Cartography – a dying art?

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Cartography, the art and science of making maps, has been around for many thousands of years. Indeed, the oldest known map is dated at several thousand years BC. So, why would something that has been with us for such a long period of time be dying out and is it actually the case that the art of cartography is dying?

The short answer is no, cartography itself isn’t dying. There are probably more maps available today than at any time previously. Just look on the internet and you’ll find, without much effort at all, Google Maps, Apple Maps, Bing Maps, Yahoo Maps and countless others too, all covering the whole world and all available in various levels of detail. But, and this is perhaps the important part, it’s arguable that even though there’s so much cartography around, the profession of cartographer is becoming extinct.

So, what do we base this assertion on, that the there are less cartographers around these days even though there are maps just about everywhere you look?

One method is easy, just look at the employment figures from the largest map producer in the UK, Ordnance Survey. Over the years their numbers have dropped considerably. From published figures, in 2006 there were 1470 employees (and very few of this number would be cartographers) yet by 2011, only 5 years later, numbers had dropped by about a quarter to 1132, and that number is no doubt considerably lower today.

According to Wikipedia, the roots of Ordnance Survey go back to 1747, when the compilation of a map of the Scottish Highlands was proposed. From there, the Triangulation of Great Britain took place between 1783 and 1853, which gave us the basis of the Ordnance Survey maps we see today. 

Ordnance Survey is still a large organisation by most standards but most of the smaller cartographic companies have reduced in size too. Indeed, many small and medium sized cartographic companies have fallen by the wayside over the past 20 years. Even here at PCGraphics, going back 14 or so years, we used to permanently employ around 15 or more cartographers, whereas these days we operate a very small team and use freelancers when necessary. And all this when the number and variety of maps in the marketplace has risen dramatically.

MCE

(Back in the 1970’s, Mapping and Charting Establishment – MCE(RE) – was perhaps second only to Ordnance Survey in the number of cartographers it employed. This was the intake of new, trainee cartographers in 1972, around 50 of them, which was the usual number of trainees taken on each year at MCE. How many organisations take on that number of cartographers each year these days? None.)

What we have now though are huge databases of maps and satellite imagery (e.g. Google maps and Google Earth) and very few companies producing customised maps.

It would also be easy to argue that, even if cartography itself is not dying, the art of cartography is possibly dying. Why? Computers are certainly a part of it. Few would disagree that 30 years or so ago, when maps were drawn ‘by hand’, that it was an art. In fact, it was also very laborious, painstaking and expensive but it definitely was an art. These days, much of the art has gone out of cartography. Extracting an area from a large database and changing the specification (the colours, line widths etc) is hardly the cutting edge of artistic design.

There still are maps out there which have been artistically designed but, and here’s another part of the reason why they are in decline, they cost an arm and a leg to produce.

Occasionally at PCGraphics we get asked to produce what we term illustrative maps. These are maps that are not strictly cartographic but look more artistic and even, in some cases, hand drawn. These maps can be very pretty to look at, but the fact is that they aren’t always so user friendly and are very expensive to produce. Hence we don’t get asked to produce them very often.

So, there’s still a small number of cartographic companies such as us at PCGraphics out there producing customised mapping. But is what we are creating ‘art’? Possibly not, but it’s still a pretty good profession to be in, and, fortunately for us, there still is a market out there for people and companies who don’t want the same ubiquitous Google map as their competitor.

 

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