Thursday 12 December 2013

Cartographic tribalism

Below is a blogged version of my latest Editorial from The Cartographic Journal which I wrote mid-October. It's based on my very personal impressions from a busy period of geo-conference attendance during August-October this year. I'm not the only one who has been mulling over the issue of geo-tribes. I previously wrote about my thoughts on the fallacy of new cartography and this Editorial represents a development of that thinking based on the way that different 'clubs' manage and deliver their events and meetings. I'm not alone.

Michael Gould (@michael_d_gould) hosted and Alan McConchie (@mappingmashups) organized a #geowebchat on 3rd December, a transcript of which can be accessed here. Michael and Renee Sieber have also proposed a panel session at the 2014 meeting of the Association of American Geographers. It's entitled "Battle of the tribes: geoweb, GIS, GI Science, cyberGIS, neogography". I look forward to taking part from the geo-crowd at the panel session but for now here's my's long (it's an Editorial!):

Cartographic Tribalism

I survived Maptember 2013. What can we learn about the state of Cartography from all the various geo-events? A hectic conference season began in Dresden, Germany, with the International Cartographic Conference (ICC).  I then moved immediately on to the UK to take in some of the Society of Cartographer’s (SoC) Summer School before heading to Leicestershire (actually, Northamptonshire but that will become clear) for the British Cartographic Society’s (BCS) Symposium.  A quick trip back to Redlands to do some laundry and then it was back to the UK for the co-hosted Association of Geographic Information’s (AGI) annual GeoCommunity conference and then the Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G) conference in Nottingham; then finishing up with the North American Cartographic information Society (NACIS) conference in Greenville, South Carolina. I managed six conferences. That wasn’t even half of those I could have attended but it was a decent effort. The main take-away for me is that tribalism, badges and a ‘club’ mentality are still very much in evidence across and within mapping related societies which are really not doing very much to break down the barriers between different types of map-maker. Here, I’ll take a look at some of my thoughts from each of the conferences and then see where we’re headed because the way in which different communities function and see themselves gives us plenty to think about.

The ICA’s biennial event was held in Germany and unlike an organization with individual members this is a conference that brings together academia, industry, map publishers and pretty much anyone with an interest in mapping. The ICA is a global organization and with over 1000 people attending there was a rich and diverse programme to satisfy pretty much every map-related need. There was a strong pre-conference with many ICA Commissions hosting workshops. Along with the ICA Commission on NeoCartography (led by Steve Chilton and Andrew Turner), the Commission on Map Design (Chaired by myself with Alex Kent, Bernhard Jenny and Anja Hopfstock) enjoyed a great day of presentations and discussion on the future of mapping. The technical sessions in the main programme were broad in appeal; the map gallery had some spectacular work and the exhibition had most of the major players showing their wares.  SwissTopo were even handing out neck ties based on their stunning map designs. There was a nod to new map-makers in the programme and some of those who would call themselves neo-cartographers attended which is encouraging.  It was, however, quite a ‘traditional’ conference in the main and with an Executive Committee largely led by academics the programme veers towards cartographic research and development. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as this is where ideas are sparked and where we often (certainly historically) see the cutting edge of what’s new.  The map gallery was predominantly paper-based and the vendors were mostly those with a traditional business model and outreach. There was very little representation from the likes of Google, Apple, MapBox or any of a similar focus who have disrupted cartography over the last few years and although many of the presenters of papers were using a wide variety of software the Open Source community were not well represented in any sort of formal sense.  In some respects this, then, was a meeting of people who have a longer history in cartography and that at least allowed a sense of reflection on where the discipline and industry might be headed; what the challenges are; and how we might tackle them in the coming years.  No doubt, the sense of cartography being at an evolutionary (possibly revolutionary) juncture was palpable and most are keen to embrace change and ride the wave.  I couldn’t help reflecting on the fact that new players were not inspired enough about the prospect of a global gathering to consider attending a benefit.  Was this due to the location (and the cost of attendance) or perhaps the idea that cartography is not something they consider valuable? It might define a business model that they are attacking because they can (through code) make maps, but the practice of cartography isn’t necessarily something they see as core to their work so engagement in that community isn’t top of their agenda. Hopefully this might change for the next ICC in Rio in 2015 and it’s certainly an aim of ICA to strengthen links with emerging mapping communities.

The Cartographic Journal had a Special Issue for the Dresden meeting but it was disappointing that at least one other affiliate journal failed to meet their obligation. It is also interesting to note that the ICA itself are moving ahead with plans for their own International Journal of Cartography. I’m unsure of the value of launching a new journal, with a traditional publishing model, in the current climate. More journals are moving towards offering free content and with a number of cartography journals all vying in a niche area does the world really need another?  Many more people are using blogs and other publishing mechanisms to be heard. Fewer people need a journal to publish and there is some sense that another journal might not be necessary.  ICA feel strongly that a new journal will increase the body of work and help with improving citations but this will take some time to roll out. We’ll have to wait and see how this initiative plays out in the coming years but ICA want to focus on a strong scientific basis for the discipline and see research and it’s dissemination as a key aspect of what the organization offers.  The ICA map gallery was, as always, a feast of mapping from a wide range of countries; showcasing both traditional topographic map production as well as innovative single purpose thematic products.  Somewhat surprisingly, a map I had produced won the overall prize for best map but I have to say if I’d been on the panel of judges that award would have gone elsewhere. It’s humbling and also a privilege for work to be commended by your peers and a great honour for a map submitted by the UK to have won; though the irony of the same map being one of those not considered nearly good enough for a BCS award in 2012 wasn’t lost on a good number of people.  Mapping is subjective in so many ways and this proves the point magnificently!

ICC in Dresden was very well organized and with such a packed schedule there was so much quality on show. It’s always valuable to go outside of your close circle of carto-friends and colleagues and meet others and the ICC events are a perfect opportunity to stretch your own carto-horizons. Cartography is in good health on the face of it but behind the scenes there are concerns that the new and the old are drifting in different directions. This became more obvious for me as Maptember continued.

Naturally the Society of Cartographer’s Summer School event was on a much more modest scale though with perhaps only 30-40 people the event is becoming more of a workshop style than a full conference. Attendees represented a broad church but as you’d expect, many were of an academic background and the programme reflected fairly niche research interests.  There’s a much stronger link with ‘new cartography’ in evidence at SoC events partly as a function of the tastes of those that organize the events. The event is low-key and in a crowded conference space how long it can sustain as a separate entity is questionable. Large conference banquets are replaced by pub quizzes. Questions of sustainability and relevance are naturally of concern as the Society and the event look to the future. The economics of staging a conference are such that at some point smaller events will have to look at different models. Membership is also an issue with the 'club' mentality being quite strong in SoC. How does such an organization attract new members?  Indeed, do people want to ‘belong’ to a club based on cartography any more when it’s becoming such a part of general life, particularly one that is stubbornly hanging on to an academic production support environment background.  What defines someone with those interests now that the map might be considered just as ubiquitous as a spreadsheet or word processed document that the notion of a cartography club is not something people feel a strong urge to join. What do they get out of it? I’d always suggest that the opportunity to meet people, face to face, rather than in the disembodied virtual world of our social networks is immensely valuable and rewarding. Talking with people often sparks so much more…but with travel, accommodation and time costs becoming more critical, can such meetings survive among the plethora of others. Albeit the talks were fascinating, the event had an air of it clinging onto its last breath and perhaps the most startling and disappointing aspect was that there were no entries to the annual Wallis award for cartography.  As Benjamin Hennig succinctly put it “dammit, I could have won!”; a missed opportunity for so many and a sad reflection on the lack of support for a prestigious award.

In contrast to SoC, the BCS Annual Symposium had a triumphant air to it as attendees were welcomed to the somewhat stately Hothorpe Hall in Leicestershire for the 50th Anniversary celebrations. Actually…when you look at the map, Hothorpe Hall is in fact about 50 metres inside Northamptonshire since the River Welland is to the north and separates it from Leicestershire.  Really…you simply couldn’t make it up that having made a big play of returning to Leicestershire, the location of the first Symposium in 1963, the event had actually got it wrong on the map. It made a good number of us chuckle. Regardless, BCS is always a little more formal, a little more focused on corporate cartography and less academically inclined. One might compare SoC to BCS by suggesting the former functions like a working men’s club and the latter considers itself somewhat more refined.  To some that might come across as a little pompous and exclusive which is not an attractive trait.   The programme of talks at BCS were geared more towards those from cartographic businesses promoting their wares. There were relatively few talks concerned with cartographic research which were certainly more in evidence in Dresden and to an extent, at SoC.  With over 120 attendees the event was well attended which, one suspects, had to do with it being a landmark anniversary with a terrific set of talks and panel discussion by the heads of Britain’s five mapping agencies. For my third conference in Maptember though, similar themes of relevance and sustainability began to emerge.  Attendees were all quite well known to one another. The exhibition was similar to most other years. What’s new? Where are the new people? How does the Society promote relevance amongst new map-makers? The cost of events such as the BCS Symposium is certainly one major issue to overcome if it is to encourage wider participation; particularly from emerging and, dare I say, younger map-makers. Could co-locating with other conferences be an answer or again...are these sort of people really not interested in belonging to any sort of traditionally styled ‘club’? I don’t have the answer but I have a feeling that BCS, SoC and all those of a similar size and approach need to really tackle the issue head on over the next few years or participation will dwindle.  The map gallery and awards at BCS perhaps, again, provide a barometer of where the society is situated.  The maps that won awards were traditional in the main and while there’s no suggestion that they weren’t worthy of recognition, there was very little that was innovative or that demonstrably pushed cartographic boundaries.  None of them particularly inspired and, for some, they were just unremarkable. The BCS awards have always been held up as prestigious and they should shine a light on the very best of mapping. This year, they didn’t but you have to be in it to win it and many great maps weren’t entered…why? Is it apathy? Is the process of entering too much effort? Do people not care about awards any more and do they get their recognition and satisfaction in other ways? In some ways, the maps that won reflect the society and its membership more generally. There is more interesting work out there but to showcase it, you first need to attract those people to your club. So until new and different people are encouraged to enter their work then the same sort of maps will continue to win awards.

Of course, BCS isn’t the most corporate of geo-events on the UK calendar. For that, attention turns to the AGI’s GeoCommunity event, this year held at the University of Nottingham’s conference centre. Suits abound! Here then is the annual show of corporate geo with slick exhibition space and people all too willing to sell you something. You get what you pay for with this conference and it’s designed specifically to bring together geo-business for a mutual bit of back-slapping (and geobeer consumption).  In some respects it’s really just a trade show for geo and an opportunity for people to get together and while it offers an opportunity for businesses to get together the geo-world is actually so small most of these people probably meet every few months or so anyway. Long gone are the days when there were workshops and other practical tracks and although many of the talks are little more than advertisements, there are a few gems hidden away if you care to hunt them down. No map gallery. No maps. It’s hard to see where AGI fits into the scheme of things this year because if we’re honest, most people (me included) were really only in Nottingham to attend the co-located Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G) conference which had pre-conference workshops on the same days and then the main programme immediately afterwards. Of course, what this demonstrates is that co-locating events does bring economies of scale and I am convinced GeoCommunity was well attended because people could justify one trip and expense for two events.

For the first time, FOSS4G was being held in the UK and organized by possibly the most enthusiastic and ebullient group of people you could ever meet. These people are passionate about geo and some, even, passionate about maps.  This is an entirely different crowd and the fact that there were possibly only one or two people I saw here who were at ICC, SoC or BCS tells its own story. Yet here we had a far more diverse group of people. The average age of attendees was much younger. They were generally focused on practical issues; developing code to support geo and mapping…yes, mapping. These are people who would never call themselves cartographers yet they are all making maps and there were hundreds of them. Why don’t these people go to cartographic conferences? Simple: they do not find them to be relevant. The making of a map is simply the result of a different process for them; they are interested in the technical challenge and construction but the work they are producing is innovative, disruptive and, crucially, is beginning to yield some impressive results. I have to add a disclaimer here that I was asked by the Local Organizing Committee to organize and curate a map gallery for the FOSS4G conference. Given my experience as a participant and organizer of such events in other places over the years I wanted to see what we could do differently.  The original plans were for a traditional gallery of maps printed out but I wanted to make this cutting edge, different.  I persuaded my fellow organisers we should go entirely digital. Maps were to be either web apps or if they were designed for print, submitted as a PDF. This approach was either going to go well or fail miserably. In the weeks leading up to the event we eventually received over 70 entries. I’ve been vocal in the past that web mapping has taken us a step back in cartographic terms, and that modern map-makers are eschewing the practice of cartography in favour of coded solutions but…I was impressed. We’ve reached a cusp where quality is now in evidence. Sure, there’s still a dearth of poor web maps we can point to daily but there are those who are harnessing the power of new technology and tools and really beginning to shape the next generation of mapping. Here, then, we saw some of the very best mapping currently being generated by (mostly) non-cartographers. The contrast with the BCS map gallery and awards (and the ICA to an extent) was remarkable though BCS was a supporter of the FOSS4G map gallery and it was good to be able to make the link between BCS and modern mapping in this way. We set up a web site to view the maps, we had a group of cartographic expert judges vote for category winners and we held a public vote via the web site for the best map.  This was global. You did not need to attend the conference to either submit or vote. We built a video to promote the entries and CASA at University College London loaned us their iPad wall which acted as a focal point alongside three large plasma screens located around the event. The gallery was promoted via Social Media, including being featured by Wired magazine and we got a huge number of hits to the site.  It remains live and I strongly encourage you to visit and be impressed ( and also see the winners ( 

The gallery was a huge success and a stand-out feature of the conference.  We managed to encourage participation from a wide range of people but there wasn’t a single map submitted to the FOSS4G gallery that had been submitted to any of the other club’s awards. This simply has to change if the traditional cartography clubs want to remain relevant. Finding ways to encourage these new map-makers that they can benefit from networking with cartographers and that showcasing their work in those arenas is important for the health of cartography. That said there was a strong undercurrent of tribalism at the event.  You’re either seen as being pro-open source or you’re badged as being from the proprietary world.  In terms of cartography, there’s still the age-old dichotomy of the paleo vs neo and far too many people seem to have incredible difficulty with the idea that you can have an interest in cartography but use and promote modern tools.  I increasingly get the feeling that it’s actually the new map-makers that enjoy this distinction.  They are approaching map-making using their unique skill-set and they seem to use this as a stick to beat anyone who may use proprietary GIS software or, heaven forbid, Adobe Illustrator.

I keep making noises that cartography evolves and changes based on technology and that with each new technological epoch, mapping tends to suffer for a while as the tools catch up and then we get launched into a new phase where we move forward once more.  Some people inevitably get left behind but those that are willing to evolve and grasp new challenges are well placed. But increasingly the new kids on the block seem to like to be seen as different, avant-garde almost; a new breed who simply aren’t interested in what theory or practice might have gone before. They usually align behind a new label to distinguish themselves from what has gone before (geoweb, neo, cyber...whatever). These are the very people who ICA, SoC and BCS want to encourage to their clubs but with such entrenched attitudes I’m unconvinced it’s a good idea if they harbor such attitudes.  Maybe the fact there are two worlds is something we just have to manage and learn to stop being so disparaging about others’ and their use of tools that might differ to our own preferences? I also felt very uncomfortable being badged as someone who works at a company that produces proprietary GIS software.  In much the same way that these new players tend to ignore much of the discipline of mapping pre-Google, it was quite interesting being effectively an unknown person. My 20+ years in academia went unknown and I was simply seen as someone who worked at a large American GIS firm…or ‘the enemy’ of open source if you want it in stark terms.  It’s a funny world when your employer is seen as what defines you. I wasn’t attending as a spokesperson of my company. I was actually attending as an individual…yet many preferred to overlook that I might have my own views, thoughts and comments untainted by my employer. I tend to find that most people whose company I enjoy in the geo-world are individuals that share a passion for geo, for maps and suchlike.  I couldn’t care who they work for particularly or how they do their mapping.  We share something far more profound than the mechanism we each choose to pay the mortgage.  I am constantly reminded by The classic quote from The Prisoner of “I am not a number, I’m a free man”. Most level-headed people in geo are not defined by their employer; and that’s what makes it so fascinating. Those that choose to apply labels (and perpetuate tribalism) don’t help themselves or the community in general. There were some very inappropriate comments made by presenters who should know better. What do those with a predilection for open (as in freedom of choice, not as in beer) source hope to gain by promoting their altruistic efforts by bashing those that have a different business model? It’s geo-tribalism at its worst and just not necessary.  So in much the same way as cartography itself is seen as divisive…you’re either in the old club or the new club, now the new club are trying to ostracize themselves further by insisting that open is vastly superior morally, commercially and functionally than proprietary.  Can’t we all just accept difference, see it as a good thing and work alongside or, even, with each other?

And so to the final Maptember event I attended (which, technically, was in October but let’s not split hairs): the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) conference in Greenville, South Carolina. NACIS has done a good job of moving with the times and the mix of old and new, open and proprietary, paleo and neo is probably the most diverse of all the events I’ve attended and it’s a dynamic and passionate crowd.  In simple, terms there’s a good mix amongst the 150 or so people who attended. Don’t be fooled though, the divisions are still there. Many of the newer crowd are caught presenting material that, frankly, is old hat to someone who’s been around the discipline a while. Reinventing the wheel or, worse, ignoring the vast body of previous work, is a common theme in new mapping and amongst many new mappers.  That’s not to say new ways of doing things aren’t valuable; they very much are, but trying to assert they are revolutionary when it’s simply not is just not good enough. It’s akin to a student saying they couldn’t find any references and, by inference, that there isn’t any prior work.  Prior art exists for so much in cartography and many of the new map-makers do themselves a disservice by not acknowledging and honouring the legacy. Worse, becoming indignant if someone points this out just rams a huge attitudinal wedge into the mix that is precisely what needs to be broken down to build bridges between the tribes. NACIS was the only conference I attended that had a strong MapBox presence, alongside the likes of Esri (Google have also attended this event in the past). Now this is likely to be partly due to the fact it was held in North America and not Europe but at least they are engaging with the community in an active way. The map gallery is a student-led affair and the work the winning students put together was quite frankly, of an incredibly high standard.  They had print and web cartography on display which put much of what I saw at the other Maptember conferences to shame.

How, then, have NACIS been successful in encouraging new map-makers and younger map-makers to their conferences when the same cannot be said for many UK events?  I think the answer is simple…the spirit of entrepreneurship and the idea that you can do what you want and be who you want is strongly encouraged in the US from an early age.  People who make maps are confident in going to events where other map-makers go. Age is no barrier. Startups want to showcase their wares too and do not feel belittled by the bigger companies...they actually enjoy and gorge themselves on the challenge. Crucially, there is still such a thing as cartography taught in colleges and Universities in the US. There’s also a strong GIS presence across the curricula so there’s a steady stream of people happy to call themselves ‘cartographers’ entering the job market every year.  This isn’t the case in the UK. If you’re in geo you’re a minority. You are in an even smaller minority if you’re a geo-academic with GIS or cartography as a specialism. They are not seen as core or key skills or even as a serious discipline.  Consequently, there is very little in the way of new people coming through in the UK. Conferences and societies are populated by the same people who are getting older. New people are finding alternative avenues to be recognized. NACIS has not had such a hard job to persuade young or new map-makers to be involved because cartography is still a recognized ‘thing’ in the US. They also actively encourage new delegates to get involved.  They are encouraged to present. There’s a dedicated Practical Cartography Day. Social events focus on inclusivity and there’s even a ‘Lunch bunch’ event where groups of people are led by a ‘well known cartographer’ to an informal lunch in town somewhere.  I was one such ‘well-known cartographer’ (in my own lunch-time literally!!!) this year which was an honour but it was a great way to encourage new people to hang out with those who have been to a number of events. Even the equivalent of the pub quiz only allowed teams to enter if they contained a team member attending their first conference.  These are small things that make belonging to the club a much more pleasant experience for new people and also keep the more experienced on their toes! That’s not to say NACIS is not looking to the future, but they’re concerned that their membership is only 35% females and how can they redress that balance.  It’s a different problem.

So I come back to the original question of what can be learnt from Maptember? There’s no doubt that cartography is evolving rapidly. There’s also no doubt that people seem convinced that their own particular tribe is a safe haven and they are nervous (sometimes critical) of fellow map-makers who choose (or are paid) to do things differently.  The map galleries provided a good barometer of the health of each society and the type of people that are attracted to the events. The use of social media possibly provides another barometer. Non-existent at BCS, some use at SoC, lively at ICC (in relation to certain topic areas) and prevalent at NACIS.  The challenge then, is to continue to build bridges between the tribes. Can we sustain all these separate clubs? My sense is that the answer is no and that the role of a club of cartographers is perhaps in need of change. In just the same way that cartography as a discipline and practice has evolved then so too do the organisations that represent them. Stubbornly holding onto the past does no good; though there has to be give and take on both sides and if clubs are to change to meet the needs of new and emerging map-makers then they also have to recognize that others have gone before them in so many ways. I’m fortunate to have been able to attend all these events but I’m left with one lasting impression…it’s just too damn much! 21 days of conference in a 6 week period is unsustainable. That said, I truly value the friendships I’ve made through going to the various clubs I’m involved with. I was able to catch up with some remarkable people on my travels and meet new colleagues. My work will be richer for the experience. That’s what clubs are ultimately all about…sharing, debating and exploring the joy of mapping with like-minded people.

Kenneth Field
October 2013
Redlands, CA

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