Friday 16 August 2013

Big Map with Large Fries

I've spoken/written before of my perception that more maps and more visibility of mapping does not necessarily equate to more quality. There's a tidal wave of tsunami proportions pounding away at the shores of cartography.  It's being powered by hundreds (thousands) of map-makers all keen to crack a technological issue, wrangle their big data into a map (data has to be 'big' these days to make your map, well, worth making) and unleash their effort into the milieu.

Many people view this as undeniably good for mapping and to an extent I agree because these are certainly empowering, exciting times to be involved in mapping. Those of us (un)fortunate enough to have a reasonably lengthy background have some perspective of where we were 10, 20, 30 years ago (some even names) and yes, there's no doubt that changes in computing patterns have led to not just an evolution but a revolution in mapping. Pace of change is rapid and each new day brings a new map; and every now and then something comes along that for a few days at least becomes a so-called game-changer. There's a lot of great work being produced but there's far more weak maps being made.  There's also a lot of weak maps being made that are promoted as being great.

Is the change in mapping, often seen as a result of democratisation, simply just a reflection of many other facets of society? My better half (@lindabeale) and I were chewing this issue over dinner the other day as I was explaining my exasperation over the latest map to hit the internet headlines and take unwarranted kudos. The food on our plates led us to an interesting discussion and analogies so here goes...

Maps are becoming like anything else. We want more, we want it more rapidly, we want it cheaper and, crucially, we want it via the easiest route possible because people have become lazy.  This applies to so much in the societies I am familiar with and, certainly, that society in the cloud. In short...we want fast maps in the same way that as a society we've embraced fast food, cheap clothing, cars and any other commodity we feel enriches our lives but which we can get easily.  We rarely want to wait too long or pay too much...and maps that drop in front of our ever-surfing eyes are the easiest of all to consume from whatever feed we pour into our online lives.

The Open Source movement has certainly driven change in mapping. Google have been major players too. Many large geo-companies and organisations have also moved with the times and they've had to because if they don't they die and will likely become the next Kodak. Everyone wants a franchise and, in particular, a cloud-based franchise...everyone wants to be the Starbucks of geo; to be visible on every street corner offering sweetened goo that approximates coffee.  Everybody wants to be McDonalds...burgers constructed from who knows what slapped together haphazardly and served rapidly with a huge dollop of sauce and liquid sugar to wash it down.  And if we could super-size it, all the better.  More more more...because, if we're not visible; if we're not on every street corner and not in everyone's faces, people drive by until they reach the next franchise by someone or some organisation that has a better plot and a better pitch to appeal to the fast-paced consumer with low standards in taste.

In many ways it's not even about the taste either.  In a taste test there is almost no one who would choose the taste of a fast food burger over a really well crafted burger but crucially, if they have to wait (more than a second), pay (more than a loss leader price) and go out of their way (more than an arm stretch from the car) then it simply becomes not worth it for them.  Chef quality is what we might choose but not if we have to work for it so if that's the market place then why would anyone go to the effort to supply anything more than the generic goo?  Instant gratification trumps quality every time.  We are a generation who are not used to having to work to get anything (I mean really work...hard graft).  It is given to us, and don't we deserve it! Haven’t we done well, don’t we work hard, isn’t life tough? No. Not really. To a greater or lesser extent society has become bone idol compared to past generations and this tends to permeate across most of what we do, with laziness comes sloppiness and quality takes a back seat.  Give it to us, now…whatever it is and even better if I don't have to move from in front of my computer!

It’s not just about being visible and in people’s faces – people gravitate to ‘fast food’ – a quick hit and nothingness and so for those of us who want quality, its tough because it's harder to find. We are competing on an uneven playing field.  The same might be said of many sports. Cheating has proven for many to be the path to winning for many high-profile people, and those who tow the line face a lifetime of being second or third, just praying that someone, somewhere will see what is going on and call out the cheat so they have a chance to win on merit.  Even when cheats are found out it's their names that persist, not those they beat along the way who are consigned to the "alleys of obscurity, sentenced to rejection in the morass of anonymity" (I always wanted to use that Marillion lyric in something but i digress...). There are too many people who cheat themselves and, along with them, the people who read their maps, and take the fast path with very little thought for the consequences.  Sometimes it's done knowingly because they might not care about overcoming a particularly awkward issue and sometimes unwittingly (ignorance is bliss) but short-cutting is a modern curse and a form of cheating.  After all, the winners route is always the preferred route for most people which is why band-wagons are routinely jumped upon.  The rewards out weigh the risks when taking the shortest path.  The taste of fast food out weighs the time and effort for a quality burger…otherwise you are condemning yourself to a lifetime of being second. And who is tough enough to do that?

So we kid ourselves that fast food tastes great. It's generally quick to find, buy, consume and heck...after a couple of hours you want to eat again! But in terms of nourishment and quality it hardly sustains.  Some people eschew fast food entirely.  They may stay home and cook alone. The fruits of their endeavor are never appreciated beyond the extent of their own dining room.  They take ingredients and fashion food that suits their own tastes; but others rarely get to savour their efforts.  Others might go the gourmet restaurant route.  Artisan burgers for instance? Less visible but often more tasty and more nutritious.  These are for people who have higher standards perhaps; possibly deeper pockets because they cost more. Then we have those who just don't dig fast food at all.  They avoid it like the fact, they probably view it as a plague.  They will only eat at exclusive restaurants, not chains, but independent operations with individual, unique menus.  Food is constructed by a know, a properly trained person in the art of food chemistry, preparation, design, construction and presentation.  This will be a person who has gone through years of training and hard graft; they've lost the ability to have children because their nether regions have been pushed up against a baking hot oven for the last 15 years in pursuit of excellence.  They have a passion for their art. So people who prefer to buy their food from a trained chef rather than a kid behind the counter at McDonalds are likely more discerning and have already reconciled that their life will be tougher in order to satisfy their desire to rise above the morass. Sure, they'll pay for it. It'll take longer to come...but aren't the rewards greater to them personally even if their friends don't understand their reluctance to conform? Well...not necessarily...

Take peer pressure for instance.  Snobbery is often used as a description of those who express taste – lets laugh at the person who knows what wine they like and people who won’t go to a fast food restaurant because they don't like mass-produced food for the masses!  “think you are better than that?”, “get you with your fancy restaurants!” etc etc.  So why would you want to be castigated for not conforming? Of course people generally want to fit in and be liked in whatever they do. Who wants to stand out and be ridiculed? So the lazy lead the way – set the standard, as low as possible and call out anyone who dares to stand up and say those burgers taste bad and are made of poor quality ingredients.

So just as fast food has become the staple diet of the people of many countries because that's how we conform, so perhaps we're seeing mapping going the same way. While I, like many, actually quite like a bit of dirty food once in a while I also like to go to a decent restaurant once in a while.  I cook at home from real ingredients as well.  The point of this is food has become the de facto diet for the majority because the majority rule.  Democracy has spoken and the masses have won.  Fast maps are becoming the de facto view of the world for many now as well.  Because they are ubiquitous. Because they can be made by anyone. Because they are on every street-corner and in every cloud and they provide instant gratification. Amongst all these fast maps are a few decent scraps...some that actually taste pretty good but generally they lack nutrition and the consumer doesn't particularly care because they're not interested in the ingredients anyway. Does the burger taste good? eat it and then order another.  Does the map look good...well, it seems to (I don't really know, but I guess I trust that it does)...good, well let's consume it with the same lack of interest and then retweet it...or blog about it.

Well I don't want my map carto-diet filled with such an imbalance of fast maps and have even more fast maps push out the independent quality purveyors. As a consumer I want choice and I want a better balance to that choice.  I don't want the masses to define and dictate what it is that I have to consume. It's incumbent on those of us who have some sort of taste when it comes to cartography to at least offer choice.  Yes, taste can be very subjective but the people who I consider have good cartographic taste all tend to agree on many of the values that define decent mapping. Maybe we need a Jamie Oliver of mapping to campaign against Turkey Twizzlers. Show the alternatives and find a platform to get visibility. We need to show people that taking good ingredients and preparing them properly does not have to be costly and can actually produce something more tasty than generic, mass produced processed fast maps. Maybe I veer too much towards the Gordon Ramsay school of criticism sometimes in my slating of stuff (the F word is quite a common expletive when I open up the latest fast map it's true) but at least the guy has passion and a background that suggests he might know a thing or two about decent food.  He's also had failures and learnt from them but he holds his standards dear to his heart and won't have some b*llshitter tell him how to cook/run a restaurant. Some of us know some stuff about maps too. I'm not suggesting we should all open high class restaurants but like Oliver and Ramsay in their endeavors to improve food quality and restaurants...get our hands dirty helping others improve and aspire to better things in their own mapping. That's a tall order in the current climate but it's worth a shot...and Ramsay has even taken on the burger himself by opening a new restaurant, BurGR, in Las Vegas based around high quality burgers!

So let's stop applauding those who peddle fast maps and whose work is re-peddled by those fine purveyors of instant gratification...the blogosphere (Gizmodo, Wired, TechCrunch, your favorite map media outlet or ├╝ber-blogger). Instead, lets applaud those who choose not to take the easy route and who battle the urge to be as lazy as everyone else. It's inherent in people to take the path of least resistance but sometimes there are those who choose to steer a different path and whose work is all the richer and tastier for it. Only that way will we redress balance in the force and offer people choice and a route to a more healthy carto-diet. You might not want to today...but your body will thank you in 10 years time.

In the meantime I'm trying to ensure not every dinner in our household revolves around cartography...and next time I'm in Vegas I'll be trying out Ramsay's new creation.

UPDATE: Amongst many positive reactions to my blog post above I got a proper slating by one guy on the Twittersphere for using 'amateurish sociology' to argue for higher standards in cartography.  Well, I'm not a professional sociologist so that probably explains that but while there are clearly arguments that we are where we are because of production systems and producers I still maintain much of what we see is driven by demand.  Because the demand is not particularly sophisticated, neither is what we get as an end product. Does this stack up? Well for probably over a decade now you can actually make some damn fine maps using desktop GIS.  How many people do? Not many.  So even when producers do provide the tools the masses make the choice not to invest in whatever it is they need to know/do to take advantage. They also whinge when people demonstrate what can be achieved because it shows up their laziness in not being able to harness what's in front of them.  That's what I meant by lazy...path of least resistance. Effort isn't something people are keen to expend.  And can 'doing it right' be regarded as simply subjective difference in 'taste'? When i refer to taste in a cartographic sense I'm not talking about whether we prefer orange or purple line symbols...I'm talking about the basics.  Too many simply get the basics wrong.  back to the amateurish sociology...if I use salt in a lemon meringue instead of sugar that's plain's not simply bad taste. The recipe is wrong. The product will taste bloody awful though it may still look ok. Same with mapping...good cartography occurs when people get their recipes right.  Great cartography happens with a spark of something extra...a dash of an ingredient that makes the map shine.  Amateurish sociology? Hmm...maybe I was just using basic, one-dimensional ideas because I'm trying to appeal to those who would simply find my ramblings snobbish if i used far more sophisticated arguments.  KISS is important.  Given the individual claims to be a sociologist perhaps he is just annoyed that I'm operating in his professional domain in this instance?  Maybe, then, imagine how professional cartographers feel at everyone else thinking they're nailed the cartographic domain.

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