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How Mapping Software Has Changed the Face of Cartography Forever

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Cartography just isn't the same as it used to be. In fact the ancient cartographers might have some difficulty in recognizing what we do today as mapping at all. That said, cartographers are no strangers to technological advances. Maps painted onto parchment with brushes in the Babylonian era and the time of the Chinese gave way to increasingly more sophisticated ways to drawing the geographical world, as tools such as the quadrant and vernier made data more reliable.

Optical devices such as the sextant and the telescope soon made measurement even more precise and the printing press allowed us to reproduce and pass on the information we had drawn so that we were all operating from the same sort of data. So the latest advances in mapping software are just another in a long line of changes that expand the possibilities for cartographers. The world those ancient cartographers knew - and even the world of cartographers 30 years ago - has changed forever.

Beyond the Static Map

We will never again go back to the era of flat, static maps. We have moved far beyond this. Just as interactivity has become part of everyday life for many citizens, it's the same for cartography. At the vanguard of this cartographic revolution are geographical information systems (GIS) which bring together the formerly diverse disciplines of database technology, cartography and statistical analysis. This is the end result of the map digitization process that started for some of us in the 1970s.

Data Visualization

Instead of maps just being maps, they are data which we can manipulate. A geographical landmark is no longer just a landmark; it is a data point. Instead of talking mountains and rivers, we are talking pixels and vectors, which can be a big mindset shift for those who have been in the profession for a while. GIS means that a printed map is no longer the sole repository of information about a particular geographical area. Instead all the discrete elements work together to make a richer map of key factors.

What's exciting about this, though, is the wide range of things we can do with map data. Digital topographic maps can be used to help decision makers visualize outcomes and consequences of initiatives in health, environmental management, public safety, financial movement through bank accounts and much more. We can visualize information on moving services and changing installations quickly and make decisions quickly too.

Is Cartography Dead?

Some people argue that the name cartography is outdated and no longer relevant, but we argue that cartography is a handy way to bring together the different elements that are present in disciplines such as engineering, architecture, social science, environmental science, urban planning and more. None of these fields - nor indeed many others - could happen without people who understand map data and know how to analyze it. Where cartographers once had to know how to plot and draw, today they need to know how to analyze so they can have input on some of the planet's big issues: land management, environmental responsibility, risk and disaster management, just to name a few.

In Praise of Flexibility

Cartography has always been a flexible profession and must continue to be so as the nature of what we do continues to evolve. There are big opportunities to use cartographic data via GPS, web technologies and mobile technologies. At the moment, it's difficult to predict how these will develop, such is the rapid pace of change. What is certain is that they will develop and we have to be ready to face and embrace the changes and to take cartography into the next century.