"Life as a Modern Day Cartographer"

Redefining Cartography for the 21st Century

GISSO Career Fair 2017

Mike Foster · MIT Urban Studies and Planning

Hi! I'm Mike. I make maps.

I am a biker, sailor, and skier... and also
a cartographer, data specialist, geographer,
urban technologist, and educator.

GIS/Data Visualization Specialist and Instructor
MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning

mjfoster@mit.edu | @mjfoster83

Utilize data, maps, and technology to make our cities, and world, a better place to live.

Big Data

Data Visualization


Smart Data

Data Science

Where does Cartography fit into all of this?

Image: The Feltron Report

Redefining Cartography for the 21st Century


"The making and study of maps in all their aspects"

Robinson, et al. "The Elements of Cartography, 6th Ed." 1995

The technologies around making maps are dynamic and changing, but cartography transcends centuries...

Ancient Middle Eastern Property Map, Harvard Libraries Collection, circa 4500 BCE

Ptolemaic World, Schnitzer (1482)

World Map, Mercator (1569)

Cholera Outbreak of 1854, John Snow, 1854

London Underground, Henry Beck, 1933

"Enterprising Cartographer Gave His Name to the Americas"

Magellan sailing the open seas
Jodocus Hondius, 1635

What does Cartography really look like in the 21st century?

"Visualizing Friendships", Paul Butler, 2010

"Spies in the Skies", Peter Aldhous, 2016

"A New Map of America", NYTimes, Joel Kotkin, Clare Trainor, 2016

"Locals vs. Tourists", Eric Fischer, 2010

"Five Years of Drought", John Nelson, 2016

"The L Train Closure", Mamata Akella, 2016

These maps represent our knowledge of the modern world in the same way the maps of old represented knowledge of the world at that time.

These maps - are no less important and relevant than the grand maps of old.

Defining Cartography

Distill stories out of highly complex systems

Identify Patterns Otherwise Hidden in Data

Communicate truths and realities about the world

"Digital Matatus", Sarah Williams/Wenfei Xu (Civic Data Design Lab), 2014

On Large Scales

"The peaks and valleys of Trump and Clinton’s support", Washington Post, 2016

And Small scales

"Platescape Prototyping", Mike Foster, 2017

“Of all aspects of cartography, map design is perhaps the most complex”

- Arthur Robinson

"Beyond the Sea", Andy Woodruff, 2016

Skilled modern Cartographers

...not only have mastered the principles of mapmaking, but also have a firm grasp of their environment, understand the cognitive processes of thought and communication, and familiarity with other mapping sciences, including geodesy, surveying, photogrammetry, remote sensing, and GIS.

"Mapping Segregation", NYTimes (Bloch, Cox, & Giratikanon), 2015

Bottom Line: Cartography is Communication

"Firefly Cartography", John Nelson, 2016

utilizing spatial means and tools

Modern Cartographer

Data Analyst
Story Teller
GIS Specialist
Algorithmic Developer
Database Administrator
UIUX Expert
Subject Matter Expert

Modern cartography constitutes many theoretical and practical foundations of geographic information systems.

I challenge you however, to think outside the GIS

"Trump's America", Tim Wallace (NYTimes), 2016

Learn how to work with and communicate spatial data in meaningful ways... that impact decision making and inform your readers.

"Rebuild by Design", Sarah Williams/Mike Foster (Civic Data Design Lab), 2013

When making a map:

  1. Why are you making the decisions you are making?
  2. What are the precedents for those decisions?
  3. How could the options for display be improved?
  4. Why would the new option be an improvement?

What has been done

"Thematic Mapping", Ken Field, 2016

Why would the new option be an improvement?

"Thematic Mapping", Ken Field, 2016

Construct Clear Hierarchy

"Beyond the Sea", Andy Woodruff, 2016

Simplicity is Important

"Noise Complaints", Karl Sluis, 2012

Exercise your Visual Expertise

"Retinal Visual Variables", Jacques Bertin, 1967

  1. Always be learning
  2. Experiment and create
  3. Create and publish
  4. Get involved

"Ramer-Douglas-Peucker Algorithm", 1973

Cartography Matters

Perhaps more than ever

"Sasquatch Sightings", Joshua Stevens, 2013

We have more data to tell stories from now than ever before

This Data will not change the world unless it is visualized and communicated in a meaningful way.

Thank you


mjfoster@mit.edu | @mjfoster83