~A guest blog post by GIS student Katie James

I can’t recall just how many maps I have seen throughout my life, but there were many and they weren’t all alike. Some of the first maps I encountered were mental maps most likely starting in the 1st grade. If these weren’t bright illustrations of the United States, they were maps I created that identified where my house was located in relation to others in my neighborhood, and where the best hiding places were.

Our perception of what is important enough to be displayed and what isn’t, is left to the cartographer’s discretion.

But before we get started….

What is cartography anyway?

Cartography, the art and science of graphically representing a geographical area, usually on a flat surface such as a map or chart; it may involve the superimposition of political, cultural, or other nongeographical divisions onto the representation of a geographical area.”

Source:  Encyclopedia Britannic.”Cartography.” Retrieved on October 13, 2013

Essentially, a cartographer has control over how information is displayed. Understanding the role of a cartographer is vital in regards to becoming a discerning map reader. Ranging from projection, purpose, audience, content, colour choice, title, focus, etc. the map-maker has a wide range of artistic arsenal that enables them to create a misleading map. Of course this is not the case for all maps. Due to generalization (information selected for display, based on scale of map, purpose, etc.), even the most honest maps display a representation of the real world, not the real world in its entirety.

A closer look…

The maps below show the same information, however through the use of 3 different projections they appear dissimilar. The maps were used as propaganda during the Cold War to represent the USSR and its allies. As a tool to try to convince citizens to increase military expenditure, the Mercator projection nailed it by making the USSR and allies appear that much larger and stretched because of its high latitudes. Don’t forget the colour choice. Scary right? The encroaching red blob across the world doesn’t look promising. If you were a concerned citizen, what map would you find more intimidating?

Source: Walbert, D. “Projections and Propaganda.” Learn NC: Map skills and higher-order thinking. Retrieved on October 13, 2013

Mercator projection

Mercator projection

Robinson projection

Robinson projection

Peters projection

Peters projection

My goal is not to scare or cause distrust in maps; rather to generate a better understanding of map creation and display as a whole. Maps are a great resource for many purposes, and can represent information better than other forms of data collection and analysis. Bottom line, the next time you read a map, be conscious of what its purpose is intended for, and better yet who created it.

For your viewing pleasure!

“A good map is both a useful tool and a magic carpet to far away places”

(Anon)