The Importance of Institutions

Institutions are important. While there may be a tendency to think of institutions as physical things, such as buildings on a university campus, institutions are also people.

Universities and government agencies are examples of crucial institutions that advance the fields of cartography and geospatial science. Professional associations are also institutions and serve different purposes. For instance, national and international cartographic associations—like the International Cartographic Association (ICA), which celebrated its 60th year in 2019—bring together people who have various levels of interest in maps, mapping, and other related topics in geospatial science. These institutions can include formally trained cartographers, professionals who practice cartography in their work, researchers in a diverse range of geospatial science topics, and people who have a general interest in cartography and maps. Lots of people love maps, so it’s easy to see why those who share this interest come together through the various programs put on by cartographic organizations.

Institutions like national and international professional societies are well positioned to address areas of interest in cartography and GIScience for those who are beginning to explore or are already immersed in the profession. These societies often have a better understanding of trends in their field than federal agencies, universities, or other organizations do. National and international societies also provide a forum with various channels that members can use to discuss ideas, share experiences, and advance their professional practices. These channels include national and regional conferences that offer attendees opportunities to present ideas, show research findings, or simply meet colleagues to catch up on what they’ve been working on recently. Last July, cartographers convened in Tokyo for the 29th International Cartographic Conference (ICC), a biennial event that offers an extensive program for learning, sharing, collaborating, and having fun. The next ICC will take place in Florence, Italy, in July 2021.

Another channel that professional associations make available is publications, which offer members the opportunity to disseminate thoughts, ideas, findings, and experiences. Many national cartographic societies have journals and publications that highlight recent works. For example, the Cartography and Geographic Information Science journal in the United States has a long history as a peer-reviewed publication outlet. The ICA’s International Journal of Cartography serves as an international medium for publishing research and development in cartography and geospatial science and helps ensure the relevance of cartography on a global scale. The most recent edition, published in May 2019, captures the 14 best papers from the ICC in Tokyo.

Publications take on other forms as well, such as websites, newsletters, and proceedings. The first point of entry for gathering information about the ICA, what it is about, and what it has to offer as an international professional association is through its website. The organization devotes considerable effort to ensuring that its website contains relevant and timely information for everyone’s use. The ICA also offers several other publications for those seeking information about cartographic and GIScience research, upcoming events, and general information about the ICA. All the contributions by authors and presenters at the 2019 ICC are now available there, as are publications and proceedings from past conferences stretching back to 1993. The ICA News, which is also accessible from that page, is a newsletter published twice a year that features work from members and other professionals covering a wide variety of topics on cartography and geospatial science. eCARTO News, another popular ICA newsletter that’s published monthly, captures the latest interesting cartographic news and developments from around the world. Cartographers can also share their ideas and work with a diverse global community of GIS professionals through this publication, Esri’s ArcNews magazine.

The bulk of the ICA’s work is done through commissions and working groups whose subject matters reflect topics that are of interest not only to the professional cartographic community but also to society at large. There are currently 28 commissions at the ICA, though that number changes every four years, and the issues that they address vary dramatically. The full list reflects the diversity of cartography and geospatial science, though it does not necessarily demonstrate the comprehensive nature of the disciplines. Some of the themes these commissions cover include education and training, geospatial analysis and modeling, location-based services, map design, spatial data infrastructure (SDI) and standards, and user experience. A few commissions focus on special interest themes as well, including how cartography and children come together and the production of maps and graphics for people who are partially sighted or blind. And for any pressing topics that are not covered by commissions, the ICA Executive Committee establishes a working group.

A perfect example of the value of institutions like the ICA can be seen through the work of the Commission on SDI and Standards. Government departments and agencies, commercial enterprises, universities, and even the general public rely on geospatial data, but standards didn’t always exist for geospatial data or even software and hardware. In some cases, separate efforts within the same organization resulted in different systems. One problem that was evident early on was that one system and its data could not work within another system. When government agencies recognized the need for standards, they reached out to national cartographic associations and, ultimately, the ICA to coordinate efforts to work on this. Having standards within a nation leads to greater effectiveness and efficiency, and having standards that are useful globally has an even greater benefit. The Commission on SDI and Standards began coordinating with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) and later with other professional organizations, such as the Open Geospatial Consortium, Inc. (OGC), and a careful, scientific, and practical approach to formulating geospatial standards emerged. Today, as the field of geospatial data and technology evolves, the ICA’s Commission on SDI and Standards continues its important work.

Institutions continue to offer us platforms for collaboration. Members can share a common purpose, expand their knowledge, and—as with the ICA Commission on SDI and Standards—achieve goals that allow their discipline to move forward. The valuable work advanced by the ICA continues to influence new developments, improve current capabilities, and encourage participation by diverse professionals around the world.

About the author

Tim Trainor is a part-time consultant to the United Nations (UN) and is the former chief geospatial scientist for the US Census Bureau. He currently serves as president of the International Cartographic Association. Trainor has extensive experience in cartographic and geospatial topics that include exploring methodological, technical, and substantive issues relating to cartography and the collection, management, and integration of geospatial information. He served as cochair for the UN Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management and as head of the US delegation to that committee. He was the senior agency official for geospatial information for the US Department of Commerce and was an executive member of the US Federal Geographic Data Committee. He is involved with several professional associations, including the Cartography and Geographic Information Society. Trainor holds a postgraduate diploma in cartography from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, within the Faculty of Science; a master’s certificate in project management from the George Washington University School of Business and Public Management; and a bachelor of arts degree from Rutgers University.