Let’s Get Philosophical

Do you think that GIS professionals are woefully under-educated in the realm of projections and scale? And if so, do you believe this has important implications to cartography? During a discussion about this on Twitter recently it came to light that we need to distinguish between GIS users and GIS professionals. GIS users – those who, for example, use Google Earth to plot their vacation spots – may not know about projection and scale.

When we speak about GIS professionals though, we need to expect that our colleagues are educated, well informed, individuals who have this basic knowledge under their belts either through their schooling or their own personal education on the job. Anything less is to be negative to a point of downgrading our entire profession as a bunch of idiots who don’t know the basics of our field. Let’s not be that way. Let’s assume that others are just as well-informed as we are, okay? Let’s not go around smacking others with our elitism.

At any rate, how much does scale and projection have to do with cartography? If we are talking about cartographic design then these matter very little. If we are talking about cartographic truth then these could have a fundamental impact on the end-result of a map making effort. Today when I was talking with the personnel at the Geospatial Centroid at Colorado State University, my own feelings were mirrored when I was told that the problem in map design is not the lack of fundamental understanding of projections and scale.

The major problem is that very intelligent analysts, scientists, programmers, are producing data and then trying to communicate their data via very badly designed maps. It isn’t that they misrepresent information on their maps. No, it is these problems that are most at the forefront:

  • Too much clutter
  • Lack of organization
  • Poor color choice
  • Attributes that should pop are in the background and attributes that should be subdued are in the foreground
  • Labels incorrectly placed or not placed with enough care
  • Lack of a central focus

These are the things I am most interested in teaching. These are design aspects that many GIS professionals are lacking and which, when learned, can enable our map products to take on that level of design excellence that leads to vastly improved communication.

  1. #1 by Roger Diercks on August 22, 2010 - 11:09 pm

    I make no bones about the fact that cartography/design is probably my biggest struggle as a GIS pro.

    I pin the blame on several factors. Cartography was not emphasized heavily in my formal education, not as a geography major, and not in the GIS classes I took after finishing my degrees when I decided that GIS was the occupational direction I wanted to take. It doesn’t help that I produce relatively few actual maps in my job, nor does my own personal complacency in trying to hone my skills do me an good. I certainly bear much of the blame in that regard and am realizing that I need to make it more of a priority.

    I’m glad to hear from several contacts in education that cartography is emphasized much more than when I was in school. Although the technology of the mid-to-late 1990s was of course worlds different from that of today, it still amazes me that I was able to leave school with such little formal cartographic training, or at the very least a clear message of its importance.

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