Tuesday 9 October 2012

Cartomyopia II: Second sight

My blog post last week entitled Cartomyopia got quite an interesting reaction from a wide range of people.  Generally, I received very positive feedback with a good number of people relating well to the general argument I was trying to articulate.  I did manage to irk Tom MacWright (@tmcw) of MapBox though. We had a brief Twitter exchange and Tom then wrote up some of his own thoughts over at github.

Blogs are consumed by all sorts of different people for whatever reasons they might be vaguely interested.  I do not know Tom either personally or professionally.  I know a little of his work and those of his colleagues and they are making a really valuable contribution to the world of mapping.  Likewise, Tom doesn't know me (made clear in his comments).  Here's where it gets potentially sticky...Tom clearly disagreed with a number of points I made but based on false presumptions in many instances. That's fine...it's his prerogative....though the point of this sequel is to just throw a little light on my background and try and offer some additional context based on the points he rasied.

Academic vs hacking
If I understand, I'm badged as an academic. Tom has a hacking mindset.  The former is perceived to think of cartography via books and papers and then apply theory to make a map. The latter has a go, iterates and makes a map that way.  It's too simplistic a view.  I first hacked a map together using GIMMS in the late 1980s. I've coded my fair share of maps using a range of different languages (GIMMS, AML, Avenue, ArcObjects, Processing). I have run a successful cartographic consultancy as well as worked for a number of non-profit organisations. I've also used just about every commercial and open source GIS, cartographic and illustrative software that's been around since the early 90s.  So yes, I understand the academic mindset...but the assumption I don't understand or appreciate the hacking mindset is a little wide of the mark. I agree, it is not how I have spent the majority of my career to date but there seems to be some sort of impression about what an academic is and does...it's so often wide of the mark.

To my mind the world is big enough to accommodate all sorts of map-makers.  I am not prejudiced about the approach people take and certainly not based on their technology of choice. Cartomyopia can afflict anyone of whatever technical persuasion/cultural mindset, job, career or educational background.  Many map-makers now come from a computer science background.  Great! Actually, we need to ensure that cartography thrives as new technologies emerge.  I actually find that by working together the best of both approaches serves to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.  One of my former University colleagues (James O'Brien) and I put together a project in 2007 that took a couple of years to iterate.  I brought the cartographic know-how, James brought Javascript skills.  We worked well and the project wouldn't have come to fruition without the combination of our skill-sets. I've worked successfully with many others in this way to create collaborative products.

Anyone can make a map
Yes...they can; but this doesn't make me angry.  I see it as a challenge and an opportunity which was the whole thrust of the blog.  My comment "I don't know what it is about maps but for some reason everyone thinks they can make one." in the original blog is not meant to be taken out of context.  I was referring to the idea that many (most?) people think their maps work when actually, they might not. Yes, they can make one but do they have the understanding to know if it actually works or is fit for purpose? I own a nice set of cooking pans. I can throw together a meal but I'm not a chef. If I want to make something a little more nuanced then I'll consult someone who knows the recipe, a book, a web site, my mum(!) to inform my cooking.  In my experience cartography is often eschewed by amateur map-makers probably because they don't even know it exists.  When they find out (or are shown)...they generally find it useful and the light gets switched on.  Their map-making becomes all the more informed because of it.  This doesn't have to be academically driven...many of the great cartographic works were made by non-cartographers which is both hugely ironic but also serves as a reminder that cartographers don't own map-making.  All they can claim is they have had a form of training that gives them insight and a knowledge base on which to call upon to inform their work. Most of my favorite maps are by non-cartographers. So are the majority of maps made these days.  I just advocate that those with a little cartographic knowledge might be able to both offer help and also do so without being condescending to improve maps in general terms.

Software cost and accessibility
I've seen this debate on both sides.  In University we had an embarrassment of riches and access to all sorts of software and data at reduced cost. Students often found themselves at a loss on graduation when they realised they no longer had access to the 'expensive' software and 'free' data.  But there are alternatives and a ridiculous amount of choice.  Cost is no longer a barrier to making a good map.  We're not so much seeing a democratisation of mapping but a democratisation of both the tools and data to allow people to make the maps...these drivers have supported one another.  Commercial software has a place. So does free.  People will (mostly) make their own choices as to what they need, want, can afford etc to support their own endeavors.  Technology comes in all shapes and sizes.  I've used most of it to a greater or lesser extent over the last 20 odd years. I have my preferences...and even those preferences come with irritating limitations but hey, we each choose our sword of choice and make the best of it.  My choice might not be to everyone's taste but there are plenty of alternatives to suit every taste and pocket.

Form and function are unconnected
No, they are intrinsically connected but my impression over the last couple of years has been that form is overtaking function. Too few are imbuing their maps with good data preparation and analysis and choosing a suitable mapping technique to communicate effectively.  I'm not being a grouche...merely observing a trend.  Do we want a world of picto-bite mapping or a world of well constructed maps? I don't have a problem with popular or short-lived maps (I did a load for the Olympics...all worthless now but they went well for a couple of weeks) but I would like to see the search for the next cool 'looking' map at least matched by the next cool 'constructed' map. NYT are doing a great job of getting the balance right...and that's all I'm advocating...finding a balance between form and function so that one supports the other.  If you check out some of my previous work and look at the back-story to some maps I've made they are deliberately playful in how they balance form with function...particularly one whose function was to win a competition and whose form was designed with that (and the viewers in that arena) in mind. Sod the map...it was a blatant attempt to fool the viewing public and get votes (it worked). Form and function ARE connected.  Evidence suggests that some map-makers need to work harder to get the balance right because too many maps overplay form. Carl Steinitz offered a memorable quote at a seminar I attended a couple of years ago: "too many data visualisations these days go round and round and up and down without saying very much and, worse, they're often accompanied by music". He states very eloquently where I stand on this. Form is great (and I like aesthetics and beauty in cartography as much as anyone)...but when it's matched by a well conceived and connected function that's when a map really works.

No lasting purpose
Maybe Tom and I do disagree fundamentally here.  So many maps these days are made without longevity in mind.  Maybe that's a function of the fact they can be more easily made using a computer than a scribing pen (yes, I did used to make maps that way).  I don't see this as bad per se, but I think it lulls people into a false sense of the map's value.  The investment of time it used to take to make a map was far longer in most cases so my feeling is that people spent longer thinking about detail and finessing the map.  Even MapBox's tagline includes the phrase 'publish in minutes' (and so do most other suppliers of map-making software or solutions I agree). Speed is vital but so is taking the time to think and work out the map.  Even in my own degree course I recall spending an 11 week programming class building a single choropleth map. There were something like 800 lines of code that defined every single mark on the map. I had to think about every single mark, line, piece of text and so on. Now, I could make that same map in minutes (and probably make it go round and round and up and down accompanied by music) but would I be able to make a good map if I hadn't had a background that forced me to think carefully about each mark on the map? I'm not so sure. The map-making process is now compressed and made easy by many different map-making products and tools and yes, to some extent maps are being churned out at such a rate I feel that the overall quality is being diluted.  Tom makes a great analogy to music and here's another...I see a lot of maps made by the latest kid who just won a reality tv show and think they're suddenly the next John Lennon.  3 minute wonders, over-hyped and without any sort of lasting career. The Beatles? Elvis? etc etc...lasting careers built on hard graft. There are always some terrific one-hit wonders (musically and in map-form) but do we want the map version of Billboard to be full of one-hit derivative numbers by talent contest winners? Again...balance is the key else culturally our mapping will become as sterile as reality tv and all those look-a-like contestants.

Complaining vs doing
The blog was a call to 'doing' and a call to taking a constructive rather than destructive approach to offering opinion and advice.  I've been 'doing' pretty much most of my career.  My personal blog is not the place I 'do'. For that you want to see my other work, my editorial stuff, my maps, my ICA Commission stuff, my seminars, my papers, my professional blogs my...everything else that I contribute to the community that provokes thought and comment and shares advice, expertise and such like. Interesting that Tom raised Colorbrewer as something that Axis maps have done for humanity.  The irony here is that it was an academic project initially (Cindy Brewer and Mark Harrower). And in a beautiful twist, it was first published in the Journal I edit...The Cartographic Journal in 2003 for which it won a prestigious award as the best paper in that year. Sure, Mark re-programmed it and Axis now develop and host it (via his initial involvement) but it was an academic project that provided a great practical tool for map-makers.  Here then...academia underpinning practical cartography and sharing precisely the sort of work that helps people make better maps.  Commenting on someone's mindset and skillset on the back of reading a blog or two without reading their cv is not a good basis on which to characterise their wider contribution.

Free help
And here's the crunch...Tom seemed to work up to the punchline that he feels there is no help and that cartographers are not willing to avail themselves of time or assistance.  I said in the original blog that many that I knew are only too pleased to be asked advice and to offer help.  It's often not asked for or wanted which is where the disconnect might stem from but...I've been offering free help for years. I'd be more than happy to look over people's work and offer what advice I might have. I've done that personally and in various capacities, professionally.  I Chair an ICA Commission on Map Design and our un-paid remit is to support better mapping in the wider community. The same goes for all of the other ICA Commissions and I am quite sure if you have a question, anyone on the committees of these Commissions would be delighted to help. I am a member of a range of professional societies, most of which offer free (or nearly free!) advice.  The British Cartographic Society has a range of seminars and school workshops for instance as well as a small book which retails at less than $10. NACIS has it's own very successful online forum in CartoTalk and its journal Cartographic Perspectives is open access (read: free!). The Society of Cartographers also hosts a free discussion list (CARTO-SoC) for both members and non-members. I wrote a brief blog entry not so long ago with a few ideas for assessing the quality of your own map (or at least avoiding major goofs) and in my day job I put together a sort of QC/QA checklist to evaluate your maps. These are just a few of the independent ones...there are vendor specific places to seek advice. My employer has a range of web-based help for those that choose to make their maps that way.  There are plenty of repositories of examples and comment from other vendors as well...many of which are free to access.  Ultimately, help is often available if only people ask.  I'm quite sure those that base their livelihood on their advice will charge but there are many many others who won't charge. Want some advice? Here's my number...(kf.mapman@gmail.com). Call me maybe?

And finally...
This so-called division between old-skool cartographers and the new breed of map-makers has simply got to stop. This isn't the first time I've said so. Each has a really important role in the future of map-making and each needs to appreciate the approach and the value that the other brings. Building bridges and bringing people together is needed. Collaboration is the key. I don't care whether someone uses the latest open source package or some hideously expensive piece of proprietary software or whether they're creating a web map or a paper map, it's the final map product that interests me.  It should be well formed, functional and designed to communicate. Technology moves rapidly and changes all the time...and maps can be built with a clear focus at the outset or as an organic process of experimental iteration.  I'm one of those who is not afraid of technological change.  I've had to deal with it throughout my career as one mapping platform has overtaken another.  I've lost count of the number of different ways I've employed to make a simple map and the number of different platforms I've used to teach cartography...some easier than others, each with their infuriating compromises. Change is good. New map-makers are good. Holding on to out-moded views and not rolling with the punches is no good for anyone...but it doesn't mean we should disregard that vast body of cartographic work that can be used to make better maps. Academic cartography or hacking? Two worthwhile components in the wider world of cartography (there are, of course others as well!).

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