyone” can make a map and distribute it almost at not cost. In answering her questions, it’s been the first time I’ve had to really engage with some of the big questions that no one can answer: Who will make maps in the future? Will anyone buy static maps? Will the quality of maps decline? etc. Certainly the field is in a degree of chaos, and we’re not sure where everything will settle. And some people, such as myself, are concerned. So, I would like to give my opinion on the question of the future of paid professional cartography, hopefully prompting a little discussion and perhaps sounding a positive note.

My thesis is thus: The changes wrought by digital technology and our very nascent steps toward “democratization” will lead to an increased demand for trained cartographers.

Spatial information is getting to be big business. Google wants to know where you are, as do a number of other companies. More and more people, both corporate and individual, are thinking spatially. They want maps to help them interact with their world — to tell them how to get to the nearest restaurant with an under-$20 menu, to tell them which of their friends are hanging out nearby, to tell them what is going on in the world around them. This demand for spatial services is probably not new; it was very likely just latent until recently — I imagine if we’d had the technology to answer these sorts of questions on demand for a Victorian person, she or he would likewise have been interested.

More people want maps. Frequently custom, on-demand ones. When they can’t get a map of what they want, a lot more of them are making their own using things like Google’s MyMaps. Again, technology is giving more people the opportunity to activate their latent desire to think spatially about their world. As they do so, they begin to understand the power and usefulness of maps beyond a simple “getting from A to B.” There are maps going viral now — such as that one about McDonald’s locations. It’s not the best work of design, but there are a large number of people who wanted to see and think about that spatial data set.

Cartographic literacy is going to keep going up as people interact with spatial data more and more. And demand for maps is going to keep rising, likewise. A lot of that demand will be met on the fly by people working on their own with simple free online tools. But there is going to be a rising need for paid professional work — there are people who just don’t have the time to make their own maps, or who want a top-quality product. Textbook publishers, corporations, etc. These people are going to want to pay for a professional mapmaker, and they’re going to want more maps than they used to, as the public’s interest in spatial thought increases.

Now, the tools available to the nonprofessional will get better (as will cartographic education resources). But tools don’t think for you. A great map is always going to need a creative mind behind it (and, for now, those minds are humans…though once computers start thinking creatively for themselves, what I’ve said above doesn’t really matter anymore). Nonprofessional maps will start looking better over the next few years, but I don’t think they’re going to ever, on the whole, match what is made by someone who devotes his or her life to the craft.

I think there will be a place for people like us in the foreseeable future. Right now it’s a bit bleak-seeming because everyone is so excited at what Google can do. But the pendulum will swing the other way, as people again realize why experts, and the division of labor, exist in the first place: because people who do one thing for a long time will do a better job than you.


1 Comment »

  1. I’d like to agree with you here. Tools definitely don’t think for you, as you say. But the people who make the tools do think. And if these tool-makers engineer them well enough – building in flexibility, error-catching, style guides, etc. – you have to wonder about the need for “expert” tool users. Seems like there’s a shift now – you have to be able to make the tools, as well as use them, if you really want to be considered an expert. What I hope for the future of the paid cartographer is that they (we?) – rather than being shocked, awed and embittered by the latest and “greatest” tools of the trade – get more involved in both the conception, production and design of these tools. I guess that is contingent on the companies designing these tools being open to our involvement though, eh?

    Comment by Tim — March 15, 2010 @ 8:24 am

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