Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Building the world

I've always really enjoyed building things. As a kid I had a lot of Lego: a huge box of the stuff. I also made dozens of Airfix kits and recall a giant Millenium Falcon that for some bizarre reason I once decided to see how far it would fly from my bedroom window. It didn't but that's another story altogether.

I have long held the notion that Lego is more of an adult plaything than a children's toy. It's expensive. The kits get larger and more extravagant every year. There's little chance I'd have been gifted many of the kits my adult solvency has enabled me to buy and enjoy building. I know many adults who enjoy building Lego. But there's always been a set that's eluded me...a globe. Lego, to my knowledge, have never made a globe as a set. And yet if you go to one of their parks you'll see them. Here, a giant at Legoland California:




A sphere is a technically challenging build. It has to look like a sphere for a start, which is a major difficulty when your basic building blocks are cuboid in shape. I am also nowhere nearly proficient enough to design a globe myself. Thankfully there are master builders who do have the necessary chops. After many years exploring all of the various builds you can find online I went with this one by Dirk:

(animated gif from Dirk's site)


It's a 48-brick wide monster but, beyond the engineering, he made a real effort to get the cartography correct. For me, that was vital (obviously).

Dirk offers the plans for sale for an extremely modest price and so my adventure began. It took around 60 separate orders from Bricklink to collect the >3,800 bricks needed for the build. Some of the bricks are pretty rare and my globe was made from bricks from around 10 different countries as I had to scour the globe to find them all. Our postie wanted to know what the hell I was ordering with all the small parcels arriving, and at one point the mailbox was too stuffed full to fit any more in.

It took probably around 30 hours to build in total and dominated the dining room table for over a month...but it's finished and it is mighty impressive.  I customised my globe a little differently from Dirk's original but it's ostensibly the same build. I'll leave a few images below of the build but Dirk goes into a lot of detail about the model on his page. It's his work and I'm grateful that he spent the time and effort to make such a wonderful model. I'd refer you to Dirk's page if you want to find out more.

Maps and Lego...so much fun! So why don't Lego make a globe set? I've no idea!








PS. If you're attending the Esri User Conference in San Diego July 2018 then my Lego globe will be on display as part of a Creative Cartography exhibit. Stop by and take a look. There may even be a special Lego minifigure appearance.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Compiling lists

So you want to make a list? Be prepared for some shit. People simply hate it if your list doesn't tally with theirs, or their criteria, or you missed their favourite or...well, read on.

For both writing the book and developing the mooc I recently found myself attempting to compile lists of expert resources that I felt were worth sharing. The point of such lists, whether in a book or a blogroll, or just part of your personal bookmarks is to link to stuff you find useful. Stuff that you also think would widen people's exposure to information on a subject. Stuff written and shared by experts in their domain. My domain is cartography so the lists I want to compile are those that I think will be useful to people beyond what I have to say on the subject. They're lists collated over the years. I've had a smidgen of criticism for not including person x or person y, or this blog, or that blog so let me be clear about the criteria I used.

First and foremost, if it's a list of blogs or tutorials then it must be a blog or have content in a tutorial style - how tos, for instance. That precludes people's Twitter or Instagram accounts (which, by the way, I have included in the book as a list of interesting mapping people whose work is worth checking out and which DOES include many names people are mentioning to me). The blog has to be current and not appear to be on indefinite hiatus. It can't simply be a shroud for marketing. It has to be focussed and not a catch-all with the odd post on cartography. It has to be technique-driven, not just 'about maps'. It might be by one person or it might be by an organisation with multiple contributors. It can't just be stuff that you can find elsewhere in a better form. Crucially, it must be of a sufficient quality. It has to be something I find interesting, informative and useful. Often, something I learn from just as much as I hope others learn from. It has to exude expertise, not just regurgitated stuff that is better explained elsewhere.

Ultimately, with any list, you draw a line. The line demarcates what I consider to be a minimum quality (my list, my red line). It can't just be a list of anything and everything or include a particular person because the internet has decided they've won a popularity contest. It's been sorted, curated and I've done the work of identifying the signal from the noise based on the cartographic content and quality on offer that I consider marks it out from the rest. Some may disagree and that's their prerogative but the beauty of the internet is mine isn't the only list. Others exist. Importantly, many of those I include on my lists will link to others that I don't include and so the process of learning where to seek information is somewhat organic.

I want people to get to the 'best' first. I'm tired of the vast unsorted soup of the internet providing a mouthpiece for anyone who thinks they have cartographic chops to be seen as a self-styled go-to. Often, the evidence is in short-supply. Really, you may think you're great because you have thousands of 'followers' or a gazillion 'likes' but that metric is also just noise. All I have done is pulled out some gems; sifted them from the mass conglomerate and suggested their work is worth being considered as best practice. It's not simply about highlighting the work of my buddies or, conversely, ignoring that of people I perhaps don't necessarily agree with.

As someone from an academic background, compiling such lists is no different to doing research for a project, an essay or a journal paper. You seek prior knowledge to frame your own work. You cite your sources, references and inspiration. You don't just throw in a list of every single Google hit that includes a particular keyword. You don't cite the newest reference you find based on current volume, you seek the original source and give credit where it's due. Expanding the metaphor, if someone asks me for a reference or recommendation for someone they're considering hiring do I give an honest appraisal or just say he or she is a nice person? It has to be about the work. Not the person. It's exactly the same to how I critique maps. It's about the map as a product and what it does or doesn't offer, not the person or organisation who made it.

Your reputation is at risk if you perjure yourself when giving any sort of recommendation. If you end up wasting people's time by recommending a person ill-suited to a job, or you send them to a blog that, actually, really isn't particularly useful in the wider scheme of things then you lose the trust of your audience and trust is crucial. I've developed a lot of really good connections in the cartographic world over the years. Many trust me for advice and comment. Some disagree, but that's OK. If I start selling-out or bullshitting just to please someone then I lose all of that. I lose the reputation of someone who tries to be honest, straight-talking and giving of objective comment. I have my cartographic likes and dislikes but I'm open about them and I confidently stand by them.

Sorting out what is of a high enough quality is part of the process of determining any list. For a list of useful cartographic material it should be as objective as possible in the sense of not precluding based on anything other than the quality of the cartographic comment. That is how I approached it. I also sought comment from others who recommended some I'd missed or hadn't known about. Yes, I've seen plenty of other blogs, web sites and collections of resources. Why aren't they in my lists? They didn't make the cut because the quality didn't warrant it. It's as simple as that. And the lists I have compiled have not been done so in a vacuum. The list of resources for the mooc was reviewed by the team. The lists that appear in the book were reviewed by impartial reviewers and a large editorial team. Hard questions were asked. Discussion over why some were included or excluded were part of the process and justifications were made.

Let me be honest though - there's an ugly tribalism at work. There are many people who I know have no internet presence and whose work is stellar. Just because you're online it does not necessarily make you worth listening to. You want other divides that people hang their cartographic allegiance on?...proprietary/open source; Adobe/GIS; drawing/coding; desktop/browser; PC/MAC; old/new; academic/maker; old bloke/cool kid; Blogger/Tumblr. the list goes on. People increasingly identify with a tribe that supports their own echo chamber and that also tends to give rise to lists that suit that meme. I genuinely try to go beyond that and I'd ask that you try and look beyond it too.

And finally, there's the elephant in the room - under-representation. If people identify under-represented socio-economic/age/gender/geographic groups in my (or any) list then please don't think for one minute that there's bias in the selection whatsoever. What you may very well be identifying is under-representation in the source, in this particular case blogs written by cartographic folks. So the bigger question is how come this sort of online content doesn't better reflect the wider world. Let me give you an example using the demographics of Twitter use. 67% of all internet users use social media. People who live in cities tend to use social media more than those who live in rural areas (geographic inequality). Only 16% of those who use social media use Twitter (platform inequality) and they are most likely to be adults aged between 18-29 (age inequality)...and male (gender inequality). So by definition, if your source is Twitter then anything you do with information will undeniably reflect the character of those that use it and miss those that don't. That doesn't denigrate those that don't or deliberately shun them. If those who write cartographic blogs tend to reflect wider patterns in the use of social media then any list will likely reflect the same. And I wholeheartedly encourage increased participation from any and all under-represented groups to give a better balance.

So, you want my list? Here's the one that's in my forthcoming book and you can download it as a small poster here.



If you post links below citing a blog, tutorial or person's work that I didn't include then two things. First, if it's genuinely something I am not aware of then I'll give it due consideration and it'll be included in future lists if it makes the grade. Second, you are, of course, presuming I haven't already considered it and decided it wasn't going to be included (based on the criteria I explain above) and that's already the case with many that have already been proposed on other social media platforms. Thanks.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

A new map in prospect

We took @wisley_dog to one of his favourite local parks the other day. Prospect Park in Redlands is a lovely spot that sits a little up the hill in south Redlands offering spectacular views across the San Bernardino valley to the mountains beyond. It's a mix of trails, orange groves, places to picnic and also houses an outdoor amphitheatre. It's also next to Kimberly Crest House - one of Redlands historic houses. At 11 acres it's not a large park.

Like many, we parked on Cajon St and entered the park by its North-East access points. There's a shady picnic spot and, as I found, a new information board which houses a new map of the park. Here it is, measuring about 3ft wide:


That's a lot of map for a small park. It kinda ruined my walk. It likely ruined Linda and Wisley's walk too as I bent their ear about the map and its problems. So let me bend your ear too and, hopefully, in the process, show you how to critique a map.

On the face of it it looks nice enough but as with anything that's dressed nicely it can often deceive. So let's deconstruct it a little and have a conversation about some of the cartographic and design choices.

The information board is located on the North-East edge of the park. You look at it facing South-West. Yet the map is oriented with North-West at the top to align Highland Ave with the top edge of the paper. This makes absolutely no sense. Fundamentally, the map is oriented incorrectly. These sort of in situ maps need to be oriented so the map is laid out as you look at the park in front of you. This map should have Cajon St at the foot of the sheet and, as you look (and wander) beyond the map you can then easily process the lefts, rights and other locations of points of interest in the park. Rotate the map and you get this which is far more useful from that location:


This is an all too familiar problem of maps on information boards like this. It simply needs the people who commission the map and those making it to have a conversation about where it's going to be displayed. It means if it's to be displayed at several locations it should be rotated accordingly but that's not difficult if you use a GIS and it's data-driven. It's also not difficult with some forward thinking as this other Redlands park map shows. The Caroline Park map is on a board on the south edge of the park. North is top and you stand looking at the map, looking northwards. Perfect. It's also a beautifully illustrated map that shows you the function of different parts of the park as well as the flora and fauna you may see.



Back to the Prospect Park map. Orientation is not the only problem. The labeling is awful because you have difficulty reading it.


Simply overprinting black text (in boring Arial) over the background is never going to work. There's so many ways of improving this. Masks, Halos, Shadows. Anything! And there's leader lines everywhere. they're unnecessary.



There's so much space on the map which makes should make lettering it an absolute joy compared to most maps. And as far as the overlooks are concerned, a symbol might be more useful and that would obviate the need for a typographic element and three ugly leader lines altogether.

So...overlook. That tells you something. It means that there's some elevation throughout the park. Yet the map displays no information to warn the casual visitor that there nearly a 100ft elevation gain between Cajon St and the highest point. A vantage point that then allows such beautiful vistas towards the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains (and the San Andreas Fault but I try to ignore that most of the time). OK, but there's a network of nicely paved paths right? They're all shaded grey so they're all the same?

Imagine you're a wheelchair user or struggle with walking up a moderate incline. You'd not only be frustrated that the map shows no detail of the elevation gain but, worse, many of the trails are nothing more than dirt and gravel making them almost impossible to access for some people.

By making all the paths the same symbol type the map infers they are the same. Yes, you can drive up to the parking lot at the top via Prospect Drive but you can't take your car anywhere else. You can't similarly access it from the other apparent entrance on Cajon St either. the map might not need detailed contours other other ways to show elevation but showing how elevation changes along the trails would, at the very least, be an extremely helpful piece of information.

And what of the parking to the left of the map that you can access via Highland Ave? Well, technically, you have to go through the entrance to Kimberly Crest house to get there and that has a gate that is locked at times when the adjacent park is open. Useful information, particularly so you don't get locked inside with no way out. In fact, that car park is not really part of Prospect Park at all. It's the access to Kimberley Crest House and Prospect Court as this OpenStreetMap map helpfully symbolises by specifically not including it in the green that designates the park boundary.



Take a look at the OSM map again - it shows one route into the park for cars to get to the central parking lot. It shows clearly how you access it via Prospect Drive. It shows other trails inside the park differently to distinguish their use. But while we're at, it there is an error on this map too. If you access Prospect Drive from Highland Ave you cannot drive through and round the bottom edge of the park and into the Prospect Park lot that way. There's a chain across the road to prevent access. And neither OSM or the new Prospect Park map has the new footpath included between the Kimberley Crest car park and Highland Ave.

Zoom in to the OSM map. See those water fountains? Redlands can get kinda hot. Water fountains are important for dogs and humans alike. They should be on the map. The Prospect Park map has restrooms (labelled - maybe another case for a symbol?) but not water fountains. Makes the map a little partial with basic information.

And back to the map's background. At first glance the Prospect Park map appears to be a hand-drawn and painted map. I think it's based off some form of digital data (possibly even just traced off imagery). It looks OK but it could be so much better. Each orange tree gets a uniform symbol. A bit of rotation on each would make the groves look more organic and 'real'. And what about all the other vegetation? There's palms, giant mature specimen trees, a bamboo forest, seating and grassy areas to name a few major parkland types of ground cover. yet pretty much everything other than orange trees and the palms along Cajon St gets the same smudgy fill. This could have been so much more exciting with other tree species canopies or symbology.

There's also a small creek than runs between the picnic area beside Cajon St and the park beyond. Why wouldn't you mark that? It has 6ft walls despite not always having much water in it. It's hard to miss in reality yet the map makes no mention of it. It's a prominent feature yet all the map has to indicate anything is a bridge label next to a cross-hatched rectangle that is presumably supposed to represent the bridge itself. A bridge over what?

Possibly a spelling mistake too...lower left 'Orange trees on Terrance'. I think they mean 'terrace' though I can't be absolutely sure. I've never seen Terrance there. I don't know anyone named Terrance.

The north point thing seems to be a small apology wandering aimlessly in a vast space because there was a space and to cap off the entire map the title and credit lines are in Comic Sans - that font that every map-maker loves to hate. Is this a subtle bit of carto-trolling? Could be. Could just be a pointless use of Comic Sans that makes no sense on a map that otherwise uses Arial. And why on earth would set the title in horizontal letters aligned vertically? Use Comic Sans with purpose. Reserve it for the uses it was designed for (children, comics and, latterly, to support those with dyslexia). It has no place on an information map like this - in the same way Papyrus has no place on restaurant menus.

So...what to do. Well, I've had a moan. I've justified my thoughts based on what I know about cartography. I tell you what, I'll make another version (for free) and offer it to the City of Redlands Parks Division. I'll post back when it's done and invite anyone and everyone to critique my map. In the meantime, you'll find me at Caroline Park where I hope they're not planning to update the current map with a similarly weak replacement.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

In praise of insets

Sky News reports on the Scottish politician Tavish Scott (real name) as he proposes a ban on maps that use an inset to show Shetland. Utter nonsense.

His reasoning is that the 'islands should be in the right place on the map' and 'to ensure that in future that government publications and documents do reflect the reality of Scotland in terms of its geography, and not something that fits neatly on an A4 sheet of paper.'

Well let's just break down (sorry, I mean utterly destroy) his preposterous statements. Shetland (The Shetland Isles) is a part of Scotland. It's also part of Great Britain...and the British Isles... and the United Kingdom (and at the time of writing at least, Europe). The following usefully clarifies the terminology:



So in that sense it has a rightful place on any map of which any of those jurisdictions is the focus.

If you're not aware of where Shetland is in the world then this should help (map to scale, UK National Grid):



In simple geographical terms Shetland is approximately 130 miles from mainland Scotland though it's also on the same line of latitude as Bergen on the west coast of Norway at a distance of 200 miles. That's where it sits. At a nice northerly 60° 9' 11" N and 1° 8' 58" W. We can argue all you like whether it should be part of Scotland or, perhaps, a bit of waste left over from Slartibartfast's design of the Norwegian coastline but for now, it gets put on maps of Scotland and any other that includes Scotland. And that makes it a pain in the arse for cartographers.

By the way, did anyone spot I deleted France from the map above? Guess that'd annoy the French too but whatever, I doubt the scots or Scott cares much about that little cartographic editorial decision.

Anyway, as the scot, Scott, says, many maps are made on A4 (or any A series piece of paper where the length and width are in the same proportion). So here's the above map proportioned as A4:



The area outside the yellow line is superfluous to the map as the Republic of Ireland is irrelevant on many maps that show thematic data for Great Britain and Northern Ireland (or UK etc). So as a rough estimate the page only uses approximately 60% of its overall space to show the mapped content.

Put another way, we need a fifth of the entire page (above the green line) just to get Shetland on. That's Shetland, population 22,000. Or, in geographical terms, an island that is 566 sq miles which is 8x larger than the City of Glasgow but which has 27x fewer people. So you're making a decision to allow geography to not only influence the design but take an inordinately exaggerated status simply by virtue of position.

Now, admittedly there'e lots of lovely space for titles and legends and all the other crap we put on a map but, nevertheless, it's wasteful. But that's what you'd have to do if you want Shetland on the map, on that proportion of paper, in its correct geographical position. Alternatively, as Scott bemoans, cartographers will often use an inset and you'd end up with a map like this:



This fits the map to the paper (not the paper to the map). And there's far less wasteful space. Far less prominence to unpopulated swathes of water. And yet Shetland gets its own little special place on the map, with the addition of a neat border that clearly demarcates it. Often, Shetland is even exaggerated in scale to make the inset worthwhile. I bet you didn't notice but in the example above Shetland is about 25% bigger than it really is. So, if Scott wants Shetland back in its proper geographical location then he can have it reduced back to its real size too.

Insets are a neat solution and one that has served print mapping well for centuries. It's also a solution that people understand. You could add a small arrow and distance marker to point to where the inset exists in reality. Many even use a marked graticule to show clearly the lines of latitude and longitude that apply to the inset to make it clear that it differs from that of the main map. Even the Sky News article showed an historical example that clearly uses this technique (and note how exaggerated in size Shetland is on this too):


There's other considerations...

Returning to the City of Glasgow. In fact, any relatively populous place. They suffer horrendously on any maps of thematic data because large areas, perhaps relatively uninhabited or sparsely populated take visual prominence. Scotland is a great example. It's total population is around 5.3 million yet 1 million of them live in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Their population densities are far more than the far greater share of Scottish land, including Shetland. So why give such visual prominence to sparsely populated areas?

Insets are not just used to move geographically awkward places. They are commonly used to create larger scale versions of the map for smaller, yet more densely populated places. Often they are positioned over sparsely populated land to use space wisely. I'm guessing Scott would have an objection to an inset that, to his mind, would exaggerate the geographical importance of Glasgow compared to Shetland. Yet...in population terms it's a place of massively greater importance so one could argue it deserves greater relative visual prominence on the map. Many maps are about people, not geography.

In addition to moving Shetland south to make better use of map space, you could very well argue that you should use a cartogram to give far better relative visual prominence to the places where more people live and work. Now that will utterly delight Scott as it completely distorts geography. Not only could you have Shetland moved, but squished to an almost unrecognisable shape. Here you go Tavish...enjoy this beauty of population totals morphing geography (courtesy: worldmapper.org):


Whatever your view of insets (and Scott's is incorrect), there's so many valuable uses for them that counter the problems of geography making it awkward to make maps. Generations of cartographers have come up with novel solutions to many, if not all, of these dilemmas about what to show, where and how. And if the map has an overarching location map showing everything in its correct position then there can be absolutely no confusion whatsoever.

I would guess Scott would equally be horrified if Shetland was seen poking outside the graticule or neatline on an atlas page too - another common way in which maps break the rules of either geography or design in a creative way to simplify and communicate. He'd be delighted by this classic Times Atlas of the World page showing Shetland in its correct position as part of The British Isles but horrors of horrors...Rockall (also a part of Scotland so has equal rights on a map based on Scott's nonsense...but ignore the more northerly Faroe Islands, not part of Scotland) slips off the left edge:



And what of digital maps? Scott seems to be stuck in the age of print cartography because insets are rarely, if ever, a requirement in digital cartography. Everywhere exists where it is. The map is slippy and you can pan and zoom to your heart's content. Want to see a densely populated area? Zoom right on in. In fact, whisper it quietly in case Scott is listening but...if he uses the standard Web Mercator web map he not only gets Shetland in its rightful position AND it's also exaggerated in size compared to the southerly latitudes of mainland England by virtue of the projection. Now isn't that the map he really wants?