Meaningful maps: Charting new frontiers with new tools

May 16th 2017 | Robert Roth, Special to the Wisconsin State Journal
Faculty, Research, Social Sciences
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Poor communities are often disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards. To understand the geography of the hazardous waste trade and associated environmental issues, Roth’s team filed requests with the Environmental Protection Agency to obtain records of waste shipments from Canada and Mexico. The symbols’ size represents the number of shipments received by a U.S. processing site. The color depicts the percentage of people in the surrounding community who fall below the poverty line. (Source: Eric Nost, Heather Rosenfeld, Kristen Vincent, Sarah Moore, Robert Roth)

People often ask, “So you’re a cartographer? Hasn’t everything already been mapped?”

In an era of massive datasets and pervasive computing, maps have never been more important.

The Department of Labor reported that there were 425,000 U.S. residents working the geospatial industry in 2010, and the National Research Council estimated this could grow to more than 2 million by 2020.

Cartography is booming, but it remains one of the biggest secrets on campus because of the limited treatment of geography in K-12 education. No, cartographers aren’t explorers charting frontiers in an ancient time. We are artists, data scientists, storytellers and full-stack web developers.

An interdisciplinary field, cartography is equal parts art, science, and technology, and all three components inform how I think and teach at UW-Madison.

Increasingly, I describe my work as user experience design: I develop guidelines, frameworks and methods for designing interactive, online and mobile mapping applications that meet user needs and promote geographic understanding.

Today, maps enrich our experience of place: they scale our minds to complexity of geographic problems, they provide context on difference and unevenness in the landscape, and they enable us to explore alternatives for an equitable future.

At UW-Madison, I get to work with many of the top minds in geography to design meaningful maps that address these pressing problems.

An interdisciplinary field, cartography is equal parts art, science, and technology, and all three components inform how I think and teach at UW-Madison.

Collaborative projects funded by the National Science Foundation range from mapping the transnational trade of hazardous waste in North America with colleagues Sarah Moore and Morgan Robertson to using fossil and soil records to visualize past and future climates and ecosystems with colleagues Simon Goring and Jack Williams.

My undergraduate degree is from UW–Madison, and I take great joy in teaching and mentoring the next generation of Wisconsin cartographers.

As the faculty director of the UW Cartography Lab, I work closely with our creative director, Tanya Buckingham, to calibrate cartography curriculum to professional practices and create real-world student apprenticeships.

Keeping pace with the rapid technological change in the mapping industry is daunting, but the remarkable people at UW-Madison continue to put students in a position to reach their career goals.

The Department of Geography is excited to take its approach online through a new set of professional programs in mapping technology. For more information, visit

So yes, everywhere has been mapped in some form, but in a dynamic world driven by information and technology, cartographers are needed more now than ever to help us understand our changing planet.

Robert Roth is an assistant professor of Geography. His work centers on cartography and visualization. Specifically, he is interested in the design of interactive, web-based and mobile mapping tools that support geographic understanding. His work has been used to address climate change adaptation, emergency response, environmental justice and public health.

Fueling Discovery

"Fueling Discovery" is a joint effort of the UW-Madison College of Letters & Science and the Wisconsin State Journal featuring faculty members wiring about their work in their own words. The effort was financed through sponsorships and gifts from alumni and friends.