I Want Your Job: Cartographer

'It's a huge annual trawl of revision'


Iain MacDonald, 37, is a cartographer at Collins Geo, the geographical division of HarperCollins publishers, which produces maps and atlases.

What do you actually do?

I'm an information editor, which means that I collect information to produce updated maps and atlases every year. Over a period of several months, I collect information on any new roads, tourist attractions, ferry routes, and any motorways or bypasses that have been built in the previous year, to make sure that the new atlas is up-to-date. It's a huge annual trawl of revision. I send out masses of questionnaires to councils in order to find out about new road schemes, or whether there's a new museum or football stadium opening in their area.

What's your working schedule like?

I'm in the office 35 hours a week, mostly from 8am until 4pm, although I finish at 1pm on Fridays. Because the atlases come out once a year, our work is pretty seasonal – from October until February, we start sending letters to local councils, and by February, we try to have all the details tied up so the atlases are ready to hit the shops. I spend a lot of time doing online research, going through press clippings, and chasing up requests for information with reminder phone calls and emails.

What's the best thing about it?

My favourite part of the job is being able to take information from a very dry database source, and present it in a way that people can access easily. It's great when the atlases come out – seeing your revisions is very satisfying. We also do other quirky little projects, which can be fun – for example, we once produced a ghost-hunter's atlas with information on where to find the best haunted houses.

What skills do you need to do the job well?

You've got to be computer literate and logical, with excellent spatial awareness. We use computer software to add and record revision points to maps, and all editorial changes to atlases are made using computer technology. There's still a lot of filing and paperwork, so you have to be organised and patient. You also need good personal and communication skills. We occasionally get members of the public contacting us to say things are wrong, when actually they're using an out-of-date atlas; or truckers who've taken a wrong turn shouting at us down their mobile phones. You have to be firm, persuasive and polite.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to become a cartographer?

You should be interested in geography and the environment around you. Try to get a degree in a related subject, such as geography, surveying and mapping sciences, or geographical information science. Some universities offer modules in cartography as part of a degree, so it's worth doing some research before choosing a course. Once you've graduated, you could write to map makers to see whether they need freelance work.

Are there any downsides?

It can be a bit tedious and repetitive, because a lot of the job involves data entry and research. It's also frustrating when people waste your time by not replying to phone calls and requests for information.

What's the salary and career path like?

I started on about £10,000 a year back in 1994, but nowadays, a typical starting salary might be around £16,000 to £17,000 a year. You could look for a job within a large government department such as the Ordnance Survey, the Ministry of Defence or the Department for Transport; in a local authority's planning department or for a university; or work for a map publisher.

For more information on training and careers as a cartographer, visit the British Cartographic Society at www.cartography. org.uk; or the Society of Cartographers at www.soc.org.uk.

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