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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Company Director profile – Paul Cooney

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Just so you know a little bit more about who you’re dealing with at PCGraphics, this is the first of two quick blog entries to give you the low-down on the Directors who run the company. In other words, it’s all about Paul Cooney.
 
We’ll skip discretely over the early history, except to say that Paul was educated (using the term very loosely) at Gunnersbury Grammar in London W4. From this educational highpoint he joined the Mapping and Charting Establishment (MCE) in Feltham, Middlesex, to train as a cartographer. This was way back in 1972. At that time, it seemed, jobs were plenty and MCE took on around 50 trainees every year, with training taking a full year. This was an apprenticeship in manual cartography with computerised mapping  still some way off on the horizon.Looking back at the photo, below, of the trainees and instructors from that year, a couple of points stand out. Firstly, that the photo was in black and white.
Obviously there was colour photography (it’s not that long ago, honest) but perhaps the photographer thought it was a serious subject so black and white was more appropriate? Or, maybe, as it was part of the Civil Service, the cost of colour film was deemed too high?
 
The second observation, on looking at the photo now, is how much hair there was – and I’m talking about the men here. On a personal level, this was a reaction against the years at school where hair wasn’t allowed to reach your collar.
 
MCE(MCE 1972 Training Section)Life at MCE muddled on for several years, as it does in the Civil Service, until it was time to get out and join a commercial company in the real world.First stop was Engineering Surveys Reproduction. Not the catchiest of business names so they were generally just called ESR.ESR was part of a larger group who mainly performed ground surveys (theodolites and all that stuff). This was the first of two stints with ESR, this initial one lasting somewhat less than a year as it turned out to be extremely cliquey and not very pleasant at that time.paul(somewhat more hair in those days compared with today)

Next stop was Clyde Surveys in Maidenhead. Another company who mainly undertook surveying but tacked a drawing office onto the side.

From there we move to Henley on Thames and GEO Projects. This used to be owned and run by David Fryer until they were taken over by a Lebanese businessman and changed into GEO Projects. The majority of the work was based around creating school books and atlases for the Arab market. Nearly all the work therefore was in Arabic, which did give the opportunity of learning the basics (and I do mean the basics) of the language. Alif, ba, ta, tha etc still stay with me today, locked forever in my memory.

Moving on to 1986 and a switch back to ESR in Byfleet again, this time with the more senior job title of Drawing Office Supervisor. Five years in that role until a promotion to Drawing Office manager came along, followed in three years time by a further promotion to Production Manager.

One of the biggest changes during this period was the switch to computer mapping which left many of those who couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt looking for new employment. This was a turbulent time for ESR, with, at one stage, the owners forcing an almost midnight flit to new offices across the road and the survey division biting the dust. You take what you can get out of these situations and it taught some of us how not to run a company.

It was time to leave before everything fell apart and, judging from the condition of the offices we were moved to, this could be taken very literally.

On to Lovell Johns, a competitor of ESR and the role, again, of Production Manager. This seemed like the ideal move. At the same time that ESR was imploding, Lovell Johns was expanding with offices in Oxfordshire and North Wales. As is often the way, when you’re looking forward to something so much, it very often doesn’t live up to expectations. Unfortunately this was the way at Lovell Johns. Sometimes it just doesn’t feel right, you don’t get the right vibes, and it’s better not to let it drag on.

After several months of Business Plans, forecasts, meetings with Bank Managers etc, PCGraphics was set up at the beginning of October 1998. Initially there were three directors – Paul Cooney, Sally Cooney (née Hill) and Darryll Slater. Darryll was employed as Sales Director and quite soon fell by the wayside, leaving the two directors we have today.

Sally deals with the production side of things and still gets her hands dirty, figuratively speaking, drawing maps whilst Paul does the sales and marketing, accounts etc.

24d000e

 (latter day version – more barbershop friendly)

You can talk to either of us about maps, though Sally tends to deal with the existing clients and knows more about the nitty gritty of map production.

PCGraphics have been based in the Isle of Wight since 2010 and we now use a small team of freelancers as this gives us flexibility and keeps costs down, both of which are important to us and our clients.

 

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