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Careers in Cartography and Geographic Informations Systems

Thousands of geographers have jobs involving maps. Maps are essential. They are used by planners, engineers, utility companies, state agencies, construction companies, surveyors, architects, and ordinary citizens. One of the greatest growth areas is the use of computers to generate maps and store map-related information.

College geography programs provide a good background in the use of maps. Students usually will learn how to make traditional hand-drawn maps, as well as how to use a variety of sophisticated computer graphics systems to create maps. In addition, students will learn how to read and interpret maps so that they can be used effectively.

Cartographer/Computer Mapper

Cartography is the science (or art) of making maps. Though hand-drawn cartography is still prevalent, traditional drafting is being replaced rapidly by computers and graphics software, which allow maps to be created quickly and accurately. Complex maps are made with sophisticated scanning equipment, while simpler maps can be drawn on a personal computer. Generally, computer mappers begin with a grid, such as the familiar one based on latitude and longitude, to which they add such information as streets, population density, and physical features.

Many cartographers are employed by the U.S. government to make maps for various purposes. The Defense Mapping Agency has large cartography operations in St. Louis, San Antonio, and Washington, D.C. The Bureau of the Census collects data on the country's population, maps it, and analyzes it. The U.S. Geological Survey employs people to produce topographical maps, which show terrain and key features.

The private sector also employs cartographers. There are companies whose business it is to make and sell all kinds of maps, from road maps to trail maps. Other industries may have cartographers on staff to produce the maps needed in their line of work. Subdivision maps are required by builders and municipalities. Telephone companies and other utilities also employ mappers.

Geographic Information System Specialist

A geographic information system (GIS) is a computer hardware and software system that is used to store, display, analyze, and map information. Geographers, planners, land developers, real estate agents, utility companies, and municipal officials all use these systems. In fact, modern planning cannot move forward without these systems and those trained to run them. For example, a local government might use a GIS to evaluate alternative locations for roads, landfills, or other facilities. Using the GIS, such topics as population distribution, traffic movement, land availability, real estate prices, environmental hazards, soil types, and flood zones could be analyzed together to help the government make an informed choice. Jobs are available for those who like to work with computers and understand the importance of information retrieval.

Remote-Sensing Analyst

Another important area of mapping is remote sensing. This involves the interpretation of aerial photos and the analysis of satellite images. Virtually all modern maps of large areas are based in part on remote sensing, among them the landuse maps used by the U.S. Geological Survey and the soil maps used by the Department of Agriculture. The Department of Defense, the State Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency employ thousands of people to interpret photos that have been taken by high-flying aircraft or satellites to determine what is going on in other countries. For example, during the Cold War, we learned a lot about crop production, military troop movements, missile launches, and nuclear testing in the Soviet Union through the work of remote-sensing analysts.
Remote-sensing analysts should have training in geography and earth science and good visual skills.


Everyone has seen survey crews along the highways. Surveyors provide accurate maps and ensure that buildings, roads, sewer and water systems, bridges, and other construction features are located precisely where they should be. They determine the boundaries of building sites, roadways, and the surrounding land. They work outdoors in terrain that is often rough and dangerous. Many surveyors have college degrees, particularly the crew chief. They usually have to pass a professional exam.

Source: Association of American Geographers (AAG)