Remaking the map: Professor receives medal for influence in cartography

Angela M. Rogers
January 29, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — If you have consulted or created a map using GIS software, chances are you have encountered Cynthia Brewer's influence without being aware of it. In recognition of her contributions to the field of cartography, Brewer, who is professor and head of the Penn State Department of Geography, was awarded the O. M. Miller Cartographic Medal by the American Geographical Society at the 2019 Fall Symposium.

“I was surprised to receive this honor,” Brewer said, “and appreciative of the opportunity at the symposium to spend time with leaders in geography.”

“When your name or brand becomes the default for your area, you know you're at the top of your field. Cynthia Brewer has that claim,” said Deborah Popper, chair of the AGS Honors and Awards Committee.

This has happened, in part, due to the ubiquity of maps and GIS tools and the shift of mapmaking from experts to everyone. Members of the AGS Honors and Awards Committee noted that Brewer’s influence is readily seen from the widespread use of her ColorBrewer tool, which anyone can use, to the new clarity and aesthetic of the U.S. Geological Survey's national maps collection.

“Early in my academic career, I noticed signs of the democratization of cartography,” Brewer said. “Some geographers complained about the work of untrained mapmakers, but I decided to immerse myself in real mapmaking contexts to help people make good maps. It changed my research.”

“Cindy's contributions are important and quite specific to her,” Popper said. “Maps convey all sorts of information subliminally. In the digital age, maps have become pervasive, but neither mapmakers nor readers necessarily consider what their color choices or symbology convey. She's made an important and distinctive difference.”

“Over the last 20 years, there is no other cartographer like her,” said Amy Glasmeier, member of the AGS Honors and Awards Committee and MIT professor of economic geography and regional planning. “Dr. Brewer has improved virtually everyone's maps, based on the tools she has developed and the books she has written. She is modern cartography.”

Established in 1968, the O. M. Miller Cartographic Medal acknowledges outstanding contributions in the field of cartography or geodesy. It was named for Osborn Maitland Miller, who brought forth new map projections, original survey methods and instrumentation, and pioneered developments in aerial photography, photogrammetry and new cartographic techniques.

“Cindy has been a path breaker in the cartographic arena,” said Alexander Murphy, also a member of the AGS Honors and Awards Committee and University of Oregon professor of geography. “Through her scholarly contributions and her effective outreach, Cindy has had a profound impact on the way we think about the use of color in cartography, and about map design principles more generally. I can think of no more deserving recipient of the O. M. Miller Cartographic Medal.”

Brewer has been a member of the Penn State faculty since 1994. She has authored more than 30 peer-reviewed articles and 60 additional publications and cartographic design resources, generating more than 4,000 citations.

In addition, Brewer has authored four books, including the popular “Designing Better Maps” with a second edition published in 2016. She was an affiliate faculty member at the U.S. Geological Survey Center of Excellence for Geospatial Information Science, and in 2013 she received the Henry Gannett Award for Exceptional Contributions to Topographic Mapping from the USGS.

“I like to think of Dr. Brewer as the portrait artist of the mapped world,” Glasmeier said. “As written in WIRED magazine in 2014, Brewer modernized the meaning of maps for the USGS by applying the lessons she's learned from her research on mapping knowledge. Her monumental work resulted in the redesign of USGS' massive collection of national topographic maps. Cindy Brewer made the U.S. Census a hip place to work and inspired countless creative people to step out of the shadows and render the world anew. She gave the 2000 Census Atlas of the United States its color and texture as she depicted our nation at the dawn of the 20th century. Her work delights, reveals, renews, and adds immeasurably to those who fill with emotion in seeing the world clothed in maps.”

Brewer said that her recent focus on teaching and administrative service as head of the department has left her less time for new research projects, but she brings a cartographer’s perspective to the job.

“As head, I’m evaluating quality of data, classing by attributes, handling multivariate problems, color coding, generalizing, revising over and over, consulting and collaborating, just like cartographers do,” Brewer said. “In the future, I would like to go back to color research. In the meantime, I like making things work for people.”

The American Geographical Society is a 21st century learning society dedicated to the advancement of geographic thinking, knowledge and understanding across business, government, academe, social sectors, and, most importantly, with teachers and students. Established in 1851, AGS is the oldest professional geographical organization in the United States.

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Last Updated February 03, 2020