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Modern GIS: Mapping & Cartography

04-05-2024 08:49 AM
Esri Regular Contributor
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Modern GIS: Mapping & Cartography

This is the 2nd blog in a 6-part series highlighting the core concepts of a Modern GIS.

The first post can be found here: Modern GIS

Over the past few years, Esri’s Education team have been discussing the technology shift and the need for GIS coursework to move from desktop-centric patterns to those that include the web. Desktop GIS is still an integral part of the story – but it is no longer the focus of the story. Desktop GIS is vital for data management, advanced analysis, and cartographic production – but many of those workflows are now part of a web-based context. Desktop tools can now seamlessly consume web-based services published by authoritative geospatial agencies and individuals across the globe. Desktop GIS can publish map services and layers to the cloud – to be consumed by web-based applications and tools, and desktop GIS can edit and manage web-based data and layers.

Through this series, we are asking: So, what does a course look like that focuses on the fundamentals of GIS but adjusts to a more web-centric paradigm?

In this blog, we will be looking at mapping & cartography.

Mapping & Cartography

What is a map? What do students need to know when they create one? Have the required skills and knowledge changed with the advent of ‘web-based GIS’? Or not?

Maps have been created for thousands of years and the art & science of HOW to make maps has been passed on or taught for just as long.


Source: Imago Mundi, Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

It might seem basic, but before we can understand whether or not mapping and cartography has changed, it makes sense to start with some understanding about what cartography is.

“It’s (cartography) about communicating spatial phenomena in a way that resonates with people and helps them better understand” – Edie Punt

“It’s the visual communication of a geographic phenomenon… mix of geography (which is already awesome), with art (which is already awesome), awesome + awesome = cartography” – John Nelson

“Everything about making a map is a compromise… a cartographer must make decisions about what to put on and take off… maps are an opportunity to tell your audience something interesting, to communicate a story” – Ken Field

Cartography is about the decisions required to best represent spatial information. So, has the advent of web GIS changed cartography at all?

In an overly simplified way – no. Maps are a visual medium to communicate information. Even though maps can now be created and shared with mobile phones and via web applications, the fundamentals remain the same. Yet, those making maps in ancient China and Alexandria didn’t need to contend with mobile optimization, feature layers, or screen readers. While the science and the art of cartography has evolved, the technology has changed dramatically.

Ken Field probably put it the most succinctly: Concepts remain. Technology changes.

More Options!

In the first phase of the Cartographic Process, the author needs to understand the purpose of the map they are about to craft. With the advent of mobile and web-based maps, there are more options than ever before with how maps can be designed and delivered. With all of the options, it’s critical that anyone creating a map knows what options are available and what those options are best suited for.

One of the most powerful changes that has transpired over the last few years, has been watching the ‘barriers’ to mapping come down. Primary students can mash up layers of data with basemaps and build their own creations in a matter of minutes. ALS patients are building web applications with eye-gaze technology. Farmers are building mobile maps to monitor pests in Napa’s wine country. Anyone with access to a computer can search for authoritative data, analyze data, modify symbology, and present a story. Maps can literally be created in a minute. But it’s not all ‘maps in a minute’, desktop GIS is still one of the most important tools for the modern cartographer. There are still many things that cannot be accomplished in a web browser yet (high-resolution, annotations, layouts, projection options, highly customized labels, etc.). While desktop GIS is not ‘dead’ by any means, desktop GIS is not the only place where cartography can occur.

The form should fit the function. The technology and tools by the author should be based on the purpose of the map. Critically – all of these tools are also inter-connected. A map created for print production in desktop GIS can utilize services and data from Esri’s Living Atlas or other hosted data services and layers.

  • Is the intention for the map as an inset in a magazine? Desktop GIS.
  • Does the map need to be interactive? Web GIS.
  • Is the map intended for the general public to collect field data? Mobile GIS.

While options are great… students need to understand WHY they are doing what they are.

It Comes Back to the Fundamentals

As everyone knows, it’s easy to create an ugly map. It’s something else to create a work of art that communicates information in a clear and concise way.

With the ‘democratization’ of mapping, the importance of cartographic principles and fundamentals has never been more obvious. Educators need to ensure that students have the tools and knowledge to assess and understand the barrage of maps and spatial representations that they are presented with on a daily basis. When it’s so easy to create maps – the ability to build them with a critical eye is crucial.

Ken Field offers a fantastic list of points for educators and students to bear in mind as they create maps in any context:

  • Make a meaningful decision about every mark on the map
  • Don't rely on defaults
  • Learn how to make the map you want - not the map the software encourages you to accept
  • Learn to give and accept critique

While the tools have gotten easier to use and the default symbology is easier to look at – this only reinforces the need for more time spent on answering the ‘why’. Students need to understand the ‘purpose’ of their map and have the knowledge and ability to tell THEIR story with the technology and tools.

In Summary

GIS has changed a lot in the past few years but the core tenets of what constitutes a good map have not, be it print or web based. What has changed, is the wealth of platforms and technologies that are available to students learning cartography. Students need to be exposed to these tools, feel comfortable working with them, and understand when to use them.


We compiled a list of resources and material for this school year and beyond. This list is by no means exhaustive – but attempts to provide a starting place that any educator can use.

Esri Academy





About the Author
Brian works as a Lead Engineer at Esri to support customers in Education. Brian has worked as a lecturer in GIS, supported non-profits through his community planning work, and honestly just loves working with users to help solve their geospatial quandaries!