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Looking for a New Direction in Mapping Your World?

By Gail Hairston

New Maps Plus Graduate Certificate from New Maps Plus on Vimeo.

(June 15, 2015) — When Gov. Steve Beshear named University of Kentucky geography professor Matthew Zook the state geographer this spring, Zook knew exactly how he wanted to honor his adopted state — by creating a new type of online mapping education for a new era in maps.

Zook along with Matthew Wilson, Rich Donohue and Jeremy Crampton — part of a larger initiative called New Mappings Collaboratory — have been working for the past year on a new curriculum they call New Maps Plus, an online graduate program in innovative digital mapping, including graduate certificate and master’s degree programs. With the support of his department, the UK College of Arts and Sciences and eLearning Innovation Initiative (eLII) at UK, the curriculum received the university’s Board of Trustees approval May 8.

New Maps’ coursework for the graduate certificate in digital mapping begins Oct. 4 with the master’s degree in digital mapping courses offered in the spring of 2016. The certificate is a pre-requisite to the graduate degree. The development of the curriculum was aided by a grant from the eLearning Innovation Initiative and involves a whole range of faculty from the Department of Geography.

“Drawing on both applied and conceptual traditions in mapping practices and mapping thought,” explained Zook, “New Maps represents a stream of scholarship centered at UK and focused on public engagement, ‘big data’ and user-generated Internet content, as well as the affordances of place-based thinking, analysis and representation."

“As a catalyst for mapping engagements on and off campus, New Maps will work to promote creativity, excellence and interaction around emergent mapping technologies,” added Zook, who also serves as director of the department’s GIS initiatives.

The idea for the New Maps program came from the realization that there were very few graduate programs to educate people about the robust range of new and exciting open source mapping tools. “Digital mapping has transformed over the last five years and has become much more accessible and cheaper for people to use,” said Zook.

For examples of Zook's students' mapping projects, vist and

“Our team began experimenting with new ways to geovisualize social media at the FloatingSheep website over five years ago, and that really set us on this track,” he said. “We want to leverage open-source mapping tools to help people use maps to tell their stories and better understand the world around them.”

As the state geographer for Kentucky Zook sees this program as one of the key outcomes of his tenure in that position. His key goal is to build spatial awareness and skills in map-making within the Commonwealth and the nation. The program was planned to accommodate working adults with a bachelor's degree and an interest in mapping, with classes in 10-week terms with four start dates a year.

“Maps are all around us, in our phones and in our browsers. Folks who want to learn how to do this are exactly the kind of people we want,” said Zook. “They can start from ground zero, and in a couple of months they can begin making dynamic and interactive online maps.”

The proposed master’s degree in digital mapping and cartography is designed to serve the expanding landscape of mapping. This includes new professional sites and applications where maps are made by various people, from small business owners to nonprofit managers to marketers, using all kinds of often freely available software and websites.   

“Although this is targeted at graduate education, we'll see plenty of spillover into undergraduate education as well,” Zook said. “We're already introducing some of the same technologies in the first semester for undergraduates at UK, and students are doing some amazing work.”

The curriculum takes a new and rather unique approach to mapping that the team hopes will push mapping into a whole new range of applications, from nonprofits to business. Previously mapping has been fairly concentrated in certain industries, like local governments or engineering, largely for reasons of cost. GIS software has tended to be expensive and only a few enterprises could devote the necessary resources. The curriculum focuses on open source mapping software precisely because it opens up mapping to a whole new range of users, previously deterred by cost.

The curriculum is focused on helping students develop the technical skills and design fluency needed to make elegant and impactful web maps. But even more importantly, the courses will also teach students to think critically about the social dimensions of the maps.

“Maps, after all, are powerful things: they shape what we see and what we don't, with serious implications for how we come to know the world,” said Zook.

Graduate certificate in digital mapping

Curriculum includes:

  • Introduction to New Mapping

This course introduces students to both the social and technical aspects of digital mapping in the 21st century. Students will learn fundamental concepts and techniques in cartography and GIS, including file types, data classification, projections and coordinate systems and elementary analytical techniques in a range of desktop and web-based mapping platforms. In addition to providing the fundamental technical competencies necessary to create maps, students will develop the critical awareness required to effectively communicate complex social processes through maps.

  • Programming for Web Mapping

This course introduces students to the fundamental concepts and techniques of web development and computer programming through web mapping. Students will become familiar with current web standards and proficient in manipulating the structural, stylistic and behavioral elements of web maps through programming. Students will translate these practices to achieve objectives in web cartography such as the display of a basemap, the thematic representation of data, and the employment of interaction to enhance visual communication and the presentation of information.

  • Design for Interactive Web Mapping

This course integrates the principles of geographic representation and web programming in order for students to develop high quality interactive web maps. Students will design interactive web map projects that appropriately represent spatial data in order to serve end-user goals of map engagement and visual communication. The course will train students to compose interactive maps within the context of a coherent web page layout, including the development of supplementary content (such as text and metadata) to aid in visual storytelling.

Master's degree in digital mapping

In addition to completing the three courses outlined above, students will take the following courses.

  • History of Critical Cartography

This course outlines key moments and arguments in the history of cartography with particular attention to advent of digital mapping and GIScience. Students will review and discuss the epistemological and ontological tensions within the field and practice a range of philosophical approaches to cartographic representation and spatial analysis.

  • Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization

This course will introduce students to advanced techniques for the quantitative analysis and visualization of spatial data. Students will become familiar with a broad spectrum of data cleaning, transformation, analysis, and visualization techniques helpful for answering in-depth questions based on geospatial data. Students will learn how to prepare raw source data and subsequently apply both global and local spatial analysis techniques, resulting in advanced, interactive data visualizations.

  • Collaborative Geovisualization

This course will enable students to build rich, user-centered web interfaces to promote the exploration and understanding of complex spatial datasets. Students will be able to critically engage with a variety of data sources (e.g., public data repositories, crowdsourced or volunteered data) and design interactive cartographic solutions in order to visualize geographic information. Students will be able to augment prototypical ‘slippy’ web maps through more advanced cartographic enablements and accompany information graphics.

  • Social Impacts of New Mapping (seminar)

This seminar introduces social and cultural issues that have emerged alongside the growth of digital mapping and location based services. It reviews the evolving nature of digital divides, expert versus crowdsourced knowledge, surveillance, privacy and the ethics of big geospatial data collection and use. Students will utilize these discussions of the social impacts of new mapping to challenge and contextualize their own mapping projects.

  • Final Project Preparation

This course will enable students to design and prepare a web mapping workflow for a project of their own selection. This project is the masterwork for the master’s degree program in digital mapping. Students will determine a geographic problem mapping can address, identify user needs, review relevant literatures, address ethical concerns, collect and prepare the data necessary for the project. Students will also propose strategies for data representation, user interface and online dissemination of the project. This course will culminate with a project design presentation and critique by peers and instructors.

  • Final Project Implementation

This course builds upon the project design developed in the project preparation course and develops a mapping project based on this outline. Students will conduct data analysis, iteratively review and improve the map user interface, produce written documentation on methods used and findings and engage in intense testing of the mapping solution with peers and targeted end users. At the end of the course, students will make a real time online oral presentation and defense of the project for a committee of faculty members.