Thursday 24 August 2017

GIS maps

There's no such thing as GIS maps. GIS is a Geographical Information System (by the way, it's not a GIS system). It's also the acronym for Geographical Information Science. You can do a lot by combining GI Systems with GI Science. One function of which is to make maps. But they're not a special breed. They're just maps, much like you'd make a map using many other tools.

Making maps (part of cartography) has always been a combination of art, science and technology. Get that magic recipe right and you'll make a pretty good map. If any of the three pillars drops short on quality or because of your ability to control them then you'll likely end up with a substandard map. GIS, then, is a core technology that supports cartography. It also does a lot more through its multitude of geospatial functionality. Of course, many people make maps using GIS because it's a core output. The map communicates results of analysis, illustrates natural and human conditions and tells stories. There's many different mediums of map that a GIS can support - web, animated, 3D, print, atlas etc. These are the maps. They're not GIS maps.

I can't recall a time during my career when I ever called one of my maps a pen map, photo-mechanical map, scribed map, MS Paint map, Coreldraw map, Aldus Freehand map, Adobe Illustrator map, Flash map, Javascript map, Silverlight map, HTML map, GIS map et al.. Maps have always been made using different technologies. They continue to be made by different technologies. Your choice of tools is underpinned by multiple influences but you don't strive to make a GIS map. Hopefully you strive to harness the opportunities of your chosen tools and go beyond the defaults to make a map that cannot be defined by your tool of production. Of course, no map-making software is perfect and we all work within limitations but that's always been the case with any map design and production technology.

It's true that many maps made using GIS have a similar appearance but that's the fault of the person making them because they do not go beyond the defaults. It's why you can often spot a map made using GIS because the defaults can be like a fingerprint. If not modified, line weights, styles, colours and fonts all scream of your chosen map-making software. We therefore end up with what I think people mean when they refer to GIS maps - a data dump that lacks design and has common styling characteristics and a particular visual aesthetic. I'd simply call those crap maps rather than blame the software.

Defaults are a necessity in any mouse-driven maps (see what I did there?). They give people a starting point in the software and, over time, they really have improved tremendously. But you're still expected (advised?) to then apply some art and science to make something fit for purpose because, although defaults iterate and improve, it's pretty much impossible for a piece of software to know your precise requirements. Sure, sometimes a default is fine but becoming a smarter mapmaker demands that you critically evaluate what the software gave you and adjust if necessary.

All so-called GIS maps are not the same. I see plenty of pretty crap maps made by people using GIS. I also see some absolutely exquisite maps. I might also say the same about maps I see by people who use Illustrator or Javascript yet no-one pigeonholes those maps by their technology de choix. It therefore strikes me as a little unreasonable to paint maps made by GIS as a special case. A map is a map.

So, just a heads up - if you tell me you've made a GIS map I'll immediately think it's an ill-designed data dump. If you tell me you've made a stick chart for navigating the oceans then you've just made the exception to the rule because that genuinely is a chart made of sticks (ht to Craig Williams for that!). I guess hand-drawn maps might also be a special case though, of course, pretty much all maps are made by hand, mediated by particular instruments.


  1. Ken, thanks for posting this in a larger space, no way to have a meaningful conversation on this via Twitter!

    I want to preface this response by saying I generally agree with your sentiment about design and intent in map making. When I talk to students about map production for their work (almost all of which is done in a GIS), the concepts are presented as universal, even if some methods may require specific tools.

    That said I’m still hesitant to say there is no such thing as a “GIS map”, or more specifically a GIS map style. I don’t think there is a single person I know in our field who if asked to list three things that define a GIS map would not immediately start down a list of style issues as opposed to ask me what I mean by a GIS map. That alone would tell me there is a definite concept of a GIS map style, even if the specific hallmarks or causes may be debatable (or even the specific tools used).

    Defaults alone are not the defining issue for me, method and the specific constraints and affordances of the tools play a part as well. Not all the hallmarks of a GIS map are the very basic ones we think of, some are more subtle that even a well designed (or at least non default based) GIS map may exhibit. I agree that you don’t often strive to make a map to this specific style, but you could and that's the point. Like say 8 bit or ascii art, there is an identifiable style that has become synonymous with GIS technology and GIS made maps. If there wasn't you wouldn’t have had to post that tweet!

    I think of it like this, can you make maps using a GIS that don’t look like they were from a GIS? Yes, of course. Can you make horrible maps with all of the design issues we associate with GIS maps in non GIS tools? Yes, I see them all the time. Is there an identifiable style to what most of us think of as a GIS made map? I say there is. Even if current GIS technology is outgrowing those issues, we already have the basis for the “style”in place.

    And the fact is many people do categorize maps by style, process or technology (watercolor, hand drawn, sketch, cartoon, pictorial, fantasy etc.). We don’t list “GIS map” as a category among these other genres now, but just like no one from the ‘90s would have thought 8bit art would be thing on 2017, it is.

    That’s my generally contrarian position. As much I also hate to define a map style by its tools alone, I think it’s inescapable that the tools of GIS have over time created a style of their own in a way. Due in part to user lethargy, but also technology limitations, UI design, poor documentation, poor education, and yes defaults.


  2. I believe part of the issue, at least for those who use ArcMap, stems from esri's decision to refer to an ArcMap document as a 'map.' Throw some data in and you have a 'map' - no additional work/art required. In my opinion (and practice), an mxd is not referred to as a map, although it's output can be (but not always...).