2 What is a map?
Let’s start with the basics. What is a map?
Ask that question in a classroom — or any other setting — and you’ll get a variety of responses, most having to do with geography or finding your way from place to place. The dictionary on my Macintosh offers this as the first definition under map, n.:
a diagrammatic representation of an area of land or sea showing physical features, cities, roads, etc.
This, in other words, is a map:
But what about the “et cetera” in that definition? That’s a pretty big “et cetera.” Lots of things are represented on maps besides physical reality — climate, for example, or population density, or economic production.
In fact, a “map” doesn’t even have to have anything to do with geography. A scientist might map electron densities…
…or the genome of a plant pathogen.
A broad definition
More broadly, we could define a map simply as a visual representation of data. That data might describe physical location (via latitude and longitude, for example) — or it might not. And the visual representation might be a two-dimensional diagram — but then again, it might not. Actually, the representation might not even be visual.
The map skills I want to talk about have mainly to do with geography, but before we get there, I want take a closer look at what it means to “visually represent data.” Understanding that will help us understand what skills are necessary to create and read maps — and, in turn, what skills can be developed through mapping practice. This is going to take a little math, so hang on. If you’re short on time, you can skip ahead, but if you stick with me, I’ll try to make it worth your while.
- Next: Mathematically speaking