Thursday, September 24, 2009

Putting Cartography back on the map

Earlier in the summer I was asked to talk at The British Cartographic Society meeting about cross-border data issues. I ended up using the first five minutes to have a bit of a rant concerning how the society viewed cartography and their plan to try and reinvigorate the discipline. Afterwards I was asked to write a piece for their magazine - Maplines. That piece was published a few weeks ago apparently, but they've not bothered to send me a copy and it's not accessible online. Below is how I think the discipline of cartography should proceed if it once again wants to become a leading-edge science.

At the Annual Symposium in June 2009, Bob Lilley the President of The British Cartographic Society (BCS) gave an overview of the review process the society had taken in light of the slow decline in membership and the increasing marginalisation of cartography as a source of knowledge. The paradox confronting BCS is that in an age of pervasive geospatial information and intelligence and rapid advances in geocomputational techniques and geotechnologies (e.g., GIS, Sat-Nav, LBS, GPS, remote sensing, Web 2.0 applications), cartography seems to be becoming somewhat of a peripheral art and science. Put simply, the new generation of map-makers are often bypassing cartography in favour of tacit knowledge, intuition, and principles drawn from graphic design and information visualization. One of the prime solutions advocated to address these issues was for the BCS, and the cartographic community in general, to reassert the role of cartography as the key provider of geovisual knowledge.

To reverse the fortunes of the BCS, I suggest, one needs to do much more than aggressively and unapologetically reassert cartography as the science of representing the spatial dimensions of the Earth. Instead it is my belief that cartographers need to engage in a reflexive process of thinking through how cartography is philosophically constituted and start a process of re-imagining the theoretical underpinnings of cartography. This rethinking needs to be nothing less than a root and branch review that questions and reconfigures the foundational knowledges of cartography rather than merely tinkering around the edges of established ways of knowing and doing. Such a philosophical engagement is important because how we comprehend cartography shapes how we practice it. That is, the ontological underpinnings of cartography shape its epistemology – the kinds of questions we ask and how we ask them.

Most practicing cartographers understand cartography to be a representational science underpinned by a conventional scientific ontology wherein the world can be objectively and truthfully mapped using scientific techniques that capture and display spatial information. In contrast to sciences such as physics or biology that focus predominately on understanding the world, cartography has become a science of measurement and representation (a science focused on the production of scientific knowledge). The job of cartographers is to effectively and truthfully represent and communicate spatial relations, not to employ the map to interpret the world – that is left to those that use maps. This disjuncture between measurement and the work of the map means that the epistemology of cartography has come to focus on technical questions of mapmaking rather mapping per se or understanding spatial relations more broadly. As a result, a great deal of work has been undertaken to produce rules and standards regarding how spatial information is displayed. This is reflected in the cartographic journals where the vast majority of articles concern the production of maps rather than how maps do work in the world in diverse ways or interpreting what the maps reveal.

In short, as Jeremy Crampton (2003) and Dodge and Kitchin (2007) argue, cartography has become ontical in nature; that is, its foundational underpinnings are fixed and unquestioningly accepted and it evolves through technical rather than philosophical advances. Cartography in these terms develops by asking self-referential, methodological questions that aim to refine and improve how maps are designed and communicate rather than by critically examining the ontological assumptions of what a map is and how it undertakes work in the world. The consequence is that cartography, with the exception of critical cartography, has become intellectually moribund vis-à-vis the rest of the sciences (and it is fair to say that critical cartography is understood and practiced by a very small number of mostly academics and constitutes a marginal set of ideas within the broader cartographic community). Indeed it is telling that the recent BCS symposium did not have a single paper or session devoted to map theory or philosophy.

For cartography to reassert itself as a key discipline in the geospatial age, it is my contention that it needs to do so as a fertile source of ideas rather a storehouse of techniques. That means re-engaging in philosophical debates occurring across the sciences with respect to ontology and epistemology. As Dodge et al. (2009) detail, maps can be conceptualised in a number of ways not simply as representational truths – maps as constructions, inscriptions, proscriptions, actants, performances, practices, and many others. My suspicion is that for those working in GIS, and in particular LBS and Web 2.0 applications, maps are conceived of largely in these ways. They are much more interested in the work a map does and whether it succeeded in its intended aims of helping the person using it to achieve their objective than whether the map conforms to precise scientific standards or how it looks. The map is understood as a form of knowledge that unfolds in practice and actively does work in the world, not as a representational truth.

It is not until cartographers start to think of maps in these ways and to re-think the epistemology of their research and practice that it will become intellectually exciting and stimulating for the new generation of mappers. What that means in practice is an intellectual shift from map-making and how maps communicate information to a much broader notion of cartography that embraces how maps are engaged with and used in practice, often as a means to an end. In this sense the BCS should, at the very least, change its tagline from ‘The Art and Science of Mapmaking’ to ‘The Art and Science of Mapping’. Cartography is much more than making maps. I know that many will argue that cartography is interested in map use, but the point I am trying to make is that this is in a quite different and narrow sense to that expressed in a post-representational approach that conceives of maps in a radically different way (as having no ontological security, brought into being through practices, and being transitory, contingent, and relational in nature, see Dodge and Kitchin 2007).

A strategy that seeks to reassert cartography as a means to tame new mappers and new geotechnologies – to rein them in to follow established rules and standards – seems to me to be doomed to failure. Old traditions that try to discipline and constrain youthful enterprise will always be fighting a losing battle. Instead old traditions are best advised to engage with new ideas and ways of doing things and to find ways to adapt so that they remain relevant and re-establish themselves as a core set of ideas and knowledges. For me, this necessitates a rethinking and re-envisioning of cartography; fresh ways of re-imagining the foundational underpinnings of the discipline that draws it out of its moribund state and makes it an intellectually stimulating for cartographers and puts it on the map for others. Such a rethinking will not be an easy task but it will help cartography evolve and reassert its position as a key geoscience.

Crampton, J. (2003) The Political Mapping of Cyberspace. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Dodge, M., Kitchin, R. and Perkins, C. (Eds) (2009) Rethinking Maps: New Frontiers in Cartographic Theory. Routledge, London
Kitchin, R. and Dodge, M. (2007) Rethinking maps. Progress in Human Geography 31(3): 331-344


Martin Edwards said...

Interested in your post, and discovering your blog, as I have always loved maps, though I don't have any expertise. I've added a link to my blogroll.

Rob Kitchin said...

Thanks, Martin. I usually post on crime fiction, buy throw in an academic post usually once a week. I think I'm from roughly your neck of the woods. I grew up on the Wirral.

Jeremy Crampton said...

Be interested to hear what the BCS membership makes of your piece. I've found that institutions are quite willing to have a token gesture toward critique so that they can justify themselves, and then get on as normal!

Rob Kitchin said...

Jeremy, I'm sure they will completely ignore me, but then the vast majority of people producing maps will completely ignore them too!

Tia Lobo said...

"They are much more interested in the work a map does and whether it succeeded in its intended aims of helping the person using it to achieve their objective than whether the map conforms to precise scientific standards or how it looks."

Spot-on, Rob! I've been working on understanding why Google Maps is adopted by neogeographers rather than basemaps with "better" cartography. One obvious reason is ease of use of Google's API (i.e., how easy it is to make the make function). The other obvious reason has to do with licensing and access.