What’s it Like to be a Cartographer?

Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself.

My name is Brooke Harding, and I am a cartographer for the United States Agency for International Development in Washington, D.C. I am also a board member for the North American Cartographic Information Society, an enjoyable group of map lovers. Outside of my job, I love traveling the world, playing sports with my friends and listening to music.

What is cartography?

Cartography is the art and science of mapmaking. As science and technology have changed over time, so has cartography. The earliest cartographers were explorers who used mathematics to calculate distances. They used paint brushes on parchment to draw their maps. Today’s cartographers still use many of the same calculations, but they have the systems and technology to do almost everything on the computer.

Why is cartography important?

Cartography allows people to visually understand geographic information and easily get to know the world around them, no matter what language they speak or their cultural background.

When did you know you wanted to be a cartographer?

I have always loved maps — drawing them, reading them for directions on road trips with my family, collecting antique maps, and more. The first map I ever made was a fantasy map I drew in second grade. “Peter Pan” was my favorite Disney movie, so naturally, the map showed how to get from my elementary school to Neverland, “second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning!” Many years later, when I was in college, I took a cartography class for fun and discovered that there was lot more to making maps than I ever thought — and I was excited about it. I decided right then that cartography was going to take me places.

What is something you love about your job?

My job allows me to travel all around the world and meet really smart people from many countries in Europe, the Middle East and South America. Even if we don’t speak the same language, we always find a way to work together and come up with a map that tells an important story.

What is something that is challenging about your job?

When you take the world, a 3D sphere, and try to map it on a flat piece of paper, there is no way for the shapes or features like land and water to be 100 percent accurate. Cartographers do their best to choose what is called a projection to prevent warping or distortion as much as possible. This has always been something that is tough for me to choose.

What do you wish everyone knew about maps and mapmaking?

The most common question cartographers get is, “Why are you a cartographer, hasn’t everything been mapped already?” The answer? No way. While physically going out and “discovering” the world has already been done, the world and the things in it are constantly changing ,and cartographers will always be around to map that change.

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