Friday 1 March 2013

What colo(u)r is your Crayola?

I'm bored of the "my CartoDB is better than your ArcThing; my MapBox is better than your d3; my map is better than your map..." ad nauseam debate.

There. I said it. It's just plain boring. Boring boring boring.

I'm old enough to have learnt much of my digital cartography through coding, using GIMMS. Then MacPaint, Freehand, CorelDraw, PC Arc/Info 3.4D, MapInfo (yes, I coded using MapBasic) ArcView 3.0, AML, Avenue, Illustrator, Arc/Info...ArcGIS et al., ArcIMS, QGIS, Processing. I've also had the privilege of teaching all of these at one point or another to successive waves of students all of whom grew up getting to grips with the tech of the moment. Now there are some other terrific new ways of doing your cartography with MapBox, TileMill, CartodB, d3 etc. But whether you use proprietary or open, GUI or code, in-browser or desktop...WHO CARES? Horses for courses.

Where is the value in having a debate about which is better? What you choose to use is driven by many factors. Your background might point you down a certain route (geography degree, computer science degree?). Your employment might mean you are more likely to use one approach over another. You might just like doing your map-making in a particular way. In truth, none of the above are perfect. They are all good at doing some things and poor at others. Yes, there's overlap and yes, there are aspects than none do particularly well. People seem to wear their preference like some sort of badge to the exclusion of all other possibilities. My job requires me to use one approach. Outside of that...I use all sorts of approaches.

I do feel strongly, though, that this whole nonsense is missing a more fundamental point. I've heard many claim that democratization of mapping is a win-win; that more mapping means more maps means more geo means more...more, more more... Is "more" a good thing in its own right though? I'm all for more "opportunity" but I am also for more "quality" and more maps in absolute terms does not necessarily equate to more quality. I entirely agree that if there is more opportunity then there is certainly the potential for more great maps but is that what we're seeing? I'm unconvinced. I think the time it once took to make a map is being bypassed and for many people this is simply a short-cut to make the map. But the process has been truncated so profoundly that a lot of the thought about the map is now lost. That used to be time spent thinking about how to represent your data; what choices were important for your map etc. This is often referred to as an "academic" approach to making a map.'s just about taking the time to think through your map before foisting it on the masses.

I'm not for one moment suggesting that democratization has been bad for forces it to constantly adapt and change and there have been some absolutely spectacular examples of quality over the past few years.  The point here, though, is about balance and about quality vs. quantity. You'll likely find that the examples of quality cartography we can point to have been made by people who have taken their time. Thought about the map coupled with a mastery of their chosen tech and a smidgen of innovation or originality is the golden ticket. Long may that continue, whatever colo(u)r of Crayola you choose to make your map with. Geo-silos and map-monopolies have long gone but rather than perpetuating the belief that they live on through endless sniping, I'd prefer to see the debate move on to explore how we can encourage a greater proportion of map-makers to make great maps. It's not just about taking them to the's about showing them how to drink it without spilling it all over the carpet.

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