Thursday, 4 October 2012

Cartomyopia

I had a nice email discussion today about a map.  I'll save the blushes of the person(s) who made it but it was a little (ahem!) sub-par. Thing is, it won't be long before it's touted by marketeers as being the next greatest thing....then it struck me. The world is suffering from a hideous new affliction...cartomyopia.

I've been pondering for quite some time now how we can encourage people to make better maps.  As an ex-University lecturer I could do this in class and students would enter the workforce able to make their analysis look good on a map and communicate properly.  I'm very proud of a good number of my former students whose work makes me smile in the right way.  I'm also proud to have been involved in the British Cartographic Society's Better Mapping workshops as far back as 2006. But what about those that never received any formal training or go to a workshop? What about those who can't be bothered reading a few pages from a book or a web site that shows them some useful tips? What about those who are just plain too arrogant to receive constructive criticism?  Well, these people, my friends, are cartomyopic.  They suffer from the short-sighted delusion that their carto work works...that it is beyond reproach and that no amount of advice or critical comment could possibly improve it.  They suffer from a lack of awareness that cartography (and cartographers) might have something to offer to help them make their work better.

I don't know what it is about maps but for some reason everyone thinks they can make one. Why is it when faced with the need to do some statistical analysis most will run a mile, not even engage in the process and try and find someone else to do the work...but when it comes to the map, sure, pass me the crayola and I'll whip one up for ya!  It's partly because software makes it easier than ever and for those interested in making a map it's easy to see how it might be viewed in a similar light to writing a letter using Word or creating a photo album using Flickr. Cartography has gone mainstream....well, map-making has at the very least.  Those who hang on to the notion that there remains a cartographic "profession" might want to take a reality check.  They (we?) are now merely cartographic advisers.  The minority. We might think we make better maps (and the proof often supports that argument) but there's only one way that map-making is headed...more mainstream.

Andy Woodruff recently wrote a good blog over at Axis Maps on the problem of aesthetics in cartography and I think he touched on some useful points.  If we go back 10 years, software provided the functionality to make a map. You pretty much had to make your fingers bleed to extract a decent map but the functions of the map were what drove the software's capabilities (class ranges, simple symbolisation, basic layouts).  They weren't beautiful but they were at least functional.  Those that needed to read them did so.  Now...everyone wants to make a pretty map because as Woodruff states..."eye candy sells". Form is now overtaking function and our new breed of cartomyopic map-makers want a pretty map, made quickly, consumed in seconds by a large audience and then tossed in the bin because it's a transient object with a short shelf-life.  The map is not meant to last. It matters only for a single event, sometimes in real-time and rarely meant to be lasting and the software now supports the ability to apply pretty effects to free data.  This is picto-bite map-making (bit like sound-bite but in pictorial form) where the search for the viral map that captures attention is more important than creating a well constructed, purposeful product. Maps made by consumers for consumers, designed to be glanced at, have some sort of instant interest but no lasting purpose or appeal.  Is this wrong? Well on one hand I'd say no...instantly appealing maps of events with a short life-span are fine (all those Olympics maps were only useful for a couple of weeks) but why should this mean they have to suffer from poor construction and function?

Woodruff again: "Cartographic expertise is, in essence, knowing the right way to represent geographic phenomena and data for analytical or various other purposes, and understanding of all stages of the mapping process, not simply knowing how to swoop in at the end and make a map pretty. Sure, we can make every map delicious by wrapping it in metaphorical (or real?) bacon, but it won’t be good for you."

This is cartomyopia...the short-sighted view that making a map look pretty will serve its purpose and not appreciating that it's fundamentally bad for you.  So the big question is not how do we make people make better maps, it's how do we arrest this modern carto-plague and make cartomyopic people who already think they know how to make maps... make better maps.  These people hate criticism and get most indignant if the error of their ways is pointed out; they hate being embarrassed by having mistakes pointed out...maybe that suggests deep down they do actually know? Working with them is the answer but here's the next big problem...they so rarely seek help or advice from a cartographer (possibly because they know it'll create more work) so the first time you get to see the work is often when it's published having gone through a marketing department that usually suffers from the even more chronic form of cartomyopia (application of modifications to make it even worse).  This inevitably leads to criticism, apoplectic observations by cartonerds like me and the cycle of annoyance and the plethora of cartofails continues.

So what's the prescription for cartomyopia?  Well the first step is to get them to a meeting where they can admit, in a friendly and non-threatening way that they are a cartomyopic. No one will laugh. No-one will belittle them for their admission. Quite the opposite...most cartographers I know are crying out to help and provide the medication.  We want to encourage better mapping and not just to make maps pretty. We want to help people see through their cartomyopia and learn that telling a good story with maps is not just about making any map-type object look good for an unassuming, uninitiated audience...its about making it work so they get the right message efficiently. In this sense, addressing the output is the wrong way to go about it.  We need to address the process.  We need to be seen as valuable at the outset of a project where maps are going to be made to encourage from within. We need to get marketing departments to value our opinions because ultimately a good map will 'sell' more. We need to be taken seriously for our expertise but in order for that to happen we need to overcome the scurge of cartomyopia.

By the way...don't think I'm for one minute suggesting all cartographers are immune to bouts of cartomyopia.  In its acute form we can all suffer....it comes in short bursts and usually ends with a close friend or colleague pointing out something so mind-numbingly obvious that we'd overlooked. Happens to me all the time...but what I try and do before unleashing a map on the world is address the issue before it gets out. That's all I'm encouraging others to do....manage their own cartomyopia and use the ready and willing support network of cartographers to do so.

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