He can read more from a map than from a book. And to him an atlas represents a cartographic challenge. He has written eight thematic atlases and carries ideas for many more in his head. Professor Vít Voženílek, Head of the Department of Geoinformatics, Faculty of Science, Palacký University, Olomouc has already accomplished many of his dreams. Now he is most satisfied by watching his students grow professionally.
As a student, he wished to create maps that would be useful. When he succeeded, he had another dream – to publish at least one atlas. To date, he has made eight of them. “But I still see many topics. I am very tempted to make a school atlas for a state that does not have one yet. As far as the Czech Republic is concerned, I see a number of topics that would be worth exploring. Perhaps an atlas of the impact of climate change on the quality of life. Or a new modern language atlas – how people speak in different regions and how dialects are maintained,” says Vít Voženílek.
You are a geographer, cartographer, professor of geoinformatics. How do you combine these specializations?
I studied mathematics and geography for teaching, still during socialism. At that time there was an embargo on information technology. After November 1989, I saw where the West had advanced in computerization, digitalization and mathematization of geography. This was where the idea of building a department of geoinformatics at the Faculty of Science came from. All these fields are in symbiosis, so I cannot tell you from what percentage I am a geographer, cartographer or geoinformaticist. Geography is a great foundation, the solution of space – territory. A lot of maps. If I start to address these issues through information and communication technologies, geoinformatics and digital cartography are on the rise. But there are two things that need to be separated. If I develop new methods for geography based on the use of computers, sensors, satellites, then this formation of methods and treading paths for geosciences is the real geoinformatics. However, if a geographer then uses these processes to measure soil erosion, climate monitoring, and transport accessibility modeling, it is modern geography based on geoinformation technologies. And then a geoinformaticist seeks another task for his research and development. Information technology has also penetrated into modern cartography in the form of computer and web tools or virtual reality.
Computer literacy is increasing and people have access to a variety of technologies and techniques. Aren´t geoinformaticists therefore becoming an endangered species?
Do you think that computer literacy is increasing? What if we witness digital dementia as we know it from Manfred Spritz's book? Whenever hard and demanding work gets easier, a man as well as the society loses a lot of skills. With every new navigation system we forget how to navigate in space. But I agree that on the other hand, digital literacy is definitely improving in terms of the use of digital tools and instruments. However, we must realize that they are designed to be easy to operate and resistant to misuse. We are able to plug in an expensive television at home and handle a new type of phone, because we are helped by technological development striving for being as natural as possible. On the contrary, literacy in terms of knowledge of algorithms and programming is, in my opinion, decreasing and will decrease. Above all, society needs to have respect and confidence in technology. It is necessary to realize with humility that if I do not know something, there are experts who know it better. Nowadays we can see a large group of professions that do not have enough knowledge of geoinformatics, be it the media or some natural or social sciences. That is why I see a lot of poor or even wrong maps around me. For us at the department it is a reason not only to do geoinformatics, but also to promote its application in practical life. In addition to research and education, it is the third role of geoinformatics that we want to fulfill.
There are several map definitions. But what does a map mean to you?
I have been working with maps for a very long time and have a personal relationship with them. Therefore, I would rather talk about what a map should represent in society – a respected and irreplaceable basis for decision-making. Many people do not even realize that they have learned from maps. Either by looking into it or someone told them the information they had read from the map. It is automatic and natural.
Maps are definitely changing. Is it possible to follow certain trends in this area as well?
In cartography, what is well-established and proven must be maintained. On the other hand, there are many new issues, and important questions being raised. How can we map the universe? Or, for instance, how to visualize big data, how to choose the essence of it and what means of expression to choose? There is talk of machine learning. How to use it? Virtual scenes are also a form of visualization. Are they understandable enough? We see a lot of infographics in the newspapers. We have to ask if it is not misleading for an average reader and look for its best forms. These are the issues that cartography is now addressing. For each new finding in a variety of areas, one can think about how to visualize and map it.
Can everything be visualized? Are there certain limits?
If I said yes, I probably could not prove it. But we can say that it is possible to try to visualize everything. How it turns out is a different story. Even drawing or photography is a type of visualization, but it is not a map. The map is based on an absolutely neutral graphic language that anyone, anytime, anywhere can read.
You said that a cartographer must follow the rules. How much space remains for his creativity?
When students come and are untouched by the knowledge of cartography, they have a very wide range of what they consider to be a good and correct map. During our studies we try to teach them the ability to narrow the scope and to recognize all the mistakes and shortcomings. So we try to give them certain limits. But it is never possible to lay out only one correct line, there is no single correct solution in map processing. There is always room for a personal approach. Thirty students can submit thirty different maps for a single assignment and all will be correct. Each cartographer gradually creates his own style. Sometimes this can also be limiting, because it may be difficult to step out of your own shadow and come up with something new. I try to avoid this by working with students. Their crazy ideas that I would not think of are often inspiring.
So what is a right and wrong map? Does a layman have a chance to recognize it?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Depending on how much the cartographic rules are violated, guaranteeing correct and accurate communication of the recorded information on the map. It is a mistake, if one gets wrong information from the map.
Maps are gathered into atlases which you are very fond of. You have created eight of them…
Yes, and at home in my collection I have about 14.5 meters of atlases. I had to buy an apartment where I could have a study with atlases. I really consider the atlas as the most complex work. In cartography atlas represents a challenge.
You focus on thematic and atlas cartography. Can you specify it?
Thematic maps are those that give priority to a selected topic in the map content, such as geological conditions, weather forecasts or the spread of infectious diseases. There can be a huge variety of thematic maps. I compare building a map to the process of translating speech into script. For a thematic map, you convert information about a topic into cartographic characters. It is not easy to do. You need to have technique, data, knowledge of the topic and cartographic skills. But it is even more difficult when you have to make 30 such maps corresponding with one another. And the peak is to create an atlas from 200 maps. People take an atlas for granted, but that does not mean it is easy to create.
Let's go back to the atlases you made. Which one was the most challenging?
I feel like every atlas is more demanding than the previous one. Although, it should actually be the other way around. But perhaps we can say that the most demanding and at the same time the most successful was the first one, the Atlas of the climate of the Czech Republic. A cartographer must show respect for the field to which the atlas thematically belongs. The cartographer knows what form the atlas should take, but the content must be given by a "themes man". This is a word I have introduced to denote an expert in the field that is being mapped. One expert is a climatologist, another one a geographer or a political scientist. Interaction is needed to break down stereotypes and some professional blindness. It is important that the map is understandable to users, not just the authors.
Can you find common ground with everyone?
Surprisingly, it is most difficult in fields where many maps already exist and are very well established. For example, people in forestry or urban planning are constantly working with maps and have some very well established approaches. Often, they do not even communicate with each other, let alone a cartographer. But I really enjoy meeting different experts. The overlap into other disciplines has always attracted me. I know I will not discover a new island anymore, but I can open new chambers full of maps in different fields to open up new horizons for their members. I managed to do this with the Atlas of Special Education Centers, which was created in cooperation with colleagues from the Faculty of Education. The maps show how differently the centers' clients use special care facilities for children with hearing, visual, physical and other disabilities, how the network of centers is unbalanced and other facts that came as a surprise to many special educators.
There are places in the world that have not yet been mapped. Is there a topic that for you personally would be a white place to color?
As a student, I had a great dream - to make maps that would be useful. When I succeeded, a new wish arose - to make at least one atlas. I have created several of them, so I have done that too. But I still have one more dream related to my collection of school atlases from different countries. I am very tempted to make a school atlas for a state that does not yet have one. As far as the Czech Republic is concerned, I see a number of topics that would be worth exploring. For example, I try to get a colleague from the Institute of Hydrometeorology to make an atlas of the impact of climate change on the quality of life. But I do not want to say that I have one topic that I intend to master by the end of my professional career. For example, I would love to compose a new modern language atlas - how people speak in different regions or how dialects are maintained. With the Czech Language Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic we have submitted a project for "geoinformatization" of this issue. I really hope we will succeed.
An important part of your professional career is teaching. What news does your department brag about?
We are proud to have a double degree program with the University of Salzburg and the University of Southern Brittany starting this academic year. The project is for five years. Students will study for a year in Salzburg and then either in France or Olomouc. Another novelty is that, if it works out, we will be the first to teach geoinformatics in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. We have new accreditations from bachelor studies to professorship. And we are trying to open a new follow-up distance study because we perceive interest from practice.
Are secondary school students interested in geoinformatics?
High-school students are interested, but if there were more of them, I would be happier. Educating new professionals is what I see as the most important thing in my career right now. I am no longer interested in writing new grants and creating new atlases. It is important for me to see our how our students move incredibly forward during their studies and then start their dream jobs.