Setting the scene
Cartography has and continues to change dramatically. Societies that represent rapidly changing disciplines or communities of practice must also keep pace. In my view the British Cartographic Society has not kept pace and in what follows I set out why I hold this view and what I believe is a way forward. In the interests of transparency I feel it's best to do this openly. I have expressed many of these opinions and observations to key people so it should be no surprise to them in particular. Making these issues public seems the only way to prompt a serious debate about the UK cartographic community and the purpose, form and function of BCS in particular.
I've become increasingly frustrated with the BCS because I see a failing society and one that is simply limping along. I am not alone in these thoughts but maybe spending a few years in the U.S. makes me a little less 'British' and reserved about voicing these issues. A society that represents those invested in it should be capable of impartially listening to the views of its members. My thoughts stem from a passion for cartography, the people involved, the need for a thriving community of cartographers and map-makers and a relatively lengthy association with BCS.
I’m not alone in my thinking. Many people have privately voiced their deep concerns at how the society is shaping up and working, some expressing their view that it is going backwards and many encouraging me to speak out and convey a widely shared view of reality. I'm not going to implicate individuals because they have their own reasons for speaking out or not. This is very much my view of the society but I know I am not alone. It is a very long read though. It's a dissertation. It's been gestating for a few months and I'm indebted to the few people I have shown drafts to for their comments and wise words.
The crux of the matter
BCS is failing. Let's ask the hard questions that need asking and make the Society actually mean and offer something going forward for UK cartography....or reconsider the very purpose of the society and seek an alternative. I’d like to see profound change in what is offered; a society that makes me want to belong and which is the place I go to for my daily cartographic shot. I want to go beyond the scant reward of a re-branded society who think newly monogrammed pencils, pens and rulers will keep me interested. At the moment I see an error-strewn and content-less web site, a late Journal which is getting thinner, a conference that is costly and not particularly interesting and a rhetoric that says everything is rosy and dynamic. It really isn’t.
My fundamental pitch is that I'm convinced BCS is on its last legs. We (as in the community of cartographers and map-makers) should look towards forming a new society. The best approach in my mind is one that merges BCS with the other cartography society - the Society of Cartographers. BCS and SoC need to get round the table, cast aside personality and work towards a solution for the betterment of cartography as a whole. Form a brand new society that brings everyone together and starts afresh with a blank piece of paper rather than everyone’s well-worn prejudices. Deal pragmatically with the contested issues. Cartography has changed so much that the question has to be asked why shouldn't the professional organisations that are clinging to some desire for relevance just disband, reform and go again? What about the Royal Society of Cartography? We've got a geographer Prime Minister and a geographer future King. Maybe it needs a bold step to shake off the shackles of the current and move forward with something new and daring to which more might feel a sense of commitment, belonging, value and purpose.
Cartography is burgeoning. There are thousands of new people making maps, some good, some bad and some ugly but all with something to contribute and learn from. Make a society that reflects this and gives them a reason to want to belong. The North American Cartographic Information Society are managing to keep pace. They have faced many of the same sort of issues over the last decade but my word they are thriving. Fresh. Dynamic. And I mean that in a genuine sense rather than just words on a web site. They're on the front foot. BCS really should look more closely at their model and while not everything will necessarily translate there are so many great ideas that could be harnessed. Their annual conference is a fantastic opportunity and generates so many ideas and relationships. Currently, BCS and NACIS are the antithesis of each other and, frankly, I hate that when I go to a NACIS event I genuinely get excited and am challenged and when I go to BCS it's really just to have a beer with some old friends. NACIS used to call itself a drinking club with a mapping problem. That's an image they have rapidly shed. BCS has become a drinking club with a drinking problem because it spends its time drowning its sorrows in the bars of obscure country retreats. It no longer lives in the real world and is seriously struggling for identity. It exists to exist and until someone starts shaking things up it will continue to limp along with a whimper. Re-branding papers some wide cracks but that's all it does.
In short, BCS is failing because it is no longer relevant. What does it actually do? What does it really offer me as a Fellow? What does it really offer to individual members or, conversely, how do they support what BCS does? What do corporate members really get from their support of BCS and what can a knowledge of corporate members do for the individual? What is really there to attract new people to the society? The answers are strikingly simple. At whatever level of membership you get The Cartographic Journal and Maplines (the magazine). Corporate members get multiple copies of publications. It’s questionable whether any other ‘benefit’ is really a benefit at all - I mean a real benefit. A listing on a web site and a discount on Ordnance Survey products is a nice but marginal perk and they do not constitute a strong motivator for joining the BCS. Corporate members get very little, if any, real promotion of their products
Because in real terms members get so little, I see major issues and failings of the society. My concerns have been forming for over a decade, during a period of almost immeasurable change not only in cartography in terms of the technology in particular, but also more generally with developments in web technologies and new forms of communication and collaboration. If we take a single disruptive change like Google Maps just think about how far everything we do in cartography has been modified by that company in only the last 12 years. Then we look at BCS and assess how it has responded and adapted to reflect such massive change that directly impacts our discipline and practice and I for one see a society overtaken by reality.
I am hugely privileged in that my job means I get to travel the world to see and share the excitement and vigor which cartography is enjoying in many contexts. I see hardly any of that reflected in the work of BCS or when I return to the UK for the annual symposium. The society is treading water, relying on outmoded ideas and appearing to be rudderless. I've spoken out about various BCS issues in the past in the hope of encouraging change but very little of real substance ever happens. There’s a stagnant sense of familiarity about what BCS does and it concerns me that will only lead to a slow demise as other mechanisms for sharing, networking and learning among the community of cartography overtakes.
I accept this is not just an issue for BCS because many societies are feeling the effects of the changing world. How many companies have cancelled or reduced their membership of societies in recent years? How many individuals of societies let their membership lapse? I do not have access to the BCS membership database but according to the financial report for the year ending June 2016, even with new members joining (130 new members in 2016) there’s also a large number who resign or fail to renew (88 in 2016). Up to this point, 2015/2016 saw a net gain in membership but why do so many leave? In fact, are these numbers even accurate since the minutes of the September 2016 Council meeting state that membership was down 14% from September 2015. It doesn’t add up and you have to question what reality is versus what published reports contain. Either way, without members a society is nothing. Without the ability to change and attract new members who may be new to mapmaking, but who are massively important in the wider community, a society becomes irrelevant. Yet most of the events that BCS associates itself with are simply to staff a booth to attract and recruit new members. To what? Without a real reason to become a member I can’t see anything other than a decline in membership over the coming years. Over 10% of the membership left in 2016 and more should be done to encourage people to stay and to give them real benefits rather than simply trying to find ways of ensuring the turnover of members doesn’t result in too much net attrition year on year.
A proliferation of societies
I've long held the opinion that BCS and SoC should merge and I pretty much led this piece with that clear statement of a sensible way ahead. There simply aren’t enough people involved in cartography to sustain two societies in their old image any more. In 2007, then Chief Executive of Ordnance Survey Vanessa Lawrence gave the Helen Wallis lecture at the Annual BCS Symposium in Chester. About a minute into her talk she stopped, looked around and asked the audience why there was a British Cartographic Society and also a Society of Cartographers. She urged the two societies to look at ways of coming together more often and mentioned that elephant in the room - merger, because there simply wasn't the capacity for two societies. Vanessa was, of course, right. There was much mumbling among stalwarts of both societies and despite occasional ‘discussions’ one side invariably accuses the other of being intransigent. We all know why there remain two societies. They were borne out of very different places in the 1960s and they have survived, largely unchanged, and in the image of waves of key members ever since. I might even go so far as suggesting it’s become a badge of honour to remain apart during the last decade or so at least and personalities have perhaps become a hurdle too far to overcome the differences.
I sense, in some quarters at least, that a merger is not as improbable as it perhaps has been though there remains a deep-seated discomfort. While it has been really progressive and pleasing that in both 2015 and 2016 (and now 2017) the two societies have shared a conference it has been noticeably through gritted teeth for many. That’s provided a tangible discomfort at the events as styles have clearly clashed but I am encouraged that we’ve come together for three consecutive conferences which has at the very least avoided two lots of expense and time away from our day jobs. On a personal level I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity of seeing the two groups of people I wish to connect with in the same place at the same time.
The merged conference should be where we genuinely act as a group of like-minded people who share one passion, albeit in different forms. Maybe the fact that BCS seem to hold the cards in terms of the overall management of the conference has led to some of the problems. There’s no doubt SoC are seemingly rolled into a BCS event rather than it being a truly merged, joint event. Perhaps BCS could relax a little and be a little more genuine in supporting a joint event. SoC has many bright minds but the society is in peril as a separate entity because the pot of people willing to pay for membership and attendance at a separate event has dipped below the viable threshold. Shared conferences are good and should continue in my view but start with a blank piece of paper and make them genuinely shared - not simply trying to dovetail some SoC involvement into what remains a very BCS leaning event. Do away with the BCS/SoC branding of discrete elements and just host a mapping conference.
There are two main societies for cartography in the UK - BCS and also the Society of Cartographers (SoC). And that's before you add in various other niche societies like the Charles Close Society or the larger umbrella organisation the Association for Geographic Information. Without unique selling points and a large reservoir of potential members a proliferation of societies dilutes the membership of each. It’s certainly the case that at an individual level many people have paid to be members of multiple societies. At a corporate level, many organisations have simply felt obliged to be seen to be members because it’s just the done thing. This situation cannot continue unless each organization offers something markedly different. But they don’t, which is why we see the same people and the same organisations at multiple events. Interestingly, it seems people spend so much time and money attending national events that you rarely see anyone from the UK at international events and so the insular nature of UK cartography becomes self-organising.
To me, SoC is the more progressive, agile and modern of the two societies but it struggles with very low membership and that has implications for the amount of work and events they can stage. BCS is arguably the more secure of the two in terms of membership but falls back heavily on trying to appeal to corporate cartography - whatever that actually is any more! SoC tends to be more relaxed. BCS more formal. SoC tends to encourage more academic and practitioner focused discourse and presentations at its events. BCS has certainly lent more towards the business side of cartography more recently. Academics have become a rare breed at the BCS annual symposium partly because they need to focus their work elsewhere (where it counts) and partly because the relatively high cost of attending symposium precludes purposeful participation.
There’s always a lot of grumbling behind the scenes and between cohorts who align themselves more with one society over the other. Awards dinners and ceremonies have led to grumbling. "too formal", "too many awards". "too stuffy", alongside "we're professional and not bunking up in student digs". "we don't do pub quizzes" etc. People enjoy cartography and the world of mapping yet it seems that when they come together both societies feel the need to complain about one another. It’s tedious, particularly for those who enjoy aspects of each society and who have been members of both for years.
For years, many have had to juggle the financial implications of attending multiple BCS and SoC events, either trying to justify 2 separate conferences that had much in common or, worse, trying to be in two places at once. And what about corporate members? It’s unreasonable to ask companies to sponsor different events and hard for them to justify doing so. It drains resources to go to both (and more) but leads to a perception of support for one over another if they make a choice. Asking people to give up time from their company jobs to attend multiple events with similar content is simply too demanding and leads to people and organisations to seriously question the relevance and worth of attending or supporting. And so, when societies do come together, it shouldn't be too difficult just to accept each other's idiosyncrasies because the whole really is so much better than the sum of the parts. Maybe that's the problem - people are simply too entrenched in the style of the society they prefer and become tribal about their distaste for how the other's prefer their society. But we're all one cartography - surely we're already in a small enough club to be able to develop a society that meets the needs of all of us?
BCS Council and composition
In the face of massive change in cartography, for BCS, there exists an unhealthy old school club mentality that largely stems from the structure it maintains and the (lack of) turnover of key people. You can call it a Council but in truth it’s better framed as a club that key members have shaped over many years. They seem to like it the way it is and change, or the suggestion of change, is not met favourably, if at all. Maybe it’s just become too easy to roll out the same formulae year on year. Members of Council are familiar with many of the same people having been involved for many years. Empires have been built and cliques formed. In some respects this is inevitable because you form close working relationships, get on with some people and perhaps not so well with others. But let’s not forget this is a volunteer organization and it’s not healthy that if you aren't in the club you struggle to find a place in the club.
Why don't new people come to the fore more? Partly because Council has become the closed shop I’m speaking about. It's become an echo chamber and people can all too easily see that they don't belong or cannot have a genuine and meaningful purpose for getting involved. The rhetoric may be one of welcoming all to take part but the reality is that people are nominated and seconded and then elected by a very small, inward looking set of people. It's become incestuous and has been getting worse for several years. Of course, the counter argument is the society would fold without these key individuals and to an extent that's a valid observation. But I hear a lot from inside BCS about how so many simply don't have the time to do things for the society because the effort of overcoming the hurdles at Council level becomes too time-consuming in itself. It’s understandable given the number of competing events as well as heavy workloads people inevitably carry but it’s important that if people are going to step up they have proper support and a defined role. At the moment, people get elected and then can end up doing very little, or simply repeating what they already know from their small circle of people in the industry. It's not a good model for developing a society and bringing on board new people and new ideas to reflect the changes we see more generally. It also leads to those who do try their hardest to become disillusioned through a lack of others pulling their weight or renaging on agreements. In a small community everyone needs to contribute else it becomes a society with small initiatives that come and go rapidly as people’s energy rapidly depletes.
The lack of rotation on Council is a reflection of BCS not offering much more generally so new people don’t have any real reason to want to get involved. Discounts at Stanfords and for OS maps are the latest ‘benefits’ but anyone can buy offerings from both places cheaper elsewhere so in real terms the benefits are worthless. The perception of what constitutes a benefit is irrelevant at the level of the individual. It does little to encourage membership and why would focusing energy on working on a Council that seeks these deals be seen as something worth giving up valuable time for? Many of Council’s other work is a huge time-sink as well because the work is largely done by a few core individuals. The same people are seen everywhere which becomes the image of the society. Take Restless Earth as an example of something useful that BCS does. It’s a good initiative in many respects but let’s be frank - it doesn’t support members, it won’t attract new members, it is expensive and money could be diverted elsewhere to make a bigger difference to members or to more people who might consider being members. This in turn could help to revitalize the society and bring new people and ideas to Council.
So some of the bodies on Council change a little but what new initiatives have come about in, say, the last 5 years? I've been privy to the minutes of Council meetings for the best part of a decade or more and they are little more than repetitive talking shops. It's mostly about house-keeping and deciding on really rather petty stuff to support the function of Council itself. There's so little real discussion about genuine ideas but instead, just the stuff that keeps the status quo ticking over. Action items are routinely held over as ongoing or written off as complete but there's no real evidence and no real need for an outcome anyway. Many people’s attendance at Council has been sparse though it could be argued that Council is probably too large anyway. It's also become very autocratic with much being decided at Presidential level through email with a few key people. Sometimes this ends up being tabled at Council as a fait accompli or decisions are simply implemented. It’s understandable because this can be a way of subverting the tedium of a Council meeting to get things done but if Council and the committee structure no longer supports the need for more agile thinking and action then change the structure. It just makes Council weak and a relic of a former structure that no longer meets the needs.
Even if a Council is retained it also needs to modernize. Spending money getting everyone to London four times a year for meetings seems profligate when it's already a challenge keeping a relatively small society running. Technology supports very good conference calling these days. Think how much money BCS would save on travel and subsistence just by doing this twice a year instead of convening in London four times a year. Telephone and video conferencing is a fundamental part of modern communication. It’s how the world has modernized. Distance is no barrier to communication and the UK isn’t that big anyway and I would strongly argue that at least 90% of Council’s business could be done remotely. This would minimize the impact on individuals, notionally giving them back time that could be used more productively.
The expenses policy for BCS Council members is archaic and also needs modernizing. As a fee-paying Fellow I find it quite objectionable that part of my fees go towards supporting Council member’s hotels, travel, meals and wine. I do think officers of the Society should be entitled to some financial support but as part of a policy that works to benefit the society. BCS should not have to spend what it does on travel and subsistence. This is money that can be spent elsewhere and be of benefit to the society.
BCS events and activities
For a society to function properly, it needs to offer events and functions. It needs to give people a reason to belong. It needs online discussion forums and meetups. It needs to support genuine networking and collaborative opportunities. Take this last year for instance. There's certainly been activity on the Restless Earth workshops, Restless Earth certainly gives good PR and the schools and children get great value but it’s really just become a vanity project. And is it really offering insight into the world of cartography? Even Restless Earth needs modernizing. Exploring paper maps on tables is great in many respects but the exercises should have been using web-based materials for at least the last 5 years. Why haven't the paper maps been augmented with cutting edge web mapping? It's not because offers to re-shape the programme into a web-offering haven't been forthcoming. They have. They're just met with scepticism and apathy and so the offers of help are not taken up and so progress is painfully slow. Cartographic education at whatever level has moved on tremendously in the last decade but it’s gone beyond what we might have once called ‘cartography’. GIS is absolutely vital and Restless Earth could so easily support analytics or web mapping. My own feeling is that too many of those who have supported Restless Earth are not sufficiently skilled in modern practice to deliver the required content. Yes, they give of their time and that is a credit to them as individuals, but showcasing a cartography of the past perpetuates the myth that cartography is an old art. These are children growing up in the age of the Internet of Things, X-box realism and so forth. Showing them a few paper maps just does not cut it anymore. I know many hark back to the ‘good old days’ but that is not how to run a society equipped for the modern day. As a society, BCS needs to be at the fore with their events and the people that run them...not offering glimpses into the past. And why would schools want to become members? What's on offer? Where's the next level for these schools and children? While a lot of effort goes into the Restless Earth initiative perhaps it's too much because it does not benefit the vast majority of members of the society. And why have I focused heavily on Restless Earth? Because there is precious little else.
The Fellows evenings and autumn lectures have often taken the form of a speaker and a reception over recent years. For understandable reasons (one of our members can secure the venue) use has been made of the RAF Club in Piccadilly but I’m afraid this doesn’t present the society in a way that resonates with many. Having to ensure you’re attired according to the rules of the club and submit your name beforehand is not welcoming. It’s another example of the perception of many that BCS represents a bygone era of cartography. Last year’s autumn lecture was held in mid-afternoon and that’s just not helpful for people to be able to attend. BCS is simply out of step with what it deems attractive to members or Fellows in this respect.
The Better Mapping series has become tired as well. In 2016 there were numerous cancellations to Better Mapping seminars. It's unsurprising given attendees were being charged to attend the day long sessions. Low uptake is inevitable. Ten years ago this model worked but these days people (anyone, not just members) can get far more tuition via the internet so shelling out to attend a course needs to have more than a few people (that many are likely never to have heard of) showing PowerPoints. Times have moved on and while we might privately agree that a day with experts is better than whatever you can scrape from the internet it's an incredibly tough sell. People get their education from many other places these days. Even Universities and companies are giving away tuition as pump primers or simply to provide them with visibility. Look at the incredibly successful Penn State University MOOC on the Geospatial Revolution for instance – 70,000 people have taken that course for free. The payback is that dozens have enrolled for their fee-paying MSc course and so the cost of developing the MOOC yields very real benefits. And what of the Maptime initiative which has spread from the idea of a few friends to over 70 separate Chapters globally in 2016. Maptime could have been a BCS idea except it wasn’t. It was created by people searching for a place or ‘club’ to meet, network and share ideas about mapping. They shunned mainstream societies because they didn’t offer anything and, instead, went out on their own to make something that inspired them. Companies are also building their own materials to support the wider community of cartography. Mapbox have all manner of tutorials. Individuals created content such as MapSchool, Adventures in Mapping and other great material. Among a range of outreach activities, at Esri we build MOOCs too and there’s cartography news on the horizon too. It could so easily have been a BCS initiative but it isn’t and that opportunity has now also slipped. I raised the idea of a cartography MOOC with the President a year ago but there were simply too many barriers to getting the work done and doing it under the BCS banner. When I suggested it in an email to BCS a year ago I was invited to put it together on my own. That simply wasn’t helpful. When I proposed the idea at work it immediately got traction, we held meetings to plan and put in place strategies and resources to get the thing done. Until BCS can properly support ideas from members then successive initiatives will pass the society by.
Better Mapping still has a place but it simply has to be free to attend. The content also needs an overhaul. Make it useful, relevant and get some big names to deliver key talks. It needs big names, and I mean big. It needs people that others are really wanting to see and hear from to attract people...not just whomever volunteers from BCS Council. Yes, we might know who our close network of people are and what their cartographic chops are but most others have never heard of us. Beyond the personel, again, look at other meetup models like Maptime – it genuinely works and encourages participation. Sponsorship comes in the form of free pizza supplied by CARTO for the evening. It’s informal and practice-focused. It’s led by people who are keen and want to learn as well as share ideas. Many other meetups offer free beer. There are many people providing online courses or meetups like Maptime these days and hardly any are BCS members. If BCS wants to be relevant in this area of offering professional guidance, tuition and seminars it needs investment to make it top class, to make it compelling and to make people really want to attend. It’s simply not sufficient to claim to be an authority if there is no mechanism to evidence that to those who we seek to help or influence. Alternatively, why don’t BCS turn these meetups into opportunities to sponsor – e.g. Maptime, sponsored by BCS. If the new mapmakers aren’t coming to BCS then swallow your pride, dig into your pocket and go to them.
Even when events do get people through the door BCS does hardly anything to encourage them to stay. At Symposium in 2016 I offered a one-day free workshop on Better Mapping with ArcGIS. It got over 60 people in attendance. I did it to give something back to cartography, Of course, I get to showcase the tech of my employer and I get to share workflows and ideas which provides me with a business case to do what I do for free at the point of delivery. Crucially though, it was on topic and based on something people wanted and all of the data, maps and resources were freely given to attendees. And it was free to attend with a lunch provided for by Esri UK through sponsorship. A simple but effective way of reducing barriers for people who just wanted to come along and learn and not worry about the impact on their wallet or their need to bid for company support for a paid-for event. I know BCS saw it as an opportunity to encourage people to stay on for the full conference (which is part of the reason pre-cons are hosted) but I believe only around 10 people stayed on – many of whom would have come for the main conference anyway – which was not a good rate of conversion by any stretch. What that told me was something very clear. People were happy to come to Cheltenham for a day to join in with the free day but they were neither willing to spend on the over-priced accommodation to stay longer or sufficiently motivated by the programme to warrant staying. The evidence is there...give people what they want at a price they want to pay (often free) and that helps people. I got some great feedback from that pre-con but where was the effort by BCS to capitalize on those people and to get them to stay for the conference or get them to join the society? There were so many ways in which participants could have been given incentives to stay but it was another opportunity missed. Those who came had a good time and, I hear, left impressed with what I shared with them. It would certainly have been nice to have seen BCS stalwarts try to capitalize on it.
A Better Mapping with QGIS event was also held in November at Ordnance Survey but here's the killer - it was 40 GBP for BCS members and over 80 GBP for non-members. Why? If you want to give back to the community...give back. It was hugely ironic that a day’s event on mapping based on the use of a proprietary product was free yet the event based on the open-source product incurred a fee to join in. There certainly weren't 60 people in attendance but even at 30 people and a modest estimated income of 2000 GBP I fail to see what charges needed covering? Accommodation was presumably not charged for by Ordnance Survey (if it was, they should have gone elsewhere). Did speakers get travel and subsistence? I don’t know but my feeling is that they shouldn't. I didn’t claim anything for the pre-con in Cheltenham but maybe there’s an assumption my employer can support my participation because of who they are – that’s certainly been an assumption I’ve heard in the past. The sort of assumption that particular companies can soak up costs only goes so far and the will runs out eventually. Again, maybe a decade ago the model was different but BCS simply cannot be a society who appear to have to charge for events such as this. Find a way to offer the same or better for free to many more people. There are surplus funds in the BCS coffers so it becomes rather invidious to be seen to be charging a fee. That said, if BCS continue to shed reserves at the same rate as in 2016 (a 17,000 GBP loss) then a root and branch assessment of the finances certainly needs to take into account how events are managed.
When you look at the events BCS puts on it doesn’t extend much beyond the symposium anyway. Each of the President’s bulletins ends with a list of events of interest to the community and most have the * Not Organised by the BCS strapline. When a member’s bulletin does little more than advertise other events you need to question what the society actually puts on itself.
My sense is these sort of on-site professional seminars have had their day and others are doing them far better and much cheaper. A better option might be for BCS members to spend time making high quality materials in the form of web content, datasets, maps, presentations, videos, how-tos and then to send them to people around the country to host free local events. A network of mini BCS club nights or joining with others to sponsor their events. It’s the Maptime model but done properly it works, is far less in terms of expense and encourages local participation. It also massively reduces the need for the same people to traipse around the country on expenses. Start with a few key players and then roll it out across more places. There could even be remote participation by a ‘visiting expert’ via Skype or similar.
BCS re-branding, products and communications
We also saw a re-branding exercise in 2016. An inordinate amount of time, energy and cost has gone into the re-branding and for what? Gone is the classic logo and Galliard typeface. In its place a blocky logo and Gotham typeface selected after a hurried and somewhat limited consultation phase. Gotham. That most American of fonts which was commissioned by GQ magazine and came to prominence in the Obama Presidential campaign. No typeface screams 'American' more than Gotham. This is the British Cartographic Society. The Cartographic Journal has taken on the appearance of the Bulletin of the Society of Cartographers with its new cover design but it retains the same internal layout in what is now a horrible mismatch. The Pantone blue of the new society colour scheme is likely the very same as SoC too. And the web site...the very shouty web site with overtly large fonts. Let's be clear...this is a society about cartography and the design, look and feel should reflect the professionalism. What we now have is a generic web site, a generic font and a somewhat generic look and feel. There is nothing that's really distinctive. Nothing that really sets BCS apart or invites people's curiosity. And you know the trap has been well and truly fallen into when you read that the society is 'exciting' and 'dynamic'. The web site is chock-full of this sort of rhetoric but woefully short on real substance and content.
Now don't get me wrong, I am not saying for one minute that a little sprucing up wasn't needed. The web site needed seriously updating and The Journal may as well be part of the overhaul but...at what cost? The web site is nothing more than a skinned WordPress site. And it cost a lot of money (I'm led to believe in the order of 8000 GBP and that’s without factoring in on-costs such as hosting). Couldn't this have been done by a member on Council or even offered to members as a project? We skin WordPress sites for ICA web sites. It takes a matter of hours. It's not difficult and somewhere in the BCS membership someone should have been up to it. This is another example of the people on Council making decisions without necessarily possessing the necessary skills to take BCS forward by knuckling down and doing the work themselves. And while changing the colours and typeface are, to an extent, a matter of taste, all they've done is papered over the very obvious cracks underneath.
A crucial question when reviewing the quality of a web site is to reflect on how often you visit and for what? Go on – ask yourself. My answer is virtually never. Where is the content? What need do I have to go to the web site at all? It offers very little and with all of the other social media and web-based content that gets delivered direct to me there's no need to visit the web site to get any news or other information. I even took time when it was first released to go through and de-bug. I found copious broken links and pages that lacked content. I even managed to log in to the administrator page where I could have done untold damage but even Russian spies can’t be bothered as there’s nothing in there to change. I just checked – I can still get to the administration page…crazy! [update: as of checking on 30th March I can no longer access the admin page]. Some bugs have been fixed, many were not but the bigger problem with the web site is that up-to-date and frequently posted content is sorely lacking. Other societies have daily or weekly posts or blogs. Many have professional discussion forums and live job postings and other crucial information. Not the BCS site. It remains horribly static and even hides publications like Maplines in a members-only area. Members get the print copy. Why not give the world a digital copy to show what BCS is doing? Hiding content helps no-one. The BCS social media presence is also lacking. Who does it actually speak to any more?
Frankly, Google provides a far more useful site to find out about cartography, the people involved in cartography, the companies they work for and so on. I go to the Cartotalk forum for daily discussions. Why doesn’t BCS build a similar discussion forum for the UK/European contingent of cartographers. Why doesn't the web site have a featured map section or a featured cartographer? Where are the interviews with award winners? Where is the daily feed of interesting carto-nuggets? There are so many opportunities for sections and content but the reason it's bereft of up-to-date content is that it relies on people doing stuff. That's why the web site is fairly static and that's why Maplines has historically always struggled to get copy in on time - although hilariously early in 2016 they had to jettison the piece on the award winners due to having too much content. Priorities! And in 2016 we get a randomly sent President's bulletin as a PDF. Really? The contents are hardly worth downloading the latest version of Adobe Reader. A general blurb about how vibrant the society is and what events a few key people are attending to man a booth followed by a few nuggets culled from one or two social media feeds (including my blog). Granted, not everyone uses social media as a way to stay informed and there's a place for other modes of communication but we're proliferating communication conduits: Journal. Web Site. Maplines. President's Bulletin...the semi-abandoned blog; intermittent Twitter and Facebook posts. Under the last President, Pete Jones kept a really rather nice monthly President's blog of interesting comment and it's a shame that wasn't built upon. Web sites that invite people to return and see value require investment in time and effort. A redesign does not do the job of attracting or keeping people. Content does that. Even at its basic level content is out of date or erroneous. Even today as I write in early 2017 it includes details of the forthcoming conference at Cheltenham as well as multiple other pieces of misinformation, broken content and pages not found.
What of the little Cartography book? It was/is a fantastic piece of work but without a wider distribution it's just not on people's radar. It was a ridiculous decision not to allow a third party publisher the rights to reprint and distribute. It's been in high demand and it's shooting the society in the foot being so precious about it. By now it should be a downloadable PDF or, better still, a series of web pages with exercises that schools and interested individuals can tackle. It could even have how-tos and examples up there on the web site and act as a basis for people (e.g. members) to add to with their own workflows and content – practical tips etc. The web is the perfect place for this sort of content but alas all we’re told is that there’s an updated edition in the pipeline. Printing this sort of material and selling it is no longer a suitable mechanism for the sort of simple, basic content it communicates. Augmenting it with short videos showing how we work, or reviews of great maps pointing out why they are considered great. The opportunities to build upon the little book are massive. It’s been nearly ten years since it was published and I’m afraid BCS has once again failed to capitalize on the idea and the product. What about a BCS YouTube account with a series of videos based on the book’s content? Actually have people show, share and teach the ideas. I love that little book but times move on.
Let me turn to The Cartographic Journal with which I have had most input regarding my own personal contribution to BCS. I was Editor for 9 years and I was largely left to do the job because nobody stopped me. In the end I called time when I decided I had had enough because it’s a tiring and time-consuming (volunteer) job. My involvement with the Publications Committee and Council was virtually non-existent and so The Journal was produced with very little input from Council. I left the Journal in a good place with many papers through review and lined up. There was no great search for a new Editor and despite my suggestion that the post should be at least advertised there was a quiet succession to the then Assistant Editor with whom I switched places to assist a period of transition. And then, to the surprise of everyone on the Journal's Editorial Board, news of a change in publisher to Taylor and Francis, as part of their takeover of Maney Publishing, emerged.
Let me be clear - at no time were members of the Editorial Board properly consulted on the ramifications of this change. It seemed a perfect time to reconsider many aspects of the Journal but a decision was made to just fall under the T&F umbrella because it was the path of least resistance. During the last two years we've faced the pitiful situation of every issue being late. It's simply not good enough and despite claims to the contrary it is not entirely the fault of T&F. Of course there would be teething problems but having got the Journal back on schedule I know how much work it takes to keep it on schedule. It is painful and time consuming but it falls on the Editor and the team to ensure content is lined up and ready to go. This clearly hasn’t happened. I know many on the Editorial Board have not been asked to do any Journal work during the last couple of years which strikes me as astonishing. BCS received compensation to the tune of over 4,000 GBP from T&F for their part in the Journal being late but what has been done with this money? Have members been compensated? Perhaps the money has gone to fund a special project? Or has it just gone into the coffers to shore up the loss from 2016?
There are other issues with the Journal too. During my time as Editor I often raised the issue of considering moving it to become an open publication. At a time when many publications are considering going open or moving to online it seemed sensible to find ways of moving our respected but niche publication to engage more readers and build its reputation. Instead, BCS chose to allow T&F to just add it to their stable which also includes The Journal of Maps and the new International Journal of Cartgoraphy as well as a plethora of GIS and Remote Sensing titles. Despite persistent claims to the contrary, The Journal has never been considered a member benefit by the majority of members. How many members read it? How many members even want it? It’s an academic journal and supports academic discourse. That it was launched out of the BCS in 1964 is of great credit and pride for the society but it needs to be cut loose and not seen as something that speaks directly to members. It needs a much wider readership than it currently enjoys. At the moment I can’t be bothered to read half of the articles because they are published so late and I’ve often seen the work elsewhere on the internet anyway. I just read an article published on a blog with the statement that it had been submitted to The Cartographic Journal. I’d wager that it doesn’t get published until at least 2018. T&F need to be doing more to find ways of making The Cartographic Journal independently viable. It builds a financial surplus for BCS but it needs to be doing something different for the community more generally and certainly for members. Cartographic Perspectives is free, thriving and enjoying a much wider distribution. The new International Journal of Cartography can expect to take some papers away from The Cartographic Journal over the next few years. The Cartographic Journal is not thriving. It is doing OK but it needs to stabilize and then explore how it could do so much more.
Of course, the BCS President took over the Editorship from me and he knew of the immense time commitment that came with the role. When he subsequently became President of BCS I suggested he hand over The Journal to someone else to ensure it got the time and attention it required. I (and others) doubted he could do both jobs. I don't see how one person (any person) can be President of a Society, Editor of the flagship Journal, as well as doing his own job and having involvement elsewhere in other societies and professional bodies. The work needs sharing else every job gets short-shrift. I make no apologies for sharing the advice I gave the President on this count. It still stands and I feel that it would help The journal to be handed to someone who has the time to give it the attention it needs.
I’ve covered the existing major titles in the BCS stable but we shouldn’t stop there. So many other societies are evaluating their mechanisms for engagement. I’ve mentioned that ICA have their new International Journal of Cartography and that other journals are being made open access to meet changing needs. Others, still, are experimenting very successfully with other forms of output. For instance, NACIS are now in their third volume of their hugely impressive Atlas of Design and have announced Editors for a fourth edition. This is an atlas of submitted work which is sifted, curated and then built into a beautiful atlas by a team of committed members of the society. It’s such a simple idea. Why haven’t BCS come up with something similar? Yes, we had the Anniversary book which was terrific but build on it – take the idea of curated sets of maps forward with new ideas. We had the Landmarks in Mapping book to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of The Cartographic Journal but it remains missing from the web site as a BCS publication so even when people do make effort there’s precious little ongoing effort made to promote. If that’s the sort of encouragement people see for spending time on getting ideas into print I see why BCS members don’t want to commit more time but in truth there should be no lack of ability to build a UK version of the Atlas of Design. I’m quite sure there are other ideas too that showcase cartography and which could be badged as BCS. There’s the small book on cartography. But what about a big book too? Another void that will soon be filled by others where BCS could have found opportunity.
BCS, UKCC and ICA
Inevitably this section is going to veer into territory that may seem more personal but I feel compelled to share these experiences as a way of shedding light on the way the society is run.
Were it not for a trip to a bar on Friday 28th August 2015 in Rio de Janeiro where the incumbent President and I chatted I may well have become President of BCS. On that evening, three days before the deadline for nominations, I was the sole nominee for President and Alex was the sole nominee for Vice-President. By the time ballot papers were distributed there were two nominees for President and none for Vice-President. That’s politics! More alarming is that year on year the process for nominating members to Council or for various posts passes with barely a whimper. The voting is even worse with less than a 10% turnout more than a common occurrence (i.e. maybe 70 or fewer people actually vote). So the cycle continues and the same faces are voted onto Council. When you see the nominations document it’s clear that nominations come from those largely on Council who nominate those who’ve already been on Council or who are close friends. I lost by a relatively narrow margin but I was unsurprised not to win. The model and the process in place supports the continuation of the status quo. But it could be different. What about getting students involved and giving them a voice on Council (a very successful approach used by other societies)? What about a clear process for succession so a V-P always becomes the next President, has 2 or 3 years then has to step down to Past-President with very specific roles identified (e.g. symposium management)? There are just many ways to find a way to elect people and this ought to be considered going forward, particularly when the normal turnout is almost so low it’s barely worth holding an election.
There are roles on Council but they are diluted among a range of sub-committees with numerous people sitting across numerous committees. It really just needs one committee and dedicated responsibilities assigned to people who have the clear time and commitment to carry them out. In a volunteer organisation there is no time or place for people to sit on Council as a vanity project. The reality is that many people get onto Council and then either opt out of doing the required work or find that the demands of the role are more than they are able to commit to. Conversely, the busy people find they get even busier and have to say no to taking yet more roles. People also get elected when it's clear they actually do not have the skills to offer the society but posts need filling. Yes, many of them are decent people and I count a good number as friends but you need much more to run a society than a collection of mates, nominated and voted onto Council by mates. I can understand why it becomes easier to run the society as an autocracy given the numerous sub-committees and demands but it's really no way to govern. I've been aware of some really messy issues during the last year which really could have been handled much better. Accusations, counter accusations, ignored or 'lost' emails and miscommunication are really no way to run a steady ship but when personalities begin to come to the fore, the cliques clash and there are casualties. It’s bound to happen.
BCS is awash with committees with perhaps the oddest being the UK Cartographic Committee. This is a largely self-organising group of people who are supposed to represent the depth and breadth of the UK cartographic industry. Except it’s really a sub-committee of BCS and, so, cannot ever be fully independent. It has become a largely irrelevant quango. It supposedly acts as an interface between BCS and the International Cartographic Association (ICA). Again, it’s populated by many of the same people over the same years and doesn’t achieve very much. Actually, I can’t recall a time when the composition of the committee changed so one has to question its impartiality as it does seem to be set up to serve its own needs, whatever they actually are. Even in the most recent Maplines (Winter 2016) the report from UKCC was that they didn’t meet because there was no business to discuss and while they spun the argument as saving money for the society (largely through notclaiming travel and subsistence expenses) the committee shouldn’t be a drain on BCS anyway. How many members even know that BCS funds this committee along with monies to support people’s attendance at ICC every two years? Even if UKCC is designed to be the UK’s reporting structure to ICA the least you’d expect is it did those jobs properly. It doesn’t.
One of the roles is to compile a National Report to submit to the ICA General Assembly every four years. Instead of the committee being in a position to author this, a weak trawl for contributions is made and a thin report formed out of what responses are received. Hardly comprehensive or, indeed, a solid reference point for UK Cartography. It’s partial at best and the defense to that criticism is a 'lack of response' to calls for content. But where is the real engagement and effort? It takes more than an email or two so we end up getting National Reports reflecting the work of people, you guessed it, on BCS Council or who are vaguely active members of BCS. As the National Report is published as an issue of The Cartographic Journal we also end up with a very thin issue which does two things. Firstly it uses up an issue of an academic journal for bland copy and, secondly, because it’s thin it leaves the Editor with the unenviable task of balancing the year’s page budget (96pp per issue, 384 pp per annual volume) by ensuring a fat issue elsewhere. As Editor, I suggested over 6 years ago that the 2011 National Report should either be digital or an additional issue in the years it’s needed. The suggestion received scant attention and was rejected. 2019 will see the next National Report. Make it an insert, a digital only issue, a pen drive distributed to national delegates at ICC. Anything! Just don’t waste an issue of an academic journal.
UKCC is also charged with organising entries to the ICC Barbara Petchenik map competition. This is routinely embarrassing as the UK has had either none or very few entries. It’s truly astonishing that we can't get a load of schoolkids to draw some maps. UKCC hides behind excuses for this as well with claims of it being difficult to organize etc. No, it’s not. You compel people in BCS or UK Cartography more generally to get their own children to draw a map. You get those schools who are BCS members to take a lead and generate content. You engage the schools who’ve been involved with Restless Earth to organize their own competitions to generate content. You organize a British map competition for school kids and take the very best to the ICC. You use social media to capture the attention of people. The US are doing it. And doing it successfully. BCS could generate a huge amount of exposure as a society that gets our children to participate. Instead, every time the Petchenik competition gallery is displayed at ICC we see multiple submissions across multiple age groups from many countries and, at best, a handful of UK entries. Frankly it’s embarrassing. I agree it’s hardly the most important aspect of the working of BCS or UKCC but it’s an indicator. It’s an easy way to get exposure on the world stage and to encourage our children to get into some mapping but we routinely miss the opportunity. I was pleased to see recently that Ordnance Survey were promoting it via their own blog but it didn’t appear on the BCS web site until 3rd March – only one month before the deadline. It’ll be interesting to see what entries these two rather paltry efforts at garnering interest actually receive.
So UKCC needs its own shake-up or perhaps just get rid of it altogether as an unnecessary committee, save the money and get people to do the work as a role on BCS Council instead. If, as seems to be the case, the UK seems not to want to bid to host an ICC any time soon then there seems little point having UKCC anyway. And why don't we want to host an ICC? Maybe it's that problem of 'too much effort required' again? Yes, the finances may be a challenge but there's no reason it couldn't work and it's a disgrace that the UK feels unable or unwilling to want to bid to host an ICC. Every now and then it gets raised but immediately disregarded and that’s more an indictment on those who run and sit on this committee and BCS Council than anything else. Yes, of course organizing a major conference takes a lot of time, effort and funding (though this last bit can be mitigated through careful planning and sponsorship). But it smacks of a lack of real energy that people don’t want to actually bother putting the effort in. Of Course, it may also be the case that these people actually prefer the opportunity to visit far flung places rather than stay at home and do the hard work themselves. It is hard work organizing a conference of that there is no doubt but the UK should want to be a destination for others.
The ICA is not exactly immune to politics either and I’ve often suggested it runs like a combination of the IOC and FIFA rolled into one. It’s fascinating seeing how dozens of nations come together every couple of years yet keeping the peace amongst all their differences is a phenomenal challenge. The last year or so has me scratching my head once more. Every four years, Chairs of ICA Commissions have to be re-nominated by their host country. As a UK citizen this means I go through the UK Cartographic Committee to seek nomination and it is up to UKCC whether to support the nomination. Of course, questions were raised when re-nominations were due in 2015 given I'd recently moved to the US. Where I actually live and work is irrelevant as I’m a UK citizen. Representing the UK as a Chair of an ICA Commission is something I place great importance upon but it was uncomfortable having to listen to people question my involvement. More recently, contributing my maps to the UK submission for the ICC International Map Exhibition has also been questioned. It’s hard when you want to continue to support your own country to be told your work can likely not be considered because of politics.
The conflict between politics and personality is a persistent problem though. I was asked by several members of the incumbent ICA Executive to put my name forward to the UKCC stand for ICA V-P back in 2014. It was an honour to be asked so I completed the relevant forms and submitted them to the Chair of the UKCC as required. Again, it’s up to the UKCC to support a nomination as they are the body responsible for putting forward UK candidates for any ICA post. I then subsequently learnt that the Chair of the UKCC was also putting his name forward. This is, of course, his right but there’s a clear conflict of interests when the Chair is able to see other nominations before drafting his or her own. A sub-group of three people were appointed by the Chair to appear to remain impartial in deciding whether his or my nomination (or anyone else – I do not know how many others submitted nominations) was put forward as the UK's nominee for V-P. It really came as no real surprise that the Chair of UKCC became the UK nominee for ICA V-P and, as the National Delegate with voting rights at the ICC General Assembly then became an ICA Vice-President at the Rio ICC.
It really doesn’t matter that these stories are borne out of personal experience. It's just shabby politics whomever is involved. Having become an ICA V-P, how the same person can also find time to remain as UKCC Chair or sit on Council of BCS is questionable...it's a question of time commitment once again but the same people get the same advantage across the various BCS committees. I was told that ‘my time would come’ which was a little patronizing. An ICA V-P can seek two terms – so 8 years. Currently I have the time, skills and passion for such a role and I was encouraged to seek nomination from those within ICA who wanted to get a younger group of people involved. I’ll be in my mid-fifties when the opportunity is likely to next come around and, frankly, no-one knows what the world of cartography will even look like then. It’s a shame that the mechanisms are as they are and that it’s so easy for internal politics to play such a prominent role in these nominations. And what value have we had from our ICA Executive V-P since he was appointed? I’ll just leave that one for consideration but if the point of having UK involvement in the ICA is to benefit the UK cartographic scene then it needs to be visible. Maybe such posts shouldn’t be markers of age or time-served and, instead, should be put to the vote of a proper representation of UK cartography. At least that would avoid the inevitable accusation of cronyism.
I was reappointed as Chair of the ICA Commission for Map Design. A number of others were also nominated to lead ICA Commissions which reflects well on the UK because it’s a clear demonstration of visible commitment. ICA requires us to commit and to deliver a programme that is clearly set out at the start of each four-year period. We are accountable to ICA but we should also be accountable to BCS, the UKCC and UK cartography more generally as they are the supporting bodies. Those of us who are Chairs or Vice Chairs should be made to present at the BCS Symposium on a topic allied to the Commission. Indeed, this has long been voiced by the Chair of UKCC but there has never been any requirement. We should be required to demonstrate what we're doing and what progress we're making against our promises. The very least BCS should expect is to see what these people are doing on the world stage, otherwise what is the benefit to BCS or UK cartography? I have always sought to submit papers to present at the annual BCS conference allied to the work of the Commission on Map Design. I did so again for the 2017 conference but the paper was rejected. So now even the work of Commissions that BCS support through UKCC is being marginalized from our own events. I would bet few in BCS even know about the ICA Commissions, what they represent and what they are or aren’t doing. Commissions also have to do something. The current President of BCS also became Chair of a new ICA Commission on Topographic Mapping in 2015 but it’s done virtually nothing since being formed. UKCC cannot continue to support already busy individuals becoming even more over-committed.
Any awards conferred by a society are done so for two reasons. They convene merit on an individual or organization through the judgement of peers which is rewarding for the recipient for sure. But let’s be honest – awards are mostly a form of advertising for a society because they are an easy way to shine a light on the society through the work of others. It provides quick and easy copy and for cartography, a load of free-to-reuse graphics and maps of a significant quality. You only have to look at the BCS web site home pages and the cover and leading copy for the Winter edition of Maplines to see how much the awards are used as a way to promote BCS. For years the BCS awards were in the doldrums. They garnered relatively few entries and the ceremony at the Symposium gala dinner became laughable because the same people continuously won the same awards. I know. I'm one of them. The truth is that the awards were so poorly promoted that only people on Council or those in the know ever bothered entering – so the same people inevitably won.
It does the society no good whatsoever to be in a situation that their awards are on rotation with the same members - sometimes the same members of Council - constantly winning the top awards. This has improved over the last couple of years and that was largely down to the commitment of the person who took on the role of Awards Officer. It’s a clear example of what happens when the right person is in a role that they can fully commit to. The number of entries increased and are increasingly of a consistently high quality. There’s actually been a good array of maps on show at Symposium recently. This certainly demonstrates the health as well as the breadth and depth of UK cartography! The awards ceremony was fantastic in 2014 and 2015 - a real highlight of the Symposium with a professional polish. 2016 was a little less polished but it transpired that behind the scenes there had been difficulties and a clash of personalities. Whatever the truth of the situation (and there’s inevitably two sides to every story depending on whom you speak to), such difficulties are inevitable and need to be handled in a way that doesn’t impact the awards or their presentation. My own view is that if something is running well, give the person enough latitude to do the job. Do not micro-manage.
Whatever the role within BCS, a volunteer organization needs energetic and enthusiastic people. When difficulties arise they need dealing with quickly. I've seen communications from different parties involved in the 2016 awards season and individuals did not handle the situation at all well. Even before the 2016 awards, sponsors had threatened to withdraw support and have been actively reconsidering their involvement. I can understand them re-evaluating their involvement. What do sponsors get any more? The Presidential PDF after the 2016 awards didn't mention them. The March 2016 issue of Maplines 'ran out of space' for noting the 2015 winners. There’s little value in having their company name as a sponsor when the handling of the awards descends into in-fighting between Council members. I understand at merged conferences in order to acquiesce to the sensitivities of SoC there was a desire to downplay the presentations. Just because BCS has around 6 awards plus a load of commended and highly commended and SoC only has one main award that’s life. Deal with it.
I enter the maps to support the awards...not to try and win anything. In the past I entered to ensure the gallery at Symposium actually had some content. These days it’s more just habit and I get more out of the process by engaging in a public critique of my work with friends and colleagues. Of course, it's nice to win but having done so, BCS really needs to get things sorted so that winners get the recognition that BCS claim is due. I have broad enough shoulders to not be too concerned about missing certificates and suchlike but for others this could be a career-changing moment. They have a huge opportunity to capitalize on their success and it should be a really proud moment. It seems that for all the clamour to use the awards as a cheap form of marketing the sponsors and the winners are largely ignored. You win, then that’s just about it.
And my, didn’t everyone get in a muddle last year!!! I was privileged and fortunate enough to win the BCS trophy for ‘Pitch Perfect’ in 2016. I was awarded it on the night of the Symposium dinner. Pictures were taken (and subsequently emblazoned everywhere). I bought everyone a drink and celebrated and then returned the trophy to my hotel room in Cheltenham. It was a good night and it was a huge honour to win the big prize. I was given the big bowl to keep for a year. At no time did anyone talk to me about my responsibilities for safe-keeping of the trophy that evening or during the following day of the symposium. It came in virtually non-existent packaging so knowing I had to fly it back to the USA with me I went to a local DIY store in Cheltenham (opposite GCHQ as it happened!) and purchased new packaging and spent the evening in a hotel room at Heathrow making a parcel to ensure it would transport undamaged. I paid 160 GBP for excess baggage to get it back to the USA. I take good care of it and know I have to return it next year for the next recipient but in the meantime I want to showcase the trophy because why wouldn’t you want to have some fun?
The trophy has spent some time at work because it’s a trophy won off the back of the effort of many people at Esri. Normally it sits on a map cabinet at home but I decided to take pictures of it in various situations (a bit like someone taking a teddy bear round the world and sending postcards). My intent was to help promote BCS through sharing pictures and promoting the awards. Giving the trophy some exposure seemed like a simple way to give something back and to encourage others to perhaps enter next year and have a chance of winning it. There's no point it just sitting on a mantelpiece (or map cabinet in my case). So I started taking pictures and posting them on my twitter account. Some of the photos are serious. Some showing a modicum of irreverence - just for fun. These photos have garnered lots of good feedback but late last year I started receiving emails and then a phone call noting the displeasure of people in BCS regarding the photos. Perplexed, I tried to get to the bottom of the problem and I eventually received an email from the President asking for the trophy to be returned to the UK because it shouldn't have been removed anyway...and noting that I need to have it insured. Frankly, this issue shows me exactly what’s wrong with BCS. Becoming embroiled in a spat about one of their awards instead of focusing on proper objectives says it all. The trophy could have come in a proper box. It could have come with a set of notes about the rules and regulations. It could have included the insurable value. It could have had properly signed certificates. Anyone on BCS Council had every opportunity to tell me it shouldn't leave the UK before I had little choice. It’s not as if people don’t know I live outside the UK. If BCS treasure the object more than those who win it then treat it like The Ashes and don’t actually present it. Otherwise, accept that it becomes the possession of each year’s winner and trust them to do with it what they will and return it in the condition they received it. I’m afraid this has rather dampened the joy of winning the big bowl and I hope others don’t face the same issues in future.
While BCS should rightly be proud to host awards it needs to do more to showcase the winners and to make their win a clear benefit to the society. Features in Maplines? How-tos and interviews on the web site? Make a proper gallery or a publication comprised of the entries every year? Just something, anything other than just reporting that winners won! Frankly no-one needs to see a picture of me with an award but there were 8 pictures of me in the Winter 2016 Maplines including 6 of me in my daft map suit. It’s overkill and lazy just to keep showing pictures. A lack of other content? Possibly.
If BCS is to continue to boast of prestigious awards then it needs to have strong mechanisms to govern them, make clear the rules and regulations and encourage a much wider range of entries else it all gets rather awkward and prone to criticism. I’ve long held the opinion that judging criteria should be published for each award. I also subscribe to the view that each award should have a winner presented every year. At times in recent history some award categories only present ‘Commended’ or ‘Highly Commended’ awards rather than a ‘winner’ with the claim that some overarching criteria precludes a winner in a given year when the quality is not deemed to have reached a sufficient threshold. In most map competitions, entries are simply judged against those entered during that year and so it’s reasonable that the winner simply has to be selected from the best of that year’s crop. Holding entries up against a higher standard might be perceived as being elitist and certainly discourages entries. Yes, the society needs to assure itself of professional standards but each award has different criteria and are judged by different groups of people and it creates a lack of continuity, certainly when the actual detailed criteria for how the awards are judged are not made public.
Anyone who has entered BCS awards before knows how time-consuming the entry forms are to complete. I am quite sure they are very off-putting for many and I’d question what purpose they actually serve. Why not just get rid of them since they're an unnecessary barrier? The same goes for some of the out-dated requirements for submissions. For instance, supplying an electronic map on a CD with accompanying static images or a movie made to show the functionality of a web map is ridiculous these days. Supplying a URL should be sufficient. I'm simply suggesting that the awards need to keep pace with the times, reflect what needs rewarding in the map-making world and then keep the entry requirements as simple as possible to avoid putting people off submitting. Just allow people to submit their work as a PDF or URL online, assign them space (which could be limited depending on the venue) and have them bring the work themselves.
Judging can easily take place at the event. This is common – ICA do it. IMIA do it. SoC do it. Esri’s map gallery does it and FOSS4G do it to name but a few mapping conferences with galleries and awards. Awards can be presented on the awards night but engraved and forwarded – or actually, just present awards that don’t necessarily include the name of the recipient. Instead just ‘2017 Stanfords award winner’ or similar. It’s sufficient. The process BCS use is archaic. Requiring work to be physically sent to various parts of the UK sometimes 4 months ahead of the Symposium itself is not helpful to individuals. It also means people have to be thinking about submitting work so far ahead of the event that the maps and the work have often already piqued interest long before the symposium delegates see it. Encourage more entries and get people involved by reducing the barriers to entry. The display at symposium also needs to somehow better handle digital entries. A large screen or a laptop and projector could help. A screen was used in 2016 and this improved things. It just takes some effort to manage but every year I see some magnificent work across the internet that I never see at the Symposium. Ask people to submit posters of digital content with URLs or even QR codes so we can wander round with our smartphones and link to the digital content.
It's a shame that there’s so many hurdles to submitting work for the map gallery at symposium. If winning is something people aspire to, then beating several dozen or more other maps becomes a real badge of honour. Winning by default because there’s hardly any entries does neither the society or the individual much good. Taking part is, for me, the fun part and I’d strongly encourage BCS finding ways to support far more people sharing their work and taking part. The symposium and, ultimately, the awards, will be so much richer for it.
Let me turn to the Symposium more generally. A tricky one this because it's usually the one time in the year people come together and that's a real benefit to having such an event. Except it isn't the only time people meet any more and symposium has become bland because it runs on virtually the same model every year. Same structure, same comfy country pile. Same exhibitors who already know each other because they go to all the other geo-expos in the UK. A little opulence to charge to the company and a golf tournament to boot (which gets about 4 entries per year). In 2016 the pre-con workshop was scheduled against the golf tournament which seems absolutely ludicrous. Why don’t our National Mapping agency sponsor the symposium at the top level? That seems to be a ridiculous situation and the fact they don’t has to be a source of concern.
The exhibition continues to showcase the same companies every year. The cost of exhibiting obviously goes some way to generating income to support the event but these are costs that exhibitors are questioning. People do not need to see a company in an exhibition any more. We get the information from the internet. Seeing and meeting people goes on anyway because the event is relatively small. Hosting teas and coffees elsewhere during breaks doesn’t help with any sort of through-put of people who actually try their hardest to avoid the exhibition during the event. Many stands in 2016 weren’t even manned though being a corporate member includes a stand at Symposium so putting up a banner and having a desk with flyers becomes a default.
There's so many formats that could be used to reinvigorate the symposium but the key thing for me is I want to go to an event to listen to new and emerging cartographies and the people that are involved. I want to use it as a genuine networking opportunity and not just an excuse to catch up with old friends - that's a bonus. I want to have to actually think about my presentation and step up rather than knowing I'll likely be sandwiched between a couple of commercial pitches and stock powerpoint presentations. I go to a large number of events across the globe and there are so many more interesting conferences, meetings and formats used.
I have a theory that, quite simply, it's largely the same people who go to BCS Symposium and they're just bored of cartography which is reflected in a lack of effort that goes into the programme or the presentations. And they likely don’t go to many other cartographic conferences so they never see what great work and formats is on offer elsewhere. In a world that has so many new opportunities to meet, the symposium needs to work much harder to offer something genuinely worth attending. It’s also up to individuals to really put effort into a compelling presentation. Most attendees meet regularly at GeoData events or at monthly meetups, GISRUK, RGS events, RSPSoc, Maptime, #geomob, Esri UK Conference, AGI events etc etc. Meeting at Symposium has simply become a mark on the calendar rather than something to get hugely excited about and we likely already know what presenters might say. Sometimes we’ve even seen the same presentation elsewhere. It’s why many younger people new to the industry seek other, more genuinely interesting conferences to spend their hard earned conference budget and time on. The nature of conferences has changed in the last decade because of the transformative ways in which the internet has impacted. We can easily meet virtually every day and we often already know what people’s output is. Symposium really needs to find a key differentiator to encourage growth and engagement, presentations that are exciting and informative and a more varied diet. Become a conference where people present new work and try out new presentations rather than a conference where they throw a well-worn presentation into the mix to justify attendance and get a free day’s registration.
The fact I live in the USA has had no impact on my relationships with friends and colleagues in the UK. I'd even suggest I have more contact despite the ground distance between us increasing. In monetary terms I probably spend more than any attendee on symposium simply due to the airfare and for each of the 6 symposia I've attended since living in the US all but one has been paid for out of my own pocket. I do so because I am committed to supporting a strong cartographic community in the UK and to, hopefully, share a little of what I see and learn on my own travels. But increasingly I get little in return. As someone who has supported symposium through attendance and participation it should be a concern that people like me are considering not attending. Exhibitors are already talking about not exhibiting. Sponsors of awards have actively talked about withdrawing support. This all adds up to a symposium in rapid decline and one which needs transforming to encourage a reversal in fortunes.
Presentations have always been hugely variable in quality and with a single track I find it hard to believe it's difficult to fill 2 days of conference. Indeed - last year I offered a pre-con, an individual presentation, a joint presentation and a workshop. Too much Ken? Yes, of course there was but where is everyone else? There are far too many people attend who you never see present. Is it because they have nothing to share? Crucially, there's far too many excellent people who never attend at all and that's the real worry. Capturing these people to reinvigorate Symposium is crucial. And you don't do so by repeating the same tired format year after year. The involvement of SoC has undoubtedly helped bring different people to a shared event but if membership of BCS is around 700, the symposium attracts maybe 120 people (these are guestimates)? It's not a good return for a small island. It offers very little for the cost of attendance. I had a paper rejected for 2017 on a topic that is brand new, pertinent to the theme and off the back of ICA Commission work. Of course, no-one has a right to have presentations accepted and if there are genuinely a huge range of other, strong submissions then a year without me presenting is no bad thing.
My strong steer is for BCS to look at different models and learn how others have adapted. In a world of MOOCS, meetups, online collaboratories and multiple opportunities to meet virtually and in real life, the symposium must look to be different and give people a genuine reason to attend. The idea of a pseudo-posh hotel is not attractive to many people. Indeed, the sort of venues that BCS have used in recent years have all been a little shabby. They purport to offer something they don’t. Whether it’s poor internet connection or the builders and decorators are in, there always seems to be a problem with the venue. None are particularly set up for a high quality conference yet the cost to attend is relatively high due to the accommodation being falsely rated as higher than it truly deserves. Forcing delegates to the faux-grandeur of a hotel set in pleasant grounds does nothing to encourage people to part with their money. In some respects, it gives people false expectations of what they’re going to experience. And what of the locations chosen? It’s always a challenge to move locations because inevitably some people will have to travel further but I have a bigger issue with the moving of locations and that stems from the fact that BCS hardly ever uses the actual location. Why even move the conference around the country if it's always to a venue where the majority never leave the confines of the presentation room and hotel bar itself? There used to be visits to nearby cartographic places of interest but these seem to have died out. There isn't even a trip to a local pub any more which, given Cheltenham had a CAMRA pub of the year a mile away was almost unbelievable. And in 2017 we’re in the midel of nowhere. Literally. I know a good number of people for whom it’s a deciding factor not to go.
I’ve noticed a trend recently that many of the faces I used to see at symposium just don’t attend any more. I’ve asked a number why this is the case and they simply say they don’t get anything out of it and it is too costly. I’ve asked myself why I still attend. Partly because I still hold on to some sense that I feel it's important to put your money where your mouth is and play an active part. I certainly can't write this without being someone who tries to play an active part in the community and I hope to influence change by being involved. But I inevitably compare the events I go to. The week before last year’s symposium I was in New Zealand at their conference called GeoCart. The contrast between GeoCart and the BCS symposium was stark. One was vibrant and forward looking, relaxed and friendly. The other was stuffy with people keeping closed ranks, a programme littered with commercial pitches, and a commercial exhibition that everyone's seen before. Everyone is too comfy with one another. Everyone sees each other with increasing regularity. They know what people are going to say, what they represent etc. Symposium, for many, is just one event in a busy year of many events and has lost that sense of identity and uniqueness.
Programme committee might ask themselves why there's been such a decline in research-based academic talks? Where do these people go instead and why? The answer is simple - cost/benefit. There's no benefit to an academic going to symposium to present their work. The cost puts it out of reach. There are far more useful venues for people to present new and interesting cartographic work. So we end up with a fairly weak programme bar a few notable highlights.
Of course, sponsorship remains important but other events manage without it so why not change the model. If the model of venue is too costly then change it. Even consider going to a standard venue in London or alternating between, say London and Edinburgh. What about University facilities with proper lecture theatres? How many people make genuine business connections at Symposium? Really...proper business connections? How many even bother leaving their hotel room with the flyers they get in the ubiquitous conference pack?
There's so much that could be reconsidered to reinvigorate the symposium but here's a funny thing - after the 2016 conference BCS members were sent a survey. Then the 2017 venue is announced, then a reminder to complete the survey is sent. So the survey has very little hope of informing 2017 which we learn is in a remote country hotel. We need modern venues, good gallery space, strong and consistent wifi, a proper social media presence, top invited speakers and a more varied and inclusive programme. For instance – un-conference sessions...student presentations...lightning talks...people talking about the maps in the gallery...tips and tricks…proper hands-on sessions…hosted lunches off-site…external visits and trips…ICA sessions etc.
What about the Special Interest Groups? The Map Curator's Group seem active but then again they mostly operate outside BCS and don't really venture into the mainstream symposium so who would know? Historical Military Mapping Group again seem relatively active but with little integration with the main conference. The Design SIG has done hardly anything except a few workshops at Symposium. This, in my view, doesn't exactly constitute a Special Interest Group. It's lazy to have your 'event' at Symposium and more effort needs to be put into supporting the outreach of these SIGs or again, cut them and just use BCS as the central vehicle. The GIS SIG is also guilty of this. Should there even be one any more? Should there be any SIGs? I would streamline the society by getting rid of them. They don't offer enough for them to be viable sub-entities and there certainly aren’t enough people to keep them going. My general point here is, as with Council, the SIGs give an air of fragmentation. If necessary, just have sessions at the conference where there's a focus on these or other equally valid sub-groups for people. Get everyone together, not send them in different ways all the time.
With all this in mind do I really want to go to Durham in September? What is the single compelling reason I should make it a highlight of my year’s travels? Should I consider submitting work to share or just become another of the mass of passive attendees? I’m not exactly sure what I’ll do this year. Maybe it’s time for a break or maybe I do just want to say hi to people I rarely see. Currently I’m not enthused but hopefully as another joint conference the programme may have moved a little further towards a style that is at least a little more progressive.
OK, I’ve raised an awful lot. It’s taken a good while to write and I know that in a world with increasing attention-deficit this has been a hell of a read so I thank you if you've got this far and for giving it your attention. All I seek to do is cut through the crap and despite it being a very personal view, put out in the open what many more than me are also thinking and saying to each other in private.
I am quite sure I'll be castigated in some quarters for expressing my views in this manner, or at all (I know which quarters they will be and I am ready for it). I accept that this will ruffle some people’s feathers but just sit back and ask yourself precisely what you get for being an individual member, Corporate Member or Fellow of BCS. Further, if you're involved directly...what do you actually do? And if you're not involved then why not? Societies need active members. If you're not a member but have read this then what sort of society do you want (if at all?). What would make you want to join? I can guarantee one thing...in this day and age it's way more than a new Pantone blue and American typeface.
Before you think this is all going to be news to the current people on Council, I wrote a brief summarised version of many of the substantive points I have explored here to the new BCS President in late November 2015. I was thanked and told that he and the Vice-President would get back to me with thoughts. They never did.
I'll likely see you all in Durham for a pint and would be more than open to discussing these issues further whether you agree or not. Cheers.
Inevitably, some are wondering why I chose March 29th to publish this blog. It coincided with two events - the triggering of Article 50 for Brexit and also the day when decisions on paper acceptances for the 2017 BCS/SoC conference were delivered. I had one paper accepted and one rejected. It's odd which was rejected and which was accepted but that's not my decision. After 12 years of straight acceptances I was due a rejection but some have put two and two together and assumed I'm just bitter about being rejected. Not true. What I did do is wait until a decision on submissions had been made because I didn't want this blog to colour their judgement. Personality and prejudice should not come into play. But it inevitably does.
Inevitably, some are wondering why I chose March 29th to publish this blog. It coincided with two events - the triggering of Article 50 for Brexit and also the day when decisions on paper acceptances for the 2017 BCS/SoC conference were delivered. I had one paper accepted and one rejected. It's odd which was rejected and which was accepted but that's not my decision. After 12 years of straight acceptances I was due a rejection but some have put two and two together and assumed I'm just bitter about being rejected. Not true. What I did do is wait until a decision on submissions had been made because I didn't want this blog to colour their judgement. Personality and prejudice should not come into play. But it inevitably does.