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Makin' It: Howard Veregin, Wisconsin's Postmodern State Cartographer

"We wouldn’t allow someone to name a lake after their pet, for example."

Howard Veregin is the official state cartographer of Wisconsin. As avid users of maps both old and new, we were enchanted by his descriptions of maps as weapons, the "Google revolution," and what makes the post of "official state cartographer" such a unique job.

Where did your interest in maps come from?

We moved a lot when I was young, and I lived in some pretty isolated communities, so I learned early on that where you lived at any particular time might just be a historical accident. I entered college with the idea that geography was a subject I might like to major in (which I did). I wasn’t really interested in manual (pre-computer) cartography as a profession. I enjoyed the creative, artistic side of making maps, but to make really good maps you needed to master a lot of fussy arcane skills that frankly bored me a bit. But what really got me hooked on maps was computers. In graduate school I took a computer cartography course and realized this was something I really wanted to do. This was in the early 1980s […] we used some of the earliest computer-mapping software ever written. What appealed to me about computer mapping—although I doubt I knew it at the time—was the opportunity to combine left- and right-brain thinking in the creation of something both useful and beautiful. Computer cartography was the perfect blend of logic and creativity.

You are one of only two official state cartographers in the entire country. Take me through an average day—if there is one!

Although I work in a university, I do not do a lot of classroom teaching, except for the occasional guest lecture. My educational efforts run more toward conference presentations and workshops, answering inquiries, online tutorials and informational resources, and applied learning opportunities for student assistants. You’re right—there is no such thing as an "average day" around here. The office is fairly small—I have four staff members and a handful of student assistants—but we do a lot with our resources. This includes dissemination of geographic data, coordination with government agencies that produce maps, education and outreach to professionals and the general public, and the creation of special-purpose maps. If there’s something going on in the state that involves maps and geospatial data, the state cartographer’s office probably has some kind of role in it. One of the things that makes this job interesting and challenging (and at times stressful!) is that it requires competence in many areas, including the arcane and esoteric (GIS software, new geospatial techniques), the practical and applied (budgets, planning, coordination) and the interpersonal (facilitation, outreach, personnel management).

Before we go on: tell us what terms like “geospatial” and GIS mean.

Today, geographic data is stored in databases, and maps are derived from these stored datasets using specialized software called GIS, which stands for Geographic Information Systems. Geospatial technology is what sits behind Google Earth, online maps and directions, GPS-enabled personal navigation devices, and location-based services and smartphone apps.

I'm glad you bring Google up. How are their maps changing cartography?

I think the “Google revolution” is forcing cartographers to rethink what they do and what they have to offer, and I think this is a good thing. The experimental cartographer Denis Wood stated a few years back that “Cartography is dead, thank God!” His point was that academic cartography has rendered itself irrelevant through its insistence that it be recognized as the sole authority on map-making, while ignoring the emerging needs of neo-cartographers whose interest in maps is often quite specific. Wood’s views may seem a bit extreme, but there is some truth here. Galleries of online map mashups show that maps are useful in all sorts of contexts, and that people use them in all kinds of ways to further their interests, careers, research, or hobbies. It's especially interesting that the impact maps are having on our lives is increasing in direct proportion to the degree that map-making recedes into the fabric of everyday life, the degree to which it stops becoming “technology” and starts becoming just something we do. As maps and mapping become more commonplace, we begin to assimilate the values of the map on a personal and cultural level. We become a bit more map-like.

What are the values of a map?

Maps impose order, structure, and classification on the complexity of the world. Consider the difference between a map and an air photo. The latter is a snapshot that treats all features with the same level of significance. A map reduces that complexity by focusing on certain features (the color of agricultural fields, as an indicator of crop type) while ignoring other information (the color of different road surfaces, the presence of automobiles, the locations of buildings). Even if you could create a map at a scale of one-to-one, there’s too much richness in the world that you cannot put on a map or is just not relevant to the purpose of the map (things like automobile sounds, factory smells, or the locations of discarded fast-food containers). In this sense, maps have values.

The way that features end up being represented on a map depends on the cultural context in which the map was constructed, as well as the purpose behind the map. Does a map of agricultural productivity reflect faith and optimism about the agricultural economy or concern over ground water depletion due to irrigation? In ways like this, the social order inserts itself into maps in a way that both reproduces and affirms that social order. Maps are not value-free “tools” but rather value-laden “weapons.” They privilege certain viewpoints—those that are reducible to quantification, to spatial representation, and to coordinate precision—and most maps gloss over this limitation through the implicit assumption that facts are facts.

Somehow this seems mildly shocking to me.

These ideas are pretty well known in the field of cartography, and on some level they are kind of obvious. You really can’t have it any other way. Maps are not intended to be miniature replicas of the external environment. Instead they deliberately mislead and distort, emphasize some aspects of the environment, and suppress others, in an effort to convey a particular message and argue for a particular viewpoint. A map reflects the specific goals for which it was created. Some critics take this to an extreme, pointing out that it is not possible to choose between competing map representations and that the distinction between truth and propaganda (as abstract extremes) is artificial. This implies that no map has any more claim to legitimacy than any other. I think this takes things too far. This is essentially an anarchistic epistemology that negates the idea of shared cultural values or common frames of reference. In my view, maps are no different from other cultural artifacts like novels, spreadsheets, or snow blowers, all of which embed specific values and support specific kinds of tasks.

With regard to your role as state cartographer, how do you go about naming something?

In the state cartographer’s office, we’re currently working on a project to map unincorporated places in the state. Unincorporated places are settlements that are not legal cities or villages. These places exist only by shared cultural consensus. Sometimes unincorporated places—an example would be Arlington, Virginia—have thousands of people and are well-known. Others are little more than a few buildings with an identity unknown to all but a few hundred locals.

Like maps themselves, place names are highly culturally charged. We are long past the stage of European explorers naming features after the sponsors of their voyages. Most of the place names we deal with on the Wisconsin Geographic Names Committee are requests from local residents to name a currently unnamed feature, usually a lake. There are standards that need to be followed, such as the proposed name needing to have some local cultural or historic significance. We wouldn’t allow someone to name a lake after their pet, for example. There are also occasionally state- or nationwide efforts to cleanse names that were assigned during less-enlightened eras of the country’s history. Another recent trend is for states to put more emphasis on local names that derive from pre-European history. Hawaii is a prime example here.

Makin' It is the work of journalist Brady Welch and illustrator Skyler Swezy, the team behind

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