The New Cartographers

Twenty years ago, a driver lost at night would pull his car over, take out a paper map bought at a gas station, and pore over its folds under a dim light. With luck and some critical thinking, he would eventually get where he was going. Today, he’d be more likely to swipe his finger across a smart phone screen and follow directions using Google Maps.

As maps have changed, so have mapmakers. No longer static images, maps have become active interfaces for information exchange, continuously determining where we are in relation to distant satellites and suggesting where we ought to go, says Seth Spielman, a 38-year-old geography professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Today, the global geoservices industry collects, shares, and analyzes data on an unprecedented scale. It’s valued at as much as $270 billion per year and employs 500,000 people in the United States, according to a recent report from Google. The rapid transformation, which Spielman equates with a “renaissance” in the field, has overturned traditional ideas of what a geographer does.

“[F]uture shortages in cartography, photogrammetry, and geodesy seem likely because the number of graduates is too small (tens to hundreds) to give NGA choices or means of meeting sudden demand.” —, a report from the National Research Council

Modern mapmaking

Geographers have traditionally studied how the natural environment contributes to human society and vice versa, whereas cartographers have focused more explicitly on the art and science of mapmaking. Over the past couple of decades, a new field has emerged: geographical information systems (GIS), blending the study and expression of geographic information. Cartography and geography have overlapped and spawned innumerable subspecialties and applications. Modern geographers and cartographers are involved in diverse projects: tracking fleets of vehicles or products, helping customers locate a Dunkin’ Donuts, modeling environmental scenarios such as oil spills, and studying the spread of disease.

Spielman’s career exemplifies the field’s increasingly interdisciplinary nature. When he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1997, he drew maps by hand on sheets of clear acetate and then painstakingly layered and photographed them to create a final product. “I’m pretty sure I was the last generation to do that,” he says. As a graduate student, he worked with the Harlem Children’s Zone to map cases of childhood asthma in Manhattan. Since then, he has applied his skills to ecosystem mapping and criminal justice policy.

A career in demand?

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration made the first systematic estimates of the size and growth of the modern mapping workforce and divided it into 10 distinct occupations, including GIS scientist and technician and various kinds of surveyors and cartographers. All together, the agency found that nearly 425,000 geospatial professionals were employed in the United States in 2010 and predicted that roughly 150,000 additional positions would be created by 2020.

That’s a lot of new jobs—a 35% increase over 10 years—but for job seekers, landing top jobs may require additional skills in geodesy, a branch of applied mathematics that measures the Earth’s gravitational field, and cartography, as well as a familiarity with fields such as human geography and social media. In January, a National Research Council report commissioned by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) searched for specific skill deficits that could emerge over the next decade. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, NGA—one of 16 federal agencies responsible for national intelligence within the Department of Defense—has concentrated its efforts on gathering and interpreting intelligence with a geographical bent. For example, the agency used remote sensing and imagery to map the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad for 2011’s raid.

In its recent analysis, the agency determined that there are more than 2.4 million U.S. citizens capable of working at NGA if they were given substantial on-the-job training. They also found a healthy supply of professionals in GIS, remote sensing, and forecasting. Far fewer people specialize in geodesy, cartography, or photogrammetry, according to the report, making these areas of opportunity for job seekers. “[F]uture shortages in cartography, photogrammetry, and geodesy seem likely because the number of graduates is too small (tens to hundreds) to give NGA choices or means of meeting sudden demand,” the report notes. It also points to skills such as crowdsourcing, human geography, and visual analytics as future requirements for its workforce.

Path to the future

One limitation for aspiring geographers seeking to acquire these skills is the availability of specialized training programs. Although there are now 189 GIS degree programs in the United States and more than 400 community colleges and technical schools that offer training in geospatial technologies, only a few focus on the advanced analysis and creative, thoughtful presentation of geospatial data involved in cartography. No degree programs exist for photogrammetry.

Mapmaking appealed to White as one of the “oldest forms of graphic design,” he says. In addition to working at The New York Times, he is now a geography Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin (UW) Madison. He says he decided to attend the UW Madison program—one of the few in the country that provides advanced training in cartography—“to learn a trade and apply what I already knew.”

For this new generation of mapmakers and also for their teachers, the biggest challenge is that the technology is constantly changing, says Robert Roth, a geography professor at UW Madison. “The carpet is constantly being pulled out from underneath us,” he says. For Roth, the most important thing for students to learn is to think critically and creatively about how to generalize data. “Mapping has always been an abstraction,” he says. In the past, mapmakers used pen and ink to add and remove information meaningfully, he says. Today, “they write automatic algorithms to filter out detail.”

According to the Google report, the mapping business is expected to grow by 30% annually—an encouraging trend for aspiring geographers. However, the new NGA report suggests that competition for top-tier positions—particularly for GIS scientists and technicians, of whom there is a large and growing supply—is likely to remain fierce. Tim Wallace, a geography Ph.D. student also at UW Madison, says that some of his classmates have struggled to find work after they graduated. However, his training as a cartographer paid off: Like White, he scored his “dream job,” producing maps for The New York Times. Both Wallace and White say that success in their field hinges on a person’s ability and willingness to pick up new skills. The key is “not just to be able to acquire a new computer program,” White says, “but to be able to learn it in 3 weeks.”

Human Resources Interviews

Making PhD Programs Transparent