A cartographer will measure, analyze, and interpret geographic information to create maps and charts for political, cultural and educational purposes. The first maps were manually constructed with brushes and parchment, dating back many centuries. From the 15th to the 17th century, during the Age of Exploration, cartographers used maps that had been passed down for centuries to create new ones based on new surveying techniques and explorers' observations. Of course, the invention of the telescope, sextant and compass enabled increasing accuracy.
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Cartographers spend most of their time using computers while working in offices. They typically do fieldwork to collect and verify data used in creating maps. They also:
Cartographers use information from geodetic surveys and remote sensing systems, including aerial cameras, satellites, and technologies such as light-imaging detection and ranging (LIDAR). LIDAR uses lasers attached to planes and other equipment to digitally map the topography of the Earth. LIDAR is often more accurate than traditional surveying methods and also can be used to collect other forms of data, such as the location and density of forest canopies. Data from LIDAR are used to provide spatial information to specialists in water resource engineering, geology, seismology, forestry, construction, and other fields.
A cartographic professional who creates maps using geographic information system (GIS) technology is known as a geographic information specialist. A GIS is typically used to assemble, integrate, analyze, and display spatial information in a digital format. Maps created with GIS technology link spatial graphic features with non-graphic information. These maps are useful for providing support for decisions involving environmental studies, geology, engineering, land-use planning, and business marketing.
A bachelor’s degree in cartography, geography, geomatics, or a related field is the most common path of entry into this occupation. (Geomatics combines the science, engineering, mathematics, and art of collecting and managing geographically referenced information.) High school students interested in becoming a cartographer should take courses in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, drafting, mechanical drawing, and computer science.
Cartographers usually have a bachelor's degree in cartography, geography, geomatics, surveying, engineering, forestry, computer science, or a physical science. However, some come into this occupation after working as surveying and mapping technicians. With the development of GIS technology, cartographers need more education and stronger technical skills—including more experience with computers—than they did in the past. Cartographers must also be adept at Web-based mapping technologies including newer modes of compiling data that incorporate the positioning capabilities of mobile phones and in-car navigation systems.
Cartographers also work from existing maps, surveys, and other records. To do so, they must be able to determine thematic and positional accuracy of each feature being mapped. Cartographers must make decisions about the accuracy and reliability of the final map. In addition, they must decide what further information they need to meet the client's needs. They must focus on details when including features needed on a final map. They also must be able to identify and resolve issues with the tools available to them.
Cartographers spend much of their time in offices using computers with large monitors, so they can easily study and extract information from aerial photographs and other sources. However, certain jobs require extensive fieldwork to acquire data and verify results. They typically do fieldwork to collect and verify data used in creating maps.
The median annual wage of cartographers was $54,510 in May 2010. The lowest 10% earned less than $33,260, and the top 10% earned more than $92,730.