Saturday 28 March 2015

Needless lines in the sand

I just read a blog post from Andrew Hill, a guy whose work I admire greatly, entitled In defense of burger cartography. Go have a read if you've not already done so then come back...I've got a few things to say.

I've been quite vocal in my annoyance with many so-called new cartographers and their general fancy for creating needless dividing lines between their self-defined fresh approach and pretty much everything that ever went before. They tend to eschew previous thinking, research, technologies and people and view this as a huge positive. I'm afraid I read Andrew's blog in very much the same vein so here's a few quotes I've extracted that I'd respectfully like to contest:

"time to fall in love with maps again"
You'll likely find most of us never fell out of love with them. Is this perhaps just a rallying cry to further support the belief that all this new stuff is unequivocally super awesome? Cartography has always been great. I'm glad so many are finally finding it too but c'mon...join the club, don't try and start a new one.

"what I'm seeing has never been talked about before"
I'd strongly refute this observation. Most of what I see has been done before and has been talked about before. It's more likely that the people who offer this view simply aren't familiar with what's gone before or don't care to look beyond their own limited experience. Sure, technology is evolving and there's some new ways of making maps but largely we've seen it before in some shape or other. What is perhaps true is that many weren't around when it was done before but we have books and such like to reference. And why is it that people like me pipe up with blogs? It's precisely because we want to expose these very same people to stuff some of us already know. That's not being's about knowledge transfer and sharing. It's why I enjoyed being a lecturer for so long and why I now enjoy teaching about maps from within a different type of organisation. It's also why I wrote a daily blog last year to expose people to stuff they may not have seen before. The trouble is that it's a two-way process and does require people to want to learn and I'm afraid I find far too many who simply think they already know it all. None of us do. And the other reason why many perceive that so much hasn't been talked about before...because they don't inhabit the same places that many others inhabit so there's an immediate disconnect. I rarely see new-mapmakers at any of the established cartographic conferences where much of this stuff has been talked about for years (actually, NACIS in the US tends to buck this trend and to be absolutely fair to Andrew I did meet him at a NACIS conference a couple of years ago). But more mapmakers tend to inhabit a world of meetups and hangouts and don't go to where cartographers have historically tended to hang out. They are unlikely to be seen at the International Cartographic Conference for instance and that has to be by choice. Wouldn't it be so much better for us to all meet in the same sort of places where we can share knowledge, research, learn some rules and break some others? I know many of the established conferences and other meetings have been very keen to embrace new map-makers but take-up has been low. By the way...this year it's in Rio in August...maybe I'll see you there along with 1,000 or so other people who love maps?

"maps shouldn't remain difficult to create just because old school software hadn't been brought up to speed with modern technology"
Another fallacy. I recall a fantastic piece of software called Atlas Mapmaker I used (and taught with) for thematic mapping in the early 1990s. It was brilliant. I used it alongside Arc/Info and IDRISI. Each brought different things to the table. Sadly, Atlas Mapmaker is no more but other software has come and gone in its place and I think it's wrong to suggest there's a divide between old school software and other newer software. In the last 5 years more mapping software has come along too. So what do we class as 'old school'? I'm guessing this is a reference to software that's been around a fair while but look through the history books and you'll find it morphs, changes and updates regularly. It doesn't just keep pace, it sets standards. Yep, every now and again something new pops up and offers something a little different but I'd suggest that those who like to bash the so-called old-school software likely have never properly used it; they likely prefer to hate for hating's sake; and more than anything like the idea of being seen as new and exciting alongside something they proclaim as new and exciting. Let me put it like this...if you're SwissTopo there's software you use and software you don't use. Journalists might prefer a different approach. It's all fine and as I've said before I use many different pieces of software to make maps and don't feel the need to define and demarcate how I make maps by buttonology. After all, software is a tool that helps you get something done. Without knowledge of concepts, practice and a strong appreciation of the rich tapestry of cartography you're going to have to be pretty lucky to hit those buttons correctly enough to make a decent map. Maps have never been difficult to create. You just need time to figure out how to make it and what's going to help you make it. Knowing something about cartography gives you way more than the tool you use to make the map. It empowers you to know what you're doing, how to design and, crucially, which rules you are able to bend and break more than others. That said, yes of course we should expect modern software to take advantage of modern technology and it should also push what's possible. If I still had to use PC Arc/Info 3.4D to make maps I'd suggest we've not progressed very far. Except it has progressed. So has every other piece of software too.

"goodbye old world"
Why? If we always threw away what went before we'd be in a scientific and artistic wasteland. Build on the past and embrace the future would be my preference.

"people often get self-referentialy dogmatic about some previously decided laws of cartography"
I'm guessing I'm included in this accusation. Saying that rainbow colours are poor choices on some map types or that it's important to normalize data on a choropleth is neither self referential or dogmatic. It's fact. It's in books. It's based on research. It's the sort of established practice that helps us make better decisions when we make maps. That's all. No-one ever called them a law. It's called best practice and the reason I bang on about it is because so many people don't get it. Sure, lots of stuff can be challenged and that's fine but let's not set out to decry the essence of well established, useful knowledge and understanding. There's a language to graphicacy that has evolved and helps guide us regardless of what our individual motivation for making a map is.  And while we're on about rules and conventions here's where I get a little confused. Many new mapmakers make their maps using code. Now those who know me know my coding skills are not what they used to be and I'm impressed by people who want to code their maps and who do so. Code requires rules and conventions. If you don't follow the rules and conventions your code will likely not work or perform poorly. If everyone ignored the basic rules and conventions it'd be anarchy and you'd all be calling each other out on github over rotten, unusable and unhelpful code. There's a practice; a syntax; a best practice to writing elegant and purposeful code. Of course, not all code is written equally just as not every map is made the same, but whether you want to call them laws or simply see things as best practice it helps to have guides. So I wonder why the sort of people who are happy to abide by general rules that govern coding in a particular way seem more than happy to tell us that cartographic code, rules and best practice are simply there to be broken. If that isn't double standards then what is?

"like many other fields, cartography is changing fast"
Sure is! But what exactly is this change? Conventional commentary suggests it's that technology allows us to do more, more easily. But is it easier to make maps than before? Let me go back to Atlas Mapmaker...I could make a map in minutes using that from a simple text file out of Excel. Sound familiar? And that was over 20 years ago. Sure, now we have the web as a place to make maps but I think what characterizes the change in cartography isn't the's the people. More people make maps now. It's not just cartographers. It's everybody. It's fantastic. Let's not change cartography because, frankly, I don't believe it needs changing. Let's evolve it...together. What seems to be changing faster than anything is the number of people who seem intent on redefining it for little or no reason.

"the dogma of cartography is certain to be overturned by new discoveries"
I hope not. I hope that it's challenged and it evolves as it has done for centuries but why is everyone so hell-bent on revolution? Yes, people can explore cartography but it's not because they are doing so "outside the bounds of comfort for traditional cartography", It's because they are either unaware or not bothered to engage with it before they make their map. Of course new ways of seeing, talking about and doing cartography will come about because people have a natural desire to experiment. That's not the preserve of people new to map-making either. If I made every map the same I'd be bored to tears but if I come up with a new way of seeing a theme or how I wrestle with symbology or whatever I see it as adding to the mix...not as a way to overthrow cartography altogether. There's probably not a week goes by when I don't see something a little bit new...but rarely something that makes me reconsider the very nature of cartography itself. So why do some wish to set out to seek a way of destroying cartography with the implicit belief that new has to be better?

"welcome on board the journey for the new world of cartography, your old world criticism has missed the boat"
Probably, because no-one likes criticism and I'm acutely aware that everyone hates a critic...particularly one with opinions. Worse, one with opinions based on some understanding of what they're talking about. I'll likely get heat for this blog too and be painted as just that grumpy guy who thinks all new cartography should be immediately burned at the stake. The truth couldn't be more different. I embrace new stuff but it doesn't mean everything is awesome right? It's getting harder and harder to even suggest that something doesn't work and that's a problem generally and not specific to cartography or map critique.  Most people don't actually understand the role of critique anyway. They seem totally unable to separate a critique of their map from some perceived personal attack or unwarranted and unsupported criticism.  If I wanted to have a pop at someone I'd probably do it Jeremy Clarkson style (I never have by the way...). If I have something to say about your map I'm talking about your map and not you.  I may do it in a way that you don't care for but it's about the map, not the person and by the way, I enjoy people commenting on my maps because it makes them better.  Making a playful map shouldn't absolve it from critique anyway and the intent is not to provide critique as a way to reinforce established values. It's to provide a critical eye on what the author claims or what the technique claims...or more likely what the author claims about the technique. Does it hold up for instance? Yes, they often capture attention (because they shout very loudly) but dig a little deeper and they often hold little more than fleeting fascination. If critique is perceived as in any way negative then it's all too often explained away as a result of the guy offering the critique as being stuck in the past. Really? There's a chilling arrogance by far too many who seem unashamedly unwilling to learn anything from people who have been there and done it (I can see eyes rolling at the mere mention of that) or that critique is a valuable way of debating claims and techniques. But it's a sad state and it's spreading beyond the map and into map education. Even this week I was left totally bemused that someone (who I won't name) was openly proclaiming they had a eureka moment about something you'd likely learn in any high school geography class. And this person is paid by a mapping company to teach about geo and making maps. They self-proclaim they want to help people learn but frankly the evidence suggests they need to do some serious learning first. It's frightening. They are literally telling the world across social media that they know nothing about the very thing they profess to know everything about. And worse...there's an awful lot of people who gravitate to this type of person and mindset. Our whole basis for education about mapping and cartography is being challenged because the hacker mindset is now being extended beyond simply making maps to decrying any sort of formal education in geography, let alone any of the related mapping sciences. Is this how we want people to learn about mapping? I sincerely hope it's just a blip and sense will prevail because currently the world of new mapmakers is learning very little from other new mapmakers who know very little....and the more the new order creates this self-fulfilling agenda against a perceived 'old cartography' the less people will ever know or learn. Take a class. Take a MOOC. Attend workshops delivered by mapping societies and organisations. Search out any number of educational institutions who can point you in the right direction. DM or email me if you want any pointers from me.

"I think the Twitter maps are spot-on and achieve their objective better than you can imagine"
Twitter maps...nope,  I've made them myself. I've researched and published on their design and so on and I've used an awful lot of imagination but lots of flashing lights don't make a map that tells me anything. It's not the mapping that's necessarily the problem, it's the data and it's so full of holes that even if you put 35 million tweets on a map it doesn't cover up for the woeful bias, uncertainty and inability to make any sense of them. Technologically putting them on a map is a feat of engineering that is true but as a useful dataset or something you can visually make any sense of they fall short. And what's the objective anyway? I only ever see vacuous, unsubstantiated claims about what this or that map reveals. They don't. They really don't. Clarifying their real objective would be a good start. Finding a better use for animated flashing maps would also be useful. Making maps of millions of pieces of twitter drivel flashy simply gives me cognitive overload and short-term inattentional blindness and hinders change detection. Adding multiple colours for no apparent reason makes things even worse. Part of the art and science of cartography is taking lots of bits of information and wrangling them in a way that reveals something useful. Using a map as a canvas for a visual data dump doesn't work. It never has. Data art yes...a map. Not yet. And should such maps be immune from critique on the grounds that they are allegedly new and challenge cartography? I'd suggest these are the very maps that require critique to establish their real value.

"this is all a bit too handwavy for your quantified mapping practices"
Pitching some of us as quantifiers of mapping practice and others as do-ers; and marking the former out as old-fashioned and the latter as embodying the future is quite absurd. In that taxonomy I'm firmly labelled as one of those old-school quantifiers who prefers dogma. But then only yesterday I finished up a map that fits squarely within the mantra of exploratory playfulness and which challenged my own ideas. It was made way outside what you might call standard cartographic principles but it was made with a very clear understanding of the extent to which I could bend the rules. I worked with them, not against them...and I waved my hands a hell of a lot. You can't have it both ways. Yes, some of us have a professional history in the discipline that seems to mark us out as archaic buffoons from yesteryear and yes, many new map-makers don't have that history. I don't have a problem with that because the sand box is big enough for all of why the hell is there such a pressing need to want to be different and so distinct from anything that ever went before? I'll continue waving my hands like I just don't care. Every now and again it'd be lovely to read that some new mapmaker made a new map and said you know what, I saw this technique on an old map, read about it and built off it.

"I'm ready to learn"
Yes. So am I. I learn every day. I'd like to see many new map-makers do a bit of learning too. Learn that they're perhaps not as new as they think they are and that so much of what they say makes them look, well, rather immature to say the least. Perhaps learn a little humility too. I don't care who you are but if you're in your early twenties you cannot know everything. I'm double that in years and I don't know half of what I'd like to know. There's scope to learn every day and if anything, life as an academic taught me one very important's not necessarily about knowing everything; it's about knowing what questions to ask, when to ask them and of whom to ask them.

"Get ready to fall in love with mapping all over again"
Nope. I'm already in love with mapping. Have been for more than 40 years. I've seen a lot of change and new stuff always interests and fascinates me. I've no need for people new to mapping to portray this point in the history of cartography as so fundamentally new that we all need to re-boot. If it serves to justify how you like to be seen, as different, fresh and avant-garde then go ahead. I've seen more people than I care to remember herald the new cartography and ultimately it just adds to the soup. Of course there's new stuff...there always will be in a fast-paced technologically underpinned area such as cartography. I get as excited as the next person with the ability to create incredible looking work and thinking up ways of harnessing new technology for making maps. There's some incredible stuff going on but there was last year too...and the year before that...and ten years before that...and in the early 1900s etc. Carry on being in love...don't discard your previous lover because you think you've found a shiny new one.

I've said it before and I'll say it again...lines in the sand are unhelpful. Some of us are professional cartographers, some of us are amateur map-makers. We're different but we don't have to be divided by rhetoric. Some of us have a formal cartographic education, others have backgrounds in biology, computer science and journalism. For many, the emergence of tools they've gravitated towards have allowed them to make maps they want to make. Some are good. Some are crap. That's life. Some people who purport to be cartographers also make pretty shitty maps. I have made some shitty maps too.  Most of my favourite maps of all time were made by non-cartographers. And before you start mocking old-school technologies you know there would likely never be any new technologies without their existence. Plenty of people use them perfectly well so let's not start fighting because you think I use a crayon and you use a Macbook Air.

I disagree with much of what Andrew said in his blog and I hope he appreciates my right of reply and takes it in the spirit of conversation. As for his maps...shit they're good and he's a talented map-maker. We need more of his sort. Some people like my work too...and it's conceivable the same people might like both our work. Don't shout that too loud though eh?

Update: I'd recommend this excellent blog by Taylor Shelton who picked up the threads in this and Andrew's blog. He makes some very reasonable and pertinent comments about the value and purpose of critique. He also suggests it's not really about getting people to love maps but, rather, that we should get people to take maps more seriously. I agree. I also feel that this idea of rejecting established cartography in favour of playful exploration is really just an excuse for not applying thought or intent to encode, reveal and communicate meaning. James Cheshire also offered some thoughts on his blog and I particularly like his last comment that "[cartography] doesn't need to take the short term view and compromise its standards to remain relevant"


  1. I'm of the opinion that no map was ever made that wasn't intended to communicate some message from human to human. Many maps have a message that answers a question, or asks a question, or summarizes some data, or exposes an insight previously hidden in the data. But some maps simply strive to convey the message, "Look at me!" Is that wrong? I don't think so,.... as long as that is the intended message.

    The problem, I think, is that with so many new mapmakers making maps we are seeing more and more maps whose message is "Look at me!" (LAM!). However, I'm not convinced that this was actually the intended message of those mapmakers. Instead, I think many of these maps are likely cartofails, not because the resulting map isn't eye-catching, but because the resulting map fails to communicate the mapmaker's intended message.

    So, why is that? Is it because the mapmakers didn't understand enough about the cartographic process to understand or appreciate that the message, purpose, audience, medium and venue are all critical to the success of the map? Is it because they didn't understand or appreciate the map's nature as a human communication tool? Is it because the concepts of purpose and message never crossed their minds at all? Or, maybe, it's just because they're young and making maps is still new to them. Maybe they, like many before them, are simply still at the LAM! stage of their mapmaking lives. We all go through those stages as we learn new things. We try and try and then we succeed (to a point), shout "Look at me!", and then we try to learn or add the next thing. I wonder if the increasingly large number of LAM! maps we see are simply reflective of the increasingly large number of people who are gaining new access to mapmaking passing through that early LAM! stage.

    Of course, while this might help to explain the large number of LAM! maps, and also the large percentage of those that were probably not intended to actually be LAM! maps, it doesn't explain the mindset that automatically rejects critique, interpreting it as a personal attack, and compelling the mapmaker to presume that all that went before is of little use. That, I'm afraid, is sadly symptomatic of human behavior, and, at least by my observation, is a trait increasingly prevalent across the internet (and, unfortunately, across wider society). To me, this is the real threat, not just to cartography or cartographic education, but to our general ability to communicate and cooperate. These abilities are built on our willingness to share and exchange ideas, and to value that exchange. Increasingly, this ability seems to be lacking in public discourse of all types. And that is not a happy turn. So I, for one, applaud your attempt to engage in the exchange, to encourage critique, and to further the idea that well-informed and thoughtful practitioners (whether they be mapmakers or in any other field of endeavor) are likely to be more effective in their chosen field. Nicely done.

  2. It seems to me that you're the one drawing lines in the sand. My sense from Andrew Hill's post and similar FOSS4G-NA talk was not that the fundamentals of cartography don't matter, but that the pervasiveness of maps, coupled with new ways to create and consume them, is causing major shifts that have implications for anyone involved in the mapping world.

    Would it be great if every hobbyist map maker understood why normalized data is typically preferable for accurately depicting geographic data? Sure. I highly doubt you'd get much argument from Andrew either.

    You assert that cartographic conventions are not laws written in stone, but you also appear to set yourself up as the judge for when it's OK to flout the conventions. "Those meddling kids can't possibly have considered normalization and then decided against it for some reason! Poor uneducated fools." "No one in their right mind would use rainbow colors on this map, they must be mental!" What if it was a conscious decision? What if the map maker felt that their choice did a better job of depicting the message than the established standard?

    I wouldn't argue that this thinking always produces great maps, but it can also lead to new insights and discoveries. And I think that's Andrew's point: holding too closely to dogma (or best practices, or whatever you want to call it) can hush important truths and can ultimately hold back progress. When I read your blog I try to focus on the message you're trying to communicate. This means I look past poor word choice and grammatical errors. We should all approach cartography in the same spirit.

    And for what it's worth, you playing the lecturer card fits right into this narrative - of course the guy who has spent years studying and lecturing about cartography hates all these new weak-minded fools engaging in thoughtless map making!

    One final thought: It's true that some of this "new" territory isn't necessarily new. But some of it IS new. And in any case, the rapid pace with which tools and data are developing and improving is certainly unprecedented.

    It is laughable to pretend that Atlas Mapmaker is basically the same thing as Mapbox Studio (or whatever else the kids are using these days). Are there similarities among mapping software? Yes - they create maps! But don't pretend that you could use Mapmaker to serve a user-specific map over the internet based on a worldwide dataset that draws varying levels of detail based on the zoom level, all while showing a popup form for gathering yet more data.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

  3. Thanks for posting.

    My team at Stickyworld have been researching, developing and testing a different kind of Twitter map which I guess is less about data, less about cartography and more about conversation. The project creates the opportunity to map a participant's perspective about a place, tweeted with a photo and location, and place this into the context of a long form forum.

    It was designed to be useful for participatory local planning and place-making practices (the original aim) but there are possibly many other mapping and educational uses? You can read about it here:
    Interested in people's thoughts.