Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Old is new again (and again)

Cartography has always reinvented itself. This is partly as new technology matures and we're able to do things faster, better and more easily than before. We tend to experiment on tried and tested techniques to replicate them as a means of testing. Technology catches up and a map is released on the world who mostly won't have seen it before... but which can have the unintended consequence of appearing to reinvent or, worse, plagiarising to those that have. Is this a problem?

Unfortunately I was unable to attend the 2014 FOSS4G conference in Portland this year. I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the 2013 event in Nottingham, UK where I helped organise and curate the Map Gallery. I was therefore very interested in seeing how the maps have developed for the 2014 event though I had to sadly decline an invitation to help out with the judging! The entries and results can be seen here.

There were the usual mix of mashups and people simply entering re-styled Openstreetmap data. The former seems to be continuing to mature as we're moving beyond push-pinology. The latter, for me at least, is getting rather tedious. It's great that there are many tools out there that allow people to re-style basic topographic map data but that only sustains cartography for a limited time. It's painting by numbers, literally...and cartography is far more than that. It's what you do with your map and how you integrate the base mapping meaningfuly with your own or other data where something interesting happens. That leads to a third class of map...the ones that don't pour themselves into a template or use too much third party data or tools. It's in this space that we're seeing quite a bit of invention (and reinvention) as people make use of new browser capabilities or their ability to customise through code.

I was therefore intrigued to see my good friend and colleague Bernie Jenny collect a couple of awards for his Plan Oblique Relief Shading work. Bernie's been doing fantastic things in cartography for a number of years. His relief shading web site and his many software tools show off some of the products of his research into the cartographic representation of terrain. I particularly like his Terrain Bender tools and his Adaptive Composite Map Projections work.

The Plan Oblique Relief web app he's built is terrific. He's built a new, interactive app that allows you to play with the variables to see how the technique gets modified for European relief. Inclination, hypsometrical tints, hill-shading zenith and azimuth as well as map rotation are all supported. I'm going to assume the awards were for this innovation though there's a part of me who wonders how many of the FOSS4G attendees had seen plan oblique before? We'll never know that...but Bernie's new work, with new technology brings to life a technique that can be traced back to Xavier Imfeld's work in 1887.

Here's Bernie's map (click it to go to the app itself):

And here's Imfeld's work:

The technique has also been used extensively by Roger Smith in his fantastic maps of New Zealand:

Both Bernie and Roger have been totally open about the lineage of their work. They don't claim the technique but they've taken it and developed something new and interesting because new technology allows them to do so. This is great for cartography but...

I would like to see more people do their due diligence and both reflect on the lineage of their own work and be clear about their inspirations. I see far too many map-makers try and pass off their work as 'new' when in fact you don't have to dig too far to see that someone else has gone before. Imitation is, of course, the sincerest form of flattery and I have no issue whatsoever with people building on the work of others...but that's the point. Your work should build upon something and be clear about its heritage.

Old is always new again in cartography. Perhaps we just need to be a little more honest in appreciating that fact rather than trying to leapfrog the past and hoping our map-readers know no better. I've been caught out by this before and I claim to know a little about maps. It is incumbent on us all to not try and dupe our map readers because they will have less reason to question authenticity and lineage.

As a postscript I've been trying to engineer a plan oblique technique in my day job with ArcGIS. No luck yet but I'll crack on.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Just an A

Alberto Cairo's great blog post on the issue of constructive criticism and snark (as in snide remarks) turned into an interesting discussion with some really good contributions. Muggins waded in because I was mentioned in the original post and thought I had some comments to share...including a throwaway line about my first map getting an A+ at University.

And my, didn't the inevitable people enjoy that nugget and wade in with some snark of their own. Curious that because they're the very same people who purport to hate anyone throwing snark in their direction.

Anyway, I've got to hold my hand wasn't an A+ I got, I dug out the work and dammit...just an A. So just for your enjoyment here's the cover of my very first map from University in 1989.

It was an A5 brochure designed to support the Monsters of Rock concerts at Castle Donington near my home town. When opened you got the layout of the concert site and all the important information...such as 'bar' being the first legend item:

The copy I have is getting a little tired and the ink has smudged but the map is still fairly legible. All hand drawn on drawing film with computer generated lettering positioned by hand, symbol design, drawing pen on film etc etc. Lots of work went into this little map.

The back cover had smaller scale location maps:

And here's my lecturer's grade and feedback of which I remain very proud. His name was Roger Anson...a damn fine man and a brilliant lecturer. I was privileged to have learnt cartography from him and his colleagues Mike Childs, Stuart Granshaw and John Robertson.

I've always been particularly proud of his last statement. I always have been someone who tries and helps people do better work. It's why I eventually went into academia and enjoyed helping my own students aspire to be better and to achieve their own goals. It's why I moved to work in the U.S. to help the company I work for make better products to help people make better maps. It's why I take a full and active part in the community with this somewhat snarky blog and a whole load of other far more sensible and unsnarky work.

I also dug this gem out too...not one of my better pieces but I think it was piece of work set to try and create equal looking qualitative shading schemes on an early Mac using just lines. Tough project. Terrible map (by today's standards?)

So there you have it friends...or if you're not a friend and just someone who thinks they know me through my tweets and this blog then maybe we'll get a chance to meet one day and share some constructive ideas.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

LyricMap: Born in the U.S.A.

Number 3 in an occasional series of LyricMaps is loosely based on Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A.

A hot spot analysis (using Getis-Ord Gi*) in GIS defines statistically significant neighbouring areas that are above or below the global average. Stronger red hot spots define neighbouring areas that have either more or less people born in the U.S.A., compared to the national average. More red (a hot spot) equates to more people born in the U.S.A. and more blue (a cold spot) equates to more people not born in the U.S.A based on data from the 2010 census. Areas shaded in neither blue or red have no statistically significant populations born in the U.S.A. or not so they are similar to the national average.

The counties in New Jersey, Bruce Springsteen’s home state, are all cold spots with more people not born in the U.S.A. unlike Bruce.

Data analysis by Madeleine Parker and Linda Beale. Map by Kenneth Field 

Voronoi treemap maps

The New York Times flexed their considerable graphic muscles this week with some superb interactive charts showing how the population composition of U.S. States has changed over time. You can check them out here.

They really are beautiful graphs. Simple, clean, lots of 'white space', good hierarchy of typeography and excellent use of colour linking to a small map legend. They even provide some additional discussion and as you hover over the graph the intersection between time period and place gives you some basic metrics.

They then added to this excellent set of graphs with an interactive map of the same data; a new kind of map that they're calling a voronoi treemap map.

The data has been pivoted so the focus is on space in contrast to the focus being predominantly on time in the graphical representation. You can pick one of three time slices to explore how patterns vary spatially. The hovers still work extremely well and one click zooms to a state...great user interaction and experience. The benefits of looking at a map instead of the graph are that it should support the visual comparison from place to place. That's not something you can do with the graphs with each one only illustrating a single state...but what about the map?

What fascinated me about the map is the technique. The use of voronoi polygons to sub-divide space into a tesselation of shapes that represent different proportions is nothing new. Treemaps are also nothing new and have been used very successfully as a sort of area-based cartogram. Here, though, NYT have combined the techniques and used a bounding space (each State) inside of which space is tesselated based on the proportion of the population from different other places. It's not something I've seen before and it's always worth looking at experimental cartography.

Does it work?

I like the idea and I like the attempt at trying something new. However, I see two issues that I feel undermine the map and what it offers.

Firstly, the voronoi polygons are only proportional intra-state and not inter-state so you get polygons with the same percentages of populus that are visually quite different to polygons with the same value in another state (see Texas compared to Oklahoma state-born residents, both 61% but one visually dominates). The point about putting anything on a map is to create visual comparisons and the voronois are, effectively, unequal in area from state-to-state so incomparable visually. The relative areas of each state underpin what we see. Since we're visually comparing one place to another and forming a mental picture at first glance Texas would seem to have a larger number of State-born residents than Oklahoma. I'm not sure there's an easy solution unless you turn the voronois into a population-equalizing cartogram (e.g. the Gastner Newman) to account for the different sized areas. It'd certainly be interesting to see what happens if they were equalised by population or area.

My second observation is really just about the design and layout. In each state the surrounding voronoi fragments seem to be randomly positioned around the central voronoi polygon that represents the people born in-state. If you look at the small legend map on the graph version you see that the orange, green, blue and pink colours are used to suggest west, south-west, north and north-east. It would have been nice if the surrounding voronois were arranged so they sit on a compass direction to where the state actually exists. So for each state the oranges would always be on the left, the blues to the north etc. This may bring some sense of structure to the map and avoid the somewhat random positioning we currently see.

Overall I think there's a lot of merit in this new map technique but it probably needs some more thinking to make it really useful.