Wednesday 17 September 2014

Old is new again (and again)

Cartography has always reinvented itself. This is partly as new technology matures and we're able to do things faster, better and more easily than before. We tend to experiment on tried and tested techniques to replicate them as a means of testing. Technology catches up and a map is released on the world who mostly won't have seen it before... but which can have the unintended consequence of appearing to reinvent or, worse, plagiarising to those that have. Is this a problem?

Unfortunately I was unable to attend the 2014 FOSS4G conference in Portland this year. I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the 2013 event in Nottingham, UK where I helped organise and curate the Map Gallery. I was therefore very interested in seeing how the maps have developed for the 2014 event though I had to sadly decline an invitation to help out with the judging! The entries and results can be seen here.

There were the usual mix of mashups and people simply entering re-styled Openstreetmap data. The former seems to be continuing to mature as we're moving beyond push-pinology. The latter, for me at least, is getting rather tedious. It's great that there are many tools out there that allow people to re-style basic topographic map data but that only sustains cartography for a limited time. It's painting by numbers, literally...and cartography is far more than that. It's what you do with your map and how you integrate the base mapping meaningfuly with your own or other data where something interesting happens. That leads to a third class of map...the ones that don't pour themselves into a template or use too much third party data or tools. It's in this space that we're seeing quite a bit of invention (and reinvention) as people make use of new browser capabilities or their ability to customise through code.

I was therefore delighted to see my good friend and colleague Bernie Jenny collect a couple of awards for the Plan Oblique Relief Shading work he's been doing with Jonas Buddeberg and Johannes Liem. Bernie's been doing fantastic things in cartography for a number of years. His relief shading web site and his many software tools show off some of the products of his research into the cartographic representation of terrain. I particularly like his Terrain Bender tools and his Adaptive Composite Map Projections work.

The Plan Oblique Relief web app is terrific. He and his colleagues have built a new, interactive app that allows you to play with the variables to see how the technique gets modified for European relief. Inclination, hypsometrical tints, hill-shading zenith and azimuth as well as map rotation are all supported. I'm going to assume the awards were for this innovation though there's a part of me who wonders how many of the FOSS4G attendees had seen plan oblique before? We'll never know that...but Bernie's new work, with new technology brings to life a technique that can be traced back to Xaver Imfeld's work in 1887.

Here's Bernie's map (click it to go to the app itself):

And here's Imfeld's work:

The technique has also been used extensively by Roger Smith in his fantastic maps of New Zealand:

Both Bernie and Roger have been totally open about the lineage of their work. They don't claim the technique but they've taken it and developed something new and interesting because new technology allows them to do so. This is great for cartography but...

I would like to see more people do their due diligence and both reflect on the lineage of their own work and be clear about their inspirations. I see far too many map-makers try and pass off their work as 'new' when in fact you don't have to dig too far to see that someone else has gone before. Imitation is, of course, the sincerest form of flattery and I have no issue whatsoever with people building on the work of others...but that's the point. Your work should build upon something and be clear about its heritage.

Old is always new again in cartography. Perhaps we just need to be a little more honest in appreciating that fact rather than trying to leapfrog the past and hoping our map-readers know no better. I've been caught out by this before and I claim to know a little about maps. It is incumbent on us all to not try and dupe our map readers because they will have less reason to question authenticity and lineage. Bernie and his like are excellent role models for how we should portray and communicate our work.

As a postscript I've been trying to engineer a plan oblique technique in my day job with ArcGIS. No luck yet but I'll crack on.


  1. Hey Ken, many thanks for your kind words about our map.

    I would like to point out that the main author is Jonas Buddeberg, a graduate student at University of Potsdam, Germany. He did all the WebGL programming, OpenLayers 3 tweaking, and web programming during an internship at Oregon State. Johannes Liem and I had and advising role.


  2. Thanks Bernie. Good students and good tuterlage combined! Congratulations.