A Collaborative Cartographic Age

October 23, 2012

I recently attended the annual conference for the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) down in Portland, Oregon. NACIS is a geographic community focused on the creation of maps, their beauty, and their influence on the greater informed world. The three days of meetings and discussion led to some high-quality, genuine connections that humbled my existence as a cartographer and curator of digital information.

People from around the globe partook in the conversation; the likes of Tom Patterson, the creators and workers of Mapbox, folks from ESRI, awesome dudes from Stamen, high-end users of other cartographic libraries, fellows from Code for America, professors and students from schools all over, and professionals everywhere in between. It was a casual hodgepodge of the big leagues and the farm teams all coming together under one roof: maps.

NACIS was founded on the principles of strong cartographic design, and continues to explore and feed the ever increasing world of beautiful maps. Of course with progress comes innovation, which can lead to competing philosophy and ideals - but more importantly, different ways of defining cartography. There’s an obvious divide in the cartographic world found between the traditional cartographers (those strongly forged in aesthetic design of traditional maps on paper) and the new-age, digital conductors (those coding the web and applications for mass communication of spatial information). Traditional cartography is something that many new, code-head youngsters haven’t been trained in - but they are finding ways of making maps and using many different computer languages to explore spatial interactions and relationships.

I’ve found myself straddling this divide, and would like to fully applaud NACIS for taking some major steps in building bridges between two entirely different minds. A computer scientist is a finder-of-solutions for seemingly simple things, through complex languages and mathematical concepts. A traditional cartographic designer is a communicator of information through holistic design. With an ever-increasing computer-based society, we find ourselves with incredible amounts of data that require complex mathematics and solutions in order to understand and be graphically represented. Both cartographic ideals are finding themselves playing key roles in this process. Without coders, the information isn’t accessible through digital means. Without the cartographers, the information accessed isn’t represented correctly and aesthetically according to spatial theory.

Of course this process doesn’t run smoothly all the time. It brings me back to my previous post about the “Cartographer’s Dilemma” and how this day and age requires a cartographer to understand concepts from so many different studies. Cartography is a specific node at the intersection of a diverse web, which becomes a burden for our work and understanding of spatial information. This idea is what creates the rift between the new and the old. It’s frustrating not knowing a step in the process, because all work previously completed can be for not. My post ended abruptly, in a state of confused hope; that I’ll either find a part in the process to understand fully, or cope with only knowing the necessary steps that help me complete a project.

After NACIS last week, I’ve found my answer. In a cartographic world of confusion and strife understanding, NACIS found a medium in which all ideas can exist. They brought (and continue to bring) together cartographers with diverse backgrounds and understandings of spatial literature under one common understanding: that we all strive to understand our world and the data it provides. It doesn’t matter how you do it, it matters that you do it. There in itself is reason to listen to every single talk at NACIS. Albeit it was impossible considering how many there were, there was something of interest for everybody. Sure there’s confusion and disagreement, but I do believe there is a mutual respect between cartographers, new and old. This respect is leading to collaboration. Collaboration between people who, until recently, were moving down different paths and careers, not knowing much about the other. With an understanding of how these intersecting interests can aid the other is producing some of the most beautiful and inspirational work the cartographic world has seen.

It’s this collaborative effort that allows cartography to safely explore the countless number of underlying philosophies and concepts it is built upon. An effort that fills me with pure excitement – empowers me to continue learning the masses of information in hopes that I can work with others to produce the one thing we all love: maps.

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