Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The final part in a series exploring little-seen contributions to cartography.
With the rise of geographic information systems and an explosion in digital mapmaking tools, the pencil-to-paper cartographer is all but an extinct species. Similarly, the definition of “cartographer” is expanding to include people with a wider variety of geospatial training and ambitions. That includes more women.
As this (very meta) map shows, women from all over the world collect, analyze and map spatial data for scientific research, government and nonprofits, businesses and universities. They design the maps we use on our phones, in public spaces, and in the media. And they make maps as works of art and commentary.
Even so, women, and especially women of color, remain a minority in the professional mapping world. A recent informal survey of about 2,000 GIS professionals by the website GIS Lounge found that only one-third were women. (GIS certainly does not encompass all of the mapmaking world, but according to many women I interviewed for this story, those numbers are indicative.) And, much like the larger tech world that mapmaking often runs up against, it also remains predominantly white.
One of the best ways to increase the number of women in the field, many say, is for people to recognize that maps are something women make, too. With that in mind, here are just a handful of the many women involved in cartography and GIS today.
Ask digital mapmakers to name a few of the best cartographic designers working today, and Geraldine Sarmiento is bound to come up. She’s famed for her mastery of line drawing and experimental approach to color and shading. Trained as a designer, she got hooked on maps while working for the map-design firm Stamen on a project mapping venues, players, and archaeological digs associated with the 2012 Olympic Games in London. There was something that intrigued Sarmiento about her client’s style guide, which featured “all these intersecting polygons that were used as a grid to generate shapes, and a color palette straight out of the ‘80s,” she tells CityLab. It was an expansion of what maps could look like. “After that, many more map projects followed. I’ve been making maps ever since,” she says.
After five years leading map design at Stamen and two years at Apple, Sarmiento is now a cartographic designer at Mapzen, which builds open-source mapping tools. She says she’s most excited about her work on Eraser Map, a privacy-focused, open-source mobile mapping app, currently in beta testing on Android phones. It promises rich location data and accurate direction services, but without logging users’ identities or location data. To match Eraser Map’s game-changing approach to mobile navigation, Sarmiento is developing a distinctive design for it called “Bubble Wrap,” marked by extruded buildings, dot shading, and a subdued color palette. “I’m having a great time playing,” Sarmiento says. “It’s a work in progress.”
Born and raised in the Philippines, Sarmiento acknowledges that it hasn’t always been easy working as a woman in a field dominated by white men. But she says more and more women have entered the industry in recent years, and that her current workplace values the role of diversity in producing great maps. “Mapmaking today is a collaborative art,” Sarmiento says. “We all need each other to make beautiful and meaningful work.”
Seventeen years ago, Gretchen Peterson was fresh out of college, working as a GIS and natural resources specialist at a nonprofit research firm. She was tasked with making maps to hang in the company hallway, which executives would see as they walked by. “I just knew [my maps] weren’t good enough for that.” she tells CityLab. So she combed through what few books and resources were available to teach herself the principles of great cartographic design. She was a quick study: Just two years later, Peterson launched her own GIS and mapmaking consultancy. Then came her successful instructional book series on the fundamentals of GIS and map design, a popular cartography blog, and ultimately, renown across the industry for her accessible, no-nonsense approach to mapmaking. (Asked about their mapmaking hero, three of the women I interviewed for this series named Peterson.)
As a consultant, Peterson’s clients have included local governments, small businesses, and nonprofits. She has also done a fair amount of pro bono mapping work, including the interactive fire boundary and evacuation map for Colorado’s 2012 High Park fire, pictured above. Peterson tells CityLab this was probably the most “influential” mapping project she has participated in because of its usefulness for the local community:
Our map (a team effort) was up within 48 hours of the fire starting and had over 10,000 visitors per day during the fire. I digitized the text-based official evacuation updates so that people could see them on the map. The major feat with this map wasn’t the cartography per se, it was the fact that we were able to get a digital map up and going so quickly, with accurate data updated constantly as new information came in, and that could handle thousands of viewers at a time.
Peterson says she sees the gender balance in the cartography world as about 70 percent men, 30 percent women—a ratio that hasn’t changed much over her time in the field. “What has changed significantly is the efforts that people have made in even just the past two years to get more women speaking at our conferences and contributing their ideas to our media channels,” she says. “I think that map-oriented conference organizers and map-oriented media have really bought into the fact that all people should be represented in these forums, and they are making a big effort to make that happen.”
Part of that effort has been Maptime, a international network of clubs founded in San Francisco in 2013 that hosts tutorials and informal gatherings focused on the basics of digital mapmaking. (Peterson has taught Maptime workshops in Denver.) Co-founder Beth Schechter says one of the original goals of Maptime was to equip more women and people of color with the skills they need to enter the profession. Maptime has been incredibly popular, with dozens of chapters now active around the world. But Schechter says that, ironically, at least in San Francisco, the majority of Maptime attendees have been white dudes. “I’ve learned that just opening doors and saying ‘come join’ isn’t enough to engage people of color and women,” she says. “There is additional work to be done.”
Dawn Wright stresses that she’s not a cartographer or map designer. As a GIS specialist, “I am more of a data collector and manager,” she tells CityLab. But her work goes much deeper than that. As Chief Scientist at Esri, one of the country’s largest digital mapping firms, and as a professor of geography and oceanography at Oregon State University, Wright is devoted to advancing the science of sea-floor mapping, and has contributed to some of the most important maps in ocean science in recent decades. For example, the map pictured above represents the most up-to-date bathymetric data (at least when it was published in 2000) of the second deepest spot on the planet, “Horizon Deep,” in the South Pacific Ocean’s Tonga trench. That map is based on oceanic research that Wright led.
At Esri, Wright’s role is multifaceted. But a big part of it is about pushing to apply the many technologies available for mapping land to mapping the bottom of the ocean. (Just a small fraction of the seafloor has been mapped at the same level of detail as Earth’s lands.) To that end, Wright has helped the company build out its “now-famous” Ocean Basemap, which “provides the modern-day equivalent of Marie Tharp’s 1977 map, except with even more authoritative bathymetric data, as well as ocean floor feature names, water body names” and other measures of seafloor depth, she says.
As an African-American women, Wright says she’s observed gender and ethnic diversity slowly improving in the GIS and cartography worlds. “When I participated in high-school science fairs in the 1970s, there were maybe a third of us who were girls,” she tells CityLab. “We’ve certainly made progress since then, and it’s because we’ve built on the foundation of my generation and the generations before me. Still, as an African-American woman, I often make any board meeting or board room more diverse just by showing up.” Particularly in the upper echelons of universities and mapping companies, the ranks remain largely male and white.
Wright is involved in a number of efforts through Esri to expand diversity in the GIS world. But she thinks it’s also important for women and minorities to be “courageous” as they enter the field. As an illustration, she shares a story about her time in the 1980s as a marine technician aboard a large scientific drilling vessel. “Of the [roughly] 110 people on that vessel, only around 10 of us were women, and often I was the only woman of color,” Wright says, continuing:
At first I was very intimidated by one of drilling crew, who was born and raised in Mississippi, a white male, who was so very different from me in so many ways. He appeared to be a very rough character. Our family backgrounds, our life experiences, the way we spoke, our age difference—just about everything between us was different. I’m not sure if he had ever been at sea with an African-American woman, let alone one who was a scientist, let alone for two solid months out on the open ocean.
But one day we BOTH took the step of sitting at the same table during coffee break. And as we got to know each other, we became great buddies at sea, including cohorts in some funny practical jokes in the galley. … If we can give ourselves an opportunity to just sit down with someone, we can find ways to relate. It doesn’t matter what your background is, we are human beings first.
These three women represent just a tiny sample of those working as cartographers, geospatial professionals, and map artists today. Other names include Alyssa Wright, Caitlin Dempsey, Esther Mandeno, Camille Teicheira, Rachel Binx, Wendy Brawer, Sara Safavi, Emily Garfield, Paula Scher and many more—and surely, still more on the way.
Diversity is good for its own sake. But getting women involved in the geospatial world is bigger than that. Take, for example, a 2014 controversy among OpenStreetMap’s volunteer contributors about labeling “childcare” facilities on the map. Some felt that including that tag was redundant, as locations like kindergartens and preschools were already marked. But others saw this as a reflection of gender bias in the largely male OSM community, given the fact that women are the primary caretakers of children across the world. The tag is now included, but imagine the other sorts of spaces and services that go unmarked and hidden. More women mappers means more perspectives, stories, and places that literally get put on the map. That’s something everyone can benefit from.