Your Cart is Empty

What does a cartographer do?

December 09, 2020 5 min read

What does a cartographer do?


 Subscribe here



A cartographer is responsible for all aspects of map-making. This includes the scientific, technological, and artistic areas. The world map we are all familiar with? That was a cartographer. The map of Middle Earth? I bet Tolkien had some help from a cartographer to create it! 


It’s important to understand that cartography is not the art and science of visualizing a geographic location in the most realistic way possible but it is the art and science of visualizing geographic features at various levels of abstraction. 

Cartographers can work in various fields such as government, military, publishing, and surveying. Within each of these areas, there is a decent pay grade with the opportunity to progress to senior roles where you would have the chance to manage and liaise with departments and independent clients. 


There is a saying that everything happens somewhere and at some time. Notice the “somewhere” this means that there is a spatial component to everything! Which means that everything can be mapped. 

Cartography is a skill that has been around for centuries, from mapping the world as we voyaged across the seas to mapping out new housing developments in suburban areas. The finished goal is the complete map we see before us, but how do they get to that? Let’s dive in and take a closer look at whatpreciselya cartographer is doing. 




A cartographer is responsible for a range of things to get to the end goal of those maps. Some of these are: 


  • Researching, collecting, storing, retrieving, evaluating, and manipulating data
  • Designing maps
  • Checking the accuracy of maps 
  • Liaising with information providers, clients, and external contacts 
  • Accessing and using aerial photographs and satellite images 


Let's take a closer look at some of these responsibilities. 


Research is an integral part of a cartographer’s job as they will need to collect detailed information about the area they are going to map. If we think of this in terms of mapping a town, they will need to know the city’s geographical size, the roads, rivers, hills, or mountains, and where these are in relation to one another. Everything down to the street names and their length will need to be researched and stored securely. 


Manipulating this data and placing it into a map context is possibly the trickiest but more exciting part of a cartographer's work. Think about the detailed maps you may have seen, how intricate they are, and how much work a cartographer must have put into those. Now think about how confusing the road maps we printed out in the 90s were. A cartographer needs to strike a balance between a detailed and easy map for those traveling, which is also attractive and straightforward to read. This brings us back to the idea of abstraction, we can’t show everything on a map so we need to be very clear about who is it for and what is it for.


Checking the accuracy of a map may sound like a dull and tedious task, but this can involve a whole host of exciting activities! The accuracy will extend beyond spelling and grammar to make sure the size conversion is accurate. You can’t have any errors when people use your maps as their guides. This might sometimes be referred to as ground-truthing, finding out if the features on the map actually existing the real world. You could also argue that this accuracy checking should be a part of the data collection process.

When it comes to creating maps, a cartographer will need to make sure they are up to date. Think of road maps; imagine if a cartographer forgot to add a new bridge, or that a road had now been demolished? There would be riots in the streets! 


A lot has changed since we first began drawing maps, the advancement of technology being one of them. This has changed how a cartographer works. Gone are the days of scribing, tracing, and letter map-making, now remote sensing, computerized mapping, and Geographical Information systems (GIS) packages have taken their place! 


Aerial photography and satellite imagery have also changed how a cartographer now works. Satellite imagery has provided a more scalable method of mapping buildings, roads, and rivers, 


Data is collected, stored, and transferred these days electronically these days, making access to the information much easier than before. Electronic data collection allows cartographers to collaborate globally in a way that was never possible before. It will also enable cartographers to conduct their research without leaving their homes if they wish. 


The storing of data in this manner makes it easier for cartographers to liaise with clients and providers. This part of a cartographers’ role is crucial to ensure the maps they are designing and creating are correct. 


The ability to make and distribute maps is becoming more and more democratized and if you are an aspiring cartographer you could be forgiven for thinking that cartography is no longer a variable career path.


There has never been a time where we have had so much access to data than right now and that an overwhelming amount of data has a spatial component. We also live in “where the one size fits all” simply is not good enough anymore. All this to say that we have massive amounts of data that can be mapped, and a huge audience of people that need to understand the data in a way that they can relate to. 


Cartography is not dead!

How can I be a cartographer? 

Let's take a look at some of the skills you need to be a cartographer before we get into the how: 

  • An interest in the work 
  • Fantastic attention to detail and an understanding of design
  • IT skills - the ability to use different software products not necessarily just traditional GIS tools. 
  • The ability to work as part of a team 
  • High standards of accuracy and problem-solving skills 
  • The ability to work independently 
  • Great data interpretation manipulation skills
  • An online portfolio of your work


It’s a role that graduates from a range of subjects can enter into now, such as geology, earth sciences, civil engineering, computer science, geography, and data science to name a few! 


There’s an advantage if you hold a postgraduate qualification in GIS, cartography, surveying, graphic design, remote sensing, or data visualization as these qualifications will have taught excellent transferable skills. 


If you don’t have those relevant qualifications, don’t panic! You can gain you can learn them online!


Final word: 

Before you leave today, let’s look at what a cartographer does. A cartographer creates maps and visualizes geographic data. It's a complex role that involves a range of responsibilities, from research, data manipulation, and an understanding of design and communication - who is it for, what is it for.


A cartographer can work in a range of fields, whether working with the military or helping to map out new housing developments; cartography is a vast and exciting area to work in. 


Cartographers need to be disciplined to work independently or as part of a team, with a keen eye for details and working with new technologies. Who knows, could this be your next career change? 



Also in Geo Candy

You need a GIS portfolio
You need a GIS portfolio

December 14, 2020 3 min read

A GIS portfolio is basically a compilation of materials that documents your work, skill and experience. A personal website that documents your professional journey
Read More
How To Plot Latitude And Longitude on a map
How To Plot Latitude And Longitude

December 09, 2020 5 min read

What Are Longitude And Latitude? In a nutshell? They are the joint axis on any map that, when combined, will provide the exact coordinates of anywhere in the world. It’s a simple answer to a much broader question,

Read More
does GPS work without data
Does GPS Work Without Data

December 09, 2020 5 min read

GPS is a Global Positioning System, which is a navigation system that uses satellites, a receiver, and algorithms to synchronize location, velocity, and time data.
Read More