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Mapping and GIS Lessons for Poets, Historians, and Scientists: Introduction: Cartography and GIS

CS-X Module created by Emily Fairey, Brooklyn College OER Developer

About Cartography and GIS

Cartography, the art of creating maps, deals with interpreted data.  A cartographer, or map-maker creates a visual hierarchy when he or she decides how features appear on a map to illustrate data.  Map making can be both subjective or objective-but its goal is always the visualizing of data with some spatial dimension.

GIS is a model of such data in a computer environment.  Using GIS, we can simplify, focus or generalize information in maps. It is possible to build layers into the maps until they become "thick" with data. With new map making platforms that can include multimedia and annotation, the map has become a storytelling tool.

In this module, you, the students, will be in charge of investigations. The materials here will introduce you to some basic cartography, via GIS platforms that can quickly get you started making digital maps. 

What can we do with GIS?

Besides the extensive use of maps in day to day life, maps are very important in the academic world. Here is a sample of fields in which geospatial technologies can be used:

Environmental sciences, Archaeology, Social sciences, Law enforcement, Military, Epidemiology, Urban planning, Marketing, Literature, History, Classics, Chemistry, Mathematics, etc. 

Things to do with GIS:

  • Identify patterns and retrieve information from maps
  • Count, group, classify, reclassify, isolate, measure and quantify map features
  • Overlay maps to compare features and create new maps
  • Visualize, interpolate, slice, cross-section, sample and generalize surfaces
  • Identify the shortest or fastest travel path between points
  • Perform topographic and other feature analyses

GIS and KML Code

KML: Keyhole Markup Language

KML is a file format used to display geographic data in an Earth browser such as Google Earth. KML uses a tag-based structure with nested elements and attributes and is based on the XML standard. All tags are case-sensitive and must appear exactly as they are listed in the KML Reference. The Reference indicates which tags are optional. Within a given element, tags must appear in the order shown in the Reference.

Vocabulary of Cartography

Map Design Elements

Scale bar: a graphical device used to represent map scale

scale bar illustration













North arrow: is a graphical device on a map used to show the orientation of the map

north arrow illustration












Legend: graphical device found on a map that explains the meaning of symbols and colors found on a map.  legend illustration













Categories of Maps

  • A reference map is a map that serves to show the location of features, examples include zoning maps, topographic maps, and street maps.
  • A thematic map is designed to convey information pertaining to a specific theme or feature (population, cultural lifestyle, etc.) or phenomena (rainfall, etc.) connected with a geographic area.
  • A choropleth map is a kind of thematic map where data is displayed in discrete categories. Its geographic regions are colored, shaded, or patterned in relation to a value.

example of choropleth map

GIS and Data

A key word to GIS technology is Geography – this means that some portion of a map's data is spatial (referenced to locations).

Another type of data on digital maps is "attribute data."  Attribute data gives additional information about each spatial feature. 

Both geographic and attribute data can be expressed in tables, such as a CSV table in Microsoft Excel. 

Vector data

  • Represented as either points, lines, or polygons. 
  • Best for discrete or thematic data.Data with an exact location or hard boundaries.
  • Examples: county boundaries, the location of roads and railroads using lines, or point data indicating the location of fire hydrants. 

Raster data:

  • Continuous data, or information without hard boundaries or locations. 
  • viewed as a series of grid cells : each cell has a value representing the feature being observed. 
  • appropriate for modeling surfaces: elevation, temperature, precipitation. 
  • Also includes remote sensing imagery, like aerial photography and satellite imagery.

Quiz: Cartography