The International Cartographic Association defines cartography as the discipline dealing with the conception, production, dissemination and study of maps. Cartography is also about representation – the map. This means that cartography is the whole process of mapping.
Cartography is a complex, an ever-changing field, but at the center of it is the map-making process. Viewed in the broadest sense, this process includes everything from the gathering, evaluation and processing of source data, through the intellectual and graphical design of the map, to the drawing and reproduction of the final document. As such, it is a unique mixture of science, art and technology and calls for a variety of in-depth knowledge and skills on the part of the cartographer. Sometimes one person directs this entire sequence of cartographic activities, but this occurs only in relatively simple cases. In the creation of a map, it is much more common for the various tasks to be split up and accomplished by several individuals.
Cartography is much more than just map-making, however. It is also an academic discipline in its own right. It has its own professional associations (regional, national and international), journals, conferences, educational programs and its own identity. As a discipline, it embraces not only cartographers who make maps, but also cartographers who teach about maps and cartographers who do research on maps. Once seen as the products of a relatively straightforward practical exercise, maps are now viewed as complex intellectual images offering a rich potential for scientific investigation. Whether the thrust of the research is cognitive, mathematical, historical, perceptual or technological, cartographers are exploiting this potential to the fullest.
Cartography today has two essential characteristics. First of all, it is important. Maps perform a fundamental and indispensable role as one of the underpinnings of civilization. Few activities relating to the earth’s surface, whether land use planning, property ownership, weather forecasting, road construction, locational analysis, emergency response, forest management, mineral prospecting, navigation–the list is endless–would be practicable without maps. And never has this role been more vital than it is today. Humanity faces severe problems, many of them environmental in nature, and effective mapping is crucial if solutions are to be found. In conjunction with the great data gathering capabilities and analytical power of remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS), cartography, in many instances, provides the key to finding solutions.
A second, overriding characteristic of cartography today is its dynamic nature. The cartographic discipline is in the throes of a revolution, brought about in large measure by advances in technology and, in particular, by the impact of the computer. Map-making has always been affected by technological change, but the recent transformation of cartography has been unprecedented in scope compared with previous evolutionary changes. While former pen and ink techniques for map-making are still found in isolated use, today’s cartographer is more likely to be found seated at a terminal using the very latest in computer hardware and graphic software. In most cases, without any loss in image quality, maps are generated faster with less cost than before, not to mention with even more enjoyment for the map-maker! In essence, the computer equips the cartographer with unparalleled control over the mapping process.