What is Cartography? A dummy's guide

March 13, 2019 09:00

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Cartography is both a science and an art form, the International Cartographic Association defines cartography as “the discipline dealing with the conception, production, dissemination and study of maps” but that’s boring and a little technical. Some (I won’t mention them by name) like to refer to cartography as “advanced colouring in”, but in reality maps are so much more.

A Brief History of Map making - From Babylon to GPS

The earliest known maps were artistic expressions rather than positionally accurate representations. The "Babylonian Map of the World" is a clay tablet created in Mesopotamia around 700 to 500 B.C. The map depicts Babylon as the centre of the known world ringed by a circular waterway labelled "Salt-Sea".

The "Babylonian Map of the World" 700 to 500 B.C

During the Roman era, cartographers began to focus on the practical uses of maps for military and administrative purposes but they only took on a more realistic form in the 2nd Century when Greek scholar Claudius Ptolemy used math and geometry to devise a system of latitude and longitude.

World Map by Ptolemy from 150CE (Redrawn in the 15th Century).

During the middle ages, Muslim scholars continued and advanced on the mapmaking traditions of earlier cultures, mostly following Ptolemy’s methods, but big advances in the cartographic science came in 1569 with the publication of Mercator’s first maps.

Gerardus Mercator’s Mercator Map is notable for being the first attempt to make a round earth look “right” on a flat surface. The problem representing a spherical shape on a flat plane is that things tend to get distorted. Lines of latitude and longitude, useful for navigating, become warped on a flat map.

Cartography made a technological leap during World War I with the development of aerial photography, followed by radars and GPS later in the 20th Century and has become an essential tool in modern life. Digital Maps and Web Mapping Technologies, such as Google Maps and GPS navigation, are now commonplace.

Map projections

Unfortunately, we can’t really talk about maps without at least mentioning projections. This is where things can get a little complicated. A map projection is a systematic transformation of the latitudes and longitudes of locations from the surface of a sphere or an ellipsoid into locations on a plane. Confused yet? Basically this is how we display a sphere on a flat pale without distortions.

What constitutes a Map?

We should all be familiar with a map is some shape or other, whether it be an A to Z, OS Landranger or Google Map. But what about the London Tube map? First developed by Harry Beck in 1931 and world famous as being an iconic schematic diagram; but is it truly a map? As many know it isn't geographically accurate but when compared to it more realistic counterpart, it is in fact a very clever way to deliver a lot of information in a clear and concise manner. But is it a map? I’ll leave that decision up to you.

Alternative Cartography - Map making as art

You’ve probably used a map for navigation but how about using a map to change the way you feel? Happy Maps, a series of online maps that use algorithms to sort through geotagged images and calculate the most scenic routes. Another is Chatty Maps, a project that documents what people hear on the streets and considers how soundscapes influence their perception of their environments. Each map is colour-coded, with noises rendered in different hues.

And if you can believe this Smelly maps captures the urban smellscape from social media data.

Smell you later.

Mike Sharp, Technical Lead and Project Manager


Published on March 13, 2019 09:00

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