What Is Cartography?

Cartography is the art and science of making maps. In humankind’s quest to understand the world in which he lives in, the practice of drawing maps emerged in what is considered as one of the oldest careers around the world. Mapmakers of the past like Ptolomy, Captain James Cook and George Washington who was not only the first President of the United States of America but was also a cartographer, have done their share in helping people see how the world looks like even if they had not yet traveled it from end-to-end. Even before them, ancient cultures have already etched pictures in stone in what are considered as their primitive versions of maps.

In olden times, cartographers had very little information to go on when it came to the maps they would make. Thus, it’s not unusual that limited information accompanied the drawings of ancient charts. Nowadays, mapmaking has become quite accurate. This is due to the advances in computer technology which have made it possible to pinpoint the location of a place without even physically going to that place. Thanks to global positioning systems (GPS) and light imaging detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology, maps of the earth or of different places of the earth are now easier to make. They have also become more accurate because remote sensing and aerial photography, among other technologies, have made coastlines, buildings, roads and topography clearer. As a result, the maps of today are now quite full of additional data that the reader will appreciate.

Cartography basically produces two types of information in the maps that are created. These are location data and attributional data. As its name suggests, location data refers to where a place is found on the map. These are usually indicated in modern maps through the use of geographical coordinates. Attributional data, on the other hand, refers to the geographical features like mountains and bodies of water that can be found near or around a particular area.

Cartographers can make topographical maps or topological maps. Topographical maps are maps that are detailed and accurate. It includes the cultural and natural features of the ground, including elevations and other geographical aspects. Topological maps, on the other hand, are simplified maps that only contain necessary information about a particular area or jurisdiction. Examples include street maps, train maps and similar maps.

Moreover, cartographers can also focus on general cartography or thematic cartography. General cartography refers to maps that are intended for general audiences and as such, are loaded with various features. Thematic cartography refers to making maps that have certain themes and are of interest only to a particular segment of map readers. Thematic maps can reflect data about food production or the counties of a certain state, for example.

Mapmaking requires not only strong illustration and math skills but an updated knowledge of current events. Wars, volcanic eruptions and political upheavals can alter boundaries and because of these events, maps have to be constantly updated. Cartographers must also have knowledge of science and geography to be able to form accurate maps.

It is interesting to note that some cartographers deliberately put errors in their maps, such as non-existent places or misspellings in the names. They do this so they can determine if competitors have copied their maps. Through this strategy, they are able to get proof of copyright infringement against those who have plagiarized their cartographic work.

Career Spotlight: Cartographer

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