Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Three conferences and a cheeseboard

I recently had the privilege of attending a couple of geo conferences and thought I'd jot down some thoughts. There's also one I didn't attend...but it's relevant to the discussion and it'll get a few comments too.

FOSS4G, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania 29-31 August
I've been to a few FOSS events. It's not my wheelhouse, so to speak, given I largely use Esri products due to the nature of my employment BUT, and it's a big BUT, it's crucial that all sectors of geo play a role in supporting the work of those in the FOSS community. We share values. We actually share an awful lot, and attending these sort of events allows exchange of ideas and an opportunity to perhaps foster relationships and contacts across communities. I've long held the belief that the tools you use to do your 'geo' make no difference to how you should be perceived. Proprietary or Free - it's just a different business model to get the tools in your hands. It's what you do with it that counts. Some of my closest friends in geo are FOSS advocates. We get along fine. Others should too.

FOSS stalwarts and good friends Steven Feldman and Mark Iliffe


There was the usual tribal minority who seem to revel in their almost religious hatred of others but I have to say this seems to be a dwindling faction. It was a really valuable few days discussing a multitude of projects and ideas, plotting the spark of a few new ideas and taking the opportunity to reconnect with people I rarely see at other geo events. There was considerable interest in my recently released book Cartography and, also, the MOOC on Cartography that I built along with my colleagues at Esri. Community focused projects, ultimately vendor neutral, that I helped bring to the fore to support the wider community.

This was only the second time FOSS4G had been to anywhere in Africa (2008 was in Cape Town). It attracted over 1,000 attendees, including over 150 young professionals and students who were able to take advantage of an innovative travel grant programme that supports them with a financial contribution to help them attend. But what amazed me more than anything was here we were, in a part of the world with many significant barriers to the successful organisation of a large, major, international conference and it appeared to go with out a hitch (I know it didn't, but that delegates were unaware is the success). This is no small feat by the organisers. The web site was populated early, the programme was put together professionally. There was a good mix of work on show, and people from all walks of geo: academic, professional, big business, NGOs, startups and pretty much all the major players such as OSGeo (obviously) but also Esri, Mapbox, Carto, and Google were on board as sponsors.

The conference was run professionally. It was dynamic, interesting, vibrant. The social programme was carefully designed to facilitate delegate interaction. There were all manner of meetups. Water, tea, coffee and food was copious and always on tap. There were film crews and a professional team doing the AV. There was professional signage everywhere from booth graphics to directions and room information. The organisers sweated over the small stuff. If you pay attention to the detail you bring together a coherent whole.

But here's the thing. It's a serious undertaking trying to organise a conference, any conference, and in this part of the world the challenges are numerous. I was privy to some of the behind-the-scenes issues and to say that some were huge is an understatement. Kudos to the entire LOC for overcoming often very acute problems and delivering a superb event. People left with smiles and I only heard positive comments.

UK Mapping Festival, London, England 2-7 September
After FOSS4G I hopped to the UK for the inaugural UK Mapping Festival.  In past years I've been critical of the model used by the British Cartographic Society whose preference for their conference to be a one day event at a hotel (often in a remote area, often undergoing refurbishment), a single track of presentations (often including product pitches from sponsors), and very little more than an old boys reunion.  Now don't get me wrong, the opportunity to reconnect with people you possibly only see once a year at such an event is important (particularly for an ex-pat like me), but it shouldn't be the raison d'ĂȘtre.

So I was delighted that the organisers of the annual BCS conference were changing things and going for a week long celebration of UK mapping. Brilliant! Flights and travel booked. Looking forward to it. Unfortunately, after the wonders of FOSS4G I have to say that it was one of the biggest letdowns I've experienced on my 25yrs on the conference circuit.

There were signs well ahead of the event. The web site was late being populated with way too much placeholder text and I was hearing murmurings on various backchannels. The booking system was unclear and unwieldy. Speakers and, crucially, keynotes, were being added right up to the event itself.

There were supposed to be three main conference days run by various UK geo societies and bodies co-located yet, strangely, with separate registration fees. The Association of Geographic Information went on the 4th, BCS, in conjunction with the Society of Cartographers, on the 5th and the British Association of Remote Sensing Companies (BARSC) on the 6th. OK, so there's no way I'm paying for three separate days so the 5th was it for me. This was a real opportunity missed to support cross-pollination of communities. I'd certainly have been interested in some of the stuff from the other days but not for separate registration fees. I went to the exhibition on the 4th and 6th and numbers were not healthy. This strategy must have hurt attendance.

And on the 5th, there were workshops that delegates may very well have gone to but the one-track presentation session was on all day. Why weren't workshops on another day to encourage people to attend for longer? I'm sure there's arguments for all of this by the organisers but it's a baffling approach for delegates shoe-horned into making a choice when there would appear to have been alternatives to avoid that problem. It's not like the conference had parallel tracks so you effectively had to choose between a bit of hands-on training or listening to the talks which, on the whole, were very interesting it must be said.

The exhibition was odd - a so-called London street scene which comprised some wooden huts, a London bus and a huge British Army truck. The latter got some interest. The bus got no use at all from what I can make out and the exhibitors...hardly any traffic because it's the same companies that exhibit year on year to the same small group of attendees. I tried to get a coffee on the 4th when I only had an exhibitor pass and was charged £2. If the exhibition was free, where was everyone? Is this an apathetic British population? Is it poor advertising? Is it poor location? Timing? Well, possibly all of these. Holding the conference the week that children went back to school after the summer holidays wasn't smart. Charging a lot for exhibition space didn't help. Locating in London (8 million people) should have yielded a large population of potential visitors but where were they? I've heard a few people say that the accommodation and travel costs to London are too expensive to make it worthwhile but I do wonder whether they are assessing it against the value of the event itself. Make it worth every penny to attend and people WILL attend. I was bemused about the idea of creating a so-called London street scene. I mean, honestly, there was a London street right outside the front door. The conference was actually in London!!! Everyone knows what a London bus looks like!

 
Chair of the Society of Cartographers, Steve Chilton, who taught me
everything I know about guerilla t-shirt marketing

And herein lies the problem - the UK Mapping Festival ended up being a BCS conference in disguise. Same organisation behind the scenes. Same structure. Same exhibition. Same faces. Sure, there were a few variations around the edges but not much. It was stale, unimaginative and, frankly, rather dull. And let me be clear - this is not just me saying this. Many others voiced similar concerns during the day. It cannot continue like this because UK cartographic societies are dying, fast. The Society of Cartographers AGM resulted in a formal winding up process because the Society cannot continue on a shoestring. This is dreadfully sad. SOC has at least tried to move with the pace of change in modern cartography over the last few years where BCS has stood rather still. I sincerely hope some of the smart people involved in the running of SOC are given positions on the BCS Council as SOC members are encouraged to move their membership fees over.

The UK Mapping Festival web site was difficult to navigate. Ideas that I know were proposed to the programme committee (and even by those on the programme committee) were either ignored or never followed up. A series of potential high profile cartographic experts as keynotes was replaced by a minor celebrity whose talk was poorly targeted. Ken Hames (who?) was not a motivational speaker. Anything but. Anecdotes from army days and friendships with the late Princess of Wales really aren't what people want from a modern mapping conference. Oh - and it was an additional tenner to attend if you hadn't got a pass for that day. Even the choice of beer at the nearest hotel bar came down to Corona, Budweiser or Becks. And there wasn't even a single complementary beverage. The so-called comedy night was also poorly thought-through as well. Much of the material may have worked in a dimly lit comedy club with a tanked up crowd but only a couple of the acts even bothered weaving in some map-related material. I understand they were cheap to hire. That probably says it all. It's simply not good enough! There is far better out there. People expect far more.

Advertised as part of the UK Mapping Festival, the #geomob event on the evening of the 6th was, at least, a little more forward thinking. It was held at the geovation hub. It was free to attend and that garnered nearly as many people as had attended the BCS/SOC conference on the 4th. Event space is given for free. Sponsors help buy beer, nibbles and wine. The atmosphere is one of mutual interest and genuinely, people had a good time and, en masse, decamped to the bar where conversations continued. Organising events is not rocket science and the stuffiness of the days evaporated with the freshness of this particular evening. But why...WHY were only a handful (maybe 3 or 4) people who had attended any of the day's events also at the #geomob event? It's simple. Events that are put on in the UK, unlike the way FOSS4G was organised are targeted to a very very niche group. This is why they fail. There's no real attempt to foster integration. As I said earlier, this attitude has to change.

Some cheese at #geomob

I was also due to present at a Better Mapping seminar on the 4th but it was cancelled with a few days notice due to lack of interest. Only a few people had signed up and the event space (the Royal Geographic Society) needed 12 attendees to make it viable. Now I do not know the finances and the fees structure for the event but it strikes me as astonishing that we cannibalize our own group of core societies by charging for space in this way (if, indeed, that's the case, I only assume it is) and holding it on a day when another competing activity was taking place.  The organiser, Chris Wesson, had done a great job putting the event together but it was advertised late, it was a paid-for event (£75 sounds steep to me, though it was free to BCS members) AND put on against a day's event at the main conference site (all sadly out of his control). You can get so much training for free these days that these events have to look at alternative models if they are going to succeed. Cut out venue costs and speaker expenses (they should offer their services and costs for free to contribute...they get exposure for their ideas and companies for a start) and then look at ways to get people interested. This is valuable outreach for BCS and it's another failed opportunity to place some of the UK's prominent cartographic experts at the fore, sharing ideas and espousing the value of a wider community.

There were events for children to get involved with at the exhibition. I didn't see a single child involved with any of the mapping activities. I felt sorry for all the hard work that the organiser of that component (Alice Gadney) put in to make a fantastic event space but it was ultimately poorly used.


Even the BCS awards dinner descended into minor farce with none of the awards certificates being signed and one award (the Henry Johns award) not even judged by the time of the evening ceremony. This may seem a terribly minor issue and it is, in many ways. But it's not the first time it's happened and it's just symptomatic of the issues that bubbled to the surface once more.

And what of the attendees - yes, many of the usual faces but perhaps surprisingly, some very notable absentees who you'd ordinarily see at these events. Again, it's unclear why but I'd have thought the Chair of the UK Cartographic Committee, also on the Executive Committee of the International Cartographic Association, might have attended. UKCC represents UK cartography on the international stage. Some sort of report, review, or statement would be useful. In that person's absence, surely some sort of acknowledgement of how the UK is shaping up for the International Cartographic Conference in Tokyo in 2019 might have been forthcoming? Nope.

Anyway, to many of the people I spoke to at the event, it was simply a letdown and the promise of something fresh and different simply did not materialise. Back to the drawing board for next year but I feel there's more than simply a change of city and venue and tinkering with the model that needs to change.

GeoCart 2018, Wellington, New Zealand 5-7 September
I didn't go, but I know someone who did. I had to make a choice earlier in the year whether to go to the UK Mapping Festival or GeoCart. I've been to the last four events (they're every other year rather than annual events). They attract a similarly sized crowd to UK events (around 100 people). I plumped for the UK but regret my decision. By all accounts GeoCart was vibrant and fascinating.

With a similar amount of people (from a population of around 4 million - half that of London!!!) they manage to encourage not only attendance but participation. Instead of a single track with 12 presentations there were well advertised pre-con workshops and two tracks offering over 100 presentations. There's ice breakers with free wine. There's a relaxed gala dinner where you don't have to decide your menu choice months in advance. All in all - a similar conference yet the difference with the UK Mapping Festival could not be more profound. And my simple question is this...if a society like the New Zealand Cartographic Society can develop something really rather magnificent, why do we continually fail to do so in the UK?

Wither UK cartographic events?
As people who know me appreciate, I make these sort of observations and comments out of a love for the societies that I have grown up belonging to. I hate to see them, and the events they stage, wasting away. While some (like the New Zealand conference and, also, the hugely enjoyable NACIS conference in North America) seem to have moved with the times, adapted, and worked hard to develop a model that works, the UK efforts are sorely flagging. They are tired, generally expensive to attend, and disappointing.

There are so many geo events that people are making hard decisions on what to attend and, currently, events staged by the British Cartographic Society, their preferred organsing company and the like are suffering. they're actually making decisions much easier to make! Heck, I even sent an email and get a private visit to Bellerby Globemakers arranged with no effort at all. It can't be that difficult to arrange events that actually interest people, take advantage of a locality and make them WANT to visit. Everyone knows what a London bus looks like so having one parked in an exhibition hall isn't going to be much of a draw. But what an opportunity missed - London. There are so many fascinating map-related places and people in and around the capital and none were harnessed.

A visit to Bellerby Globemakers - not a UK Mapping Festival event


And I have left the biggest issue of them all until last. The UK Mapping Festival was scheduled for 2-7th September. It still says that on the web site. Some (me, and a few others at least) booked flights and London-based accommodation on that basis. It turns out that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, on the 2nd, 3rd, or 7th at all. I was told that the intent had been for other events to take place but they didn't emerge. Why? And when it became clear that the 6 days was fast shrinking to 3, and just a single day if the other two conference days weren't of particular interest to you, the organisers should probably should have been a little more honest with your potential delegates. I made the best of my time by arranging meetings, visits to places like Bellerby, the Imperial War Museum and the Design Museum to explore their cartographic collections but I wanted to enjoy a week's festival, as advertised...not have to build my own festival.

Two UK Mapping Festival delegates (me and Bill Cartwright) who, between them
traveled  nearly 45,000 miles and stayed 16 hotel nights in London.


So what now? Will the BCS conference revert to type? Will anyone actually review what happened and put in place mechanisms for change? Does anyone have the will? I fear there's a long way to go. There's a number of good, young people who have tried to get involved to affect change. My understanding is it's a challenging environment in a volunteer society that has many longstanding officers. But I wonder what their experience is beyond that of their own conference? I don't see them anywhere else so it makes you wonder. They cannot simply live in a bubble forever. Others have to pop it and force change to reinvigorate UK events. I hope for better, I really do. But let's be honest, this is not simply an accusation I'm leveling at the UK and its various geo societies. Many societies and many conferences are stale. They have relied on the same approach for far too long, often underpinned by the same team of people who just rinse and repeat. People aren't stupid and they are getting wiser when deciding where to spend their shrinking conference budgets.

I tried my best to help this year by bringing my Lego globe (no-one really commented about it), by making sure we had book giveaways, and by proposing my edible map exhibit...an idea that became too difficult to arrange anywhere in space and time on the 5th that I switched it to the #geomob event where it was devoured. Conferences these days have t-shirts, stickers and badges. I made some of my own as giveaways. Tote bags full of corporate brochures is so 1980 and they only go to landfill.

If a small organising committee of volunteers can make a large international conference work in Dar es Salaam, and a similarly sized conference can work with a much smaller population in New Zealand to put on a stimulating event, why can't we get it right in the UK? Hopefully 2019 will see some progress. I live in hope at least.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Cartographic hyperbole

Just when you think we've exhausted mapping the 2016 Presidential election maps along comes another. New York Times' 'Extremely Detailed Map' presents precinct level data from the work undertaken by Ryne Rohla.



And thus, my Twitter feed went into a late night tail spin as I saw, in equal measure, exasperated cartographers bemoaning the map and political commentators and everyone else and their dog exclaiming it's sheer wonder. I offered a few comments which drew plenty of agreement, but which also had others telling me that the map wasn't made for master cartographers etc etc. No, Nate Cohn, the map is not 'as I've never seen it before'. It's not 'amazing' or 'Incredible'. No, James Fallows, the map is not 'great'. Such hyperbole simply reinforces people's beliefs because they take their lead from the sort of comments you make. Who cares what a few expert cartographers might have to say on the topic...you know, those people who are actually qualified and experienced in ways that make their perspective worthy.

So what's my beef? First off, the map is not 'wrong'. The data is more detailed than many others (including virtually all I made) by being at the precinct level and not the county, or state level. So you have smaller geographical areas. Detailed, yes. Accurate, certainly. Useful? Absolutely not because of the way the map was made. The very fact that it's made for a public not versed in cartographic wizardry is precisely why maps like this need strong cartographic editorial control. The general public is drawn in by the headline, they are told detail matters and they infer that the map must be bloody great because they are told it is.

It's a straight-up choropleth showing share of vote. Darker shades of red for a higher Republican share and Darker shades of blue for higher Democrat share. It uses a standard diverging colour scheme. Again, not fundamentally 'wrong' but the choice of map type and symbol type lead to a very particular map. A map that, visually, over-emphasizes geography.

You see, there are hundreds of small areas on the map with ridiculously low population counts which are given equal (and sometimes greater) visual prominence as other far more densely populated areas. An area that has 100 voters and 90 of them voted Republican is shown as dark red and a 90% share. Exactly the same symbol would be used for an area that has 100,000 voters, 90,000 of whom voted Republican. The differences between the number of people who live, work, and vote in each area is fundamental to the impact the resulting map has on our senses because we end up seeing a shit load of red. That much red distorts our perception of the result. It exaggerates the election results by persuading our eyes that more red equals more votes and a larger winning margin. That simply isn't true. Many small areas with a lot of people carry far more importance, electorally, than many large areas that have small population counts. And so, the map misleads, it reflects more of the geography of the country than it does of the people of the country. That huge swathe of red down the middle of the country is not a huge crowd of Trump voters, distributed as evenly as people on the two coasts, but simply where sparsely scattered people preferred Trump's pitch.

The very same data was far more eloquently mapped by The Washington Post back in September of 2017.



This map takes the very same data yet is designed to ameliorate the form. It considers the underlying problems of its distribution and the geographies it is bound by. It then reflects on how best to show the same data in a way that a person needs not to have a degree in cartography or electoral geography to disentangle the reality form the mapped form. In short, they thought about how to rid the map of misleading symbols and present a more truthful version. This, is good cartography. Where a cartographer has actively considered the impact of his or her design choices on the map, the message imbued in their choices, and the way the map will be perceived and cognitively processed.

The Washington Post map scales point symbols and uses subtle transparency shifts to take account of geographical and population distribution disparities. Same data. Fantastic map. Still plenty of red but, now, in visual balance with the rest of the map. And comparisons are what maps like this are all about. We see one place and we visually compare with another. That's how we assess our understanding of spatial patterns and the simple processing of where there is less compared with more.

Back to the NYT map for a moment because there are other problems that I honestly cannot believe we're still talking about. The map uses Web Mercator as its projection. This is flat out wrong for a map where you want, sorry, NEED, equal area to be maintained. Just dumping the map across a Web Mercator basemap is downright lazy. Alaska...



And the 3D view...holy crap map. It flips the map to an oblique angle but the map is flat. Flat as a bloody pancake. There's nothing 3D about it whatsoever. A gimmick. A pointless, and mis-labelled gimmick that ends up distorting the relative coverage of colour even more. Foreground gets visual prominence. Background recedes.



So there we have it, the latest election map. Not the best by any stretch but another clear demonstration of the vital role cartographers have in educating people to understand that what they are seeing is as much a function of the choices in map design (and laziness in not doing anything to prepare or display the data) than it is the actual data. Making maps for mass public consumption demands good cartography, not technical gimmicks. It demands you reflect on what the map will tell people through your design choices. Cartography mediates understanding. The lens of the map-maker is fundamental to how we see the world. If you choose, actively, or through ignorance, not to bother with cartography then your map is doing your viewers a huge disservice and reinforces the already pathetically poor appreciation of geography that exists in society. Think about it. Do better, and end the nonsensical cartographic hyperbole that this sort of map crap feeds.

I'll end with this...Nate Cohn trolling any and all of us who make comments on the problems of the default choropleth.


Let me be clear...I love a good choropleth map. Modify the map by adding in an alpha channel to visually mute areas with smaller populations and you've got a good choropleth. Put it on an Albers Equal Area projection and you've got a great choropleth. Alternatively, modify the geography to account for population and you've got any number of different cartograms all with choroplethic symbolisation. Do your due diligence and make the map right.




Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Building the world

I've always really enjoyed building things. As a kid I had a lot of Lego: a huge box of the stuff. I also made dozens of Airfix kits and recall a giant Millenium Falcon that for some bizarre reason I once decided to see how far it would fly from my bedroom window. It didn't but that's another story altogether.

I have long held the notion that Lego is more of an adult plaything than a children's toy. It's expensive. The kits get larger and more extravagant every year. There's little chance I'd have been gifted many of the kits my adult solvency has enabled me to buy and enjoy building. I know many adults who enjoy building Lego. But there's always been a set that's eluded me...a globe. Lego, to my knowledge, have never made a globe as a set. And yet if you go to one of their parks you'll see them. Here, a giant at Legoland California:




A sphere is a technically challenging build. It has to look like a sphere for a start, which is a major difficulty when your basic building blocks are cuboid in shape. I am also nowhere nearly proficient enough to design a globe myself. Thankfully there are master builders who do have the necessary chops. After many years exploring all of the various builds you can find online I went with this one by Dirk:

(animated gif from Dirk's site)


It's a 48-brick wide monster but, beyond the engineering, he made a real effort to get the cartography correct. For me, that was vital (obviously).

Dirk offers the plans for sale for an extremely modest price and so my adventure began. It took around 60 separate orders from Bricklink to collect the >3,800 bricks needed for the build. Some of the bricks are pretty rare and my globe was made from bricks from around 10 different countries as I had to scour the globe to find them all. Our postie wanted to know what the hell I was ordering with all the small parcels arriving, and at one point the mailbox was too stuffed full to fit any more in.

It took probably around 30 hours to build in total and dominated the dining room table for over a month...but it's finished and it is mighty impressive.  I customised my globe a little differently from Dirk's original but it's ostensibly the same build. I'll leave a few images below of the build but Dirk goes into a lot of detail about the model on his page. It's his work and I'm grateful that he spent the time and effort to make such a wonderful model. I'd refer you to Dirk's page if you want to find out more.

Maps and Lego...so much fun! So why don't Lego make a globe set? I've no idea!








PS. If you're attending the Esri User Conference in San Diego July 2018 then my Lego globe will be on display as part of a Creative Cartography exhibit. Stop by and take a look. There may even be a special Lego minifigure appearance.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Compiling lists

So you want to make a list? Be prepared for some shit. People simply hate it if your list doesn't tally with theirs, or their criteria, or you missed their favourite or...well, read on.

For both writing the book and developing the mooc I recently found myself attempting to compile lists of expert resources that I felt were worth sharing. The point of such lists, whether in a book or a blogroll, or just part of your personal bookmarks is to link to stuff you find useful. Stuff that you also think would widen people's exposure to information on a subject. Stuff written and shared by experts in their domain. My domain is cartography so the lists I want to compile are those that I think will be useful to people beyond what I have to say on the subject. They're lists collated over the years. I've had a smidgen of criticism for not including person x or person y, or this blog, or that blog so let me be clear about the criteria I used.

First and foremost, if it's a list of blogs or tutorials then it must be a blog or have content in a tutorial style - how tos, for instance. That precludes people's Twitter or Instagram accounts (which, by the way, I have included in the book as a list of interesting mapping people whose work is worth checking out and which DOES include many names people are mentioning to me). The blog has to be current and not appear to be on indefinite hiatus. It can't simply be a shroud for marketing. It has to be focussed and not a catch-all with the odd post on cartography. It has to be technique-driven, not just 'about maps'. It might be by one person or it might be by an organisation with multiple contributors. It can't just be stuff that you can find elsewhere in a better form. Crucially, it must be of a sufficient quality. It has to be something I find interesting, informative and useful. Often, something I learn from just as much as I hope others learn from. It has to exude expertise, not just regurgitated stuff that is better explained elsewhere.

Ultimately, with any list, you draw a line. The line demarcates what I consider to be a minimum quality (my list, my red line). It can't just be a list of anything and everything or include a particular person because the internet has decided they've won a popularity contest. It's been sorted, curated and I've done the work of identifying the signal from the noise based on the cartographic content and quality on offer that I consider marks it out from the rest. Some may disagree and that's their prerogative but the beauty of the internet is mine isn't the only list. Others exist. Importantly, many of those I include on my lists will link to others that I don't include and so the process of learning where to seek information is somewhat organic.

I want people to get to the 'best' first. I'm tired of the vast unsorted soup of the internet providing a mouthpiece for anyone who thinks they have cartographic chops to be seen as a self-styled go-to. Often, the evidence is in short-supply. Really, you may think you're great because you have thousands of 'followers' or a gazillion 'likes' but that metric is also just noise. All I have done is pulled out some gems; sifted them from the mass conglomerate and suggested their work is worth being considered as best practice. It's not simply about highlighting the work of my buddies or, conversely, ignoring that of people I perhaps don't necessarily agree with.

As someone from an academic background, compiling such lists is no different to doing research for a project, an essay or a journal paper. You seek prior knowledge to frame your own work. You cite your sources, references and inspiration. You don't just throw in a list of every single Google hit that includes a particular keyword. You don't cite the newest reference you find based on current volume, you seek the original source and give credit where it's due. Expanding the metaphor, if someone asks me for a reference or recommendation for someone they're considering hiring do I give an honest appraisal or just say he or she is a nice person? It has to be about the work. Not the person. It's exactly the same to how I critique maps. It's about the map as a product and what it does or doesn't offer, not the person or organisation who made it.

Your reputation is at risk if you perjure yourself when giving any sort of recommendation. If you end up wasting people's time by recommending a person ill-suited to a job, or you send them to a blog that, actually, really isn't particularly useful in the wider scheme of things then you lose the trust of your audience and trust is crucial. I've developed a lot of really good connections in the cartographic world over the years. Many trust me for advice and comment. Some disagree, but that's OK. If I start selling-out or bullshitting just to please someone then I lose all of that. I lose the reputation of someone who tries to be honest, straight-talking and giving of objective comment. I have my cartographic likes and dislikes but I'm open about them and I confidently stand by them.

Sorting out what is of a high enough quality is part of the process of determining any list. For a list of useful cartographic material it should be as objective as possible in the sense of not precluding based on anything other than the quality of the cartographic comment. That is how I approached it. I also sought comment from others who recommended some I'd missed or hadn't known about. Yes, I've seen plenty of other blogs, web sites and collections of resources. Why aren't they in my lists? They didn't make the cut because the quality didn't warrant it. It's as simple as that. And the lists I have compiled have not been done so in a vacuum. The list of resources for the mooc was reviewed by the team. The lists that appear in the book were reviewed by impartial reviewers and a large editorial team. Hard questions were asked. Discussion over why some were included or excluded were part of the process and justifications were made.

Let me be honest though - there's an ugly tribalism at work. There are many people who I know have no internet presence and whose work is stellar. Just because you're online it does not necessarily make you worth listening to. You want other divides that people hang their cartographic allegiance on?...proprietary/open source; Adobe/GIS; drawing/coding; desktop/browser; PC/MAC; old/new; academic/maker; old bloke/cool kid; Blogger/Tumblr. the list goes on. People increasingly identify with a tribe that supports their own echo chamber and that also tends to give rise to lists that suit that meme. I genuinely try to go beyond that and I'd ask that you try and look beyond it too.

And finally, there's the elephant in the room - under-representation. If people identify under-represented socio-economic/age/gender/geographic groups in my (or any) list then please don't think for one minute that there's bias in the selection whatsoever. What you may very well be identifying is under-representation in the source, in this particular case blogs written by cartographic folks. So the bigger question is how come this sort of online content doesn't better reflect the wider world. Let me give you an example using the demographics of Twitter use. 67% of all internet users use social media. People who live in cities tend to use social media more than those who live in rural areas (geographic inequality). Only 16% of those who use social media use Twitter (platform inequality) and they are most likely to be adults aged between 18-29 (age inequality)...and male (gender inequality). So by definition, if your source is Twitter then anything you do with information will undeniably reflect the character of those that use it and miss those that don't. That doesn't denigrate those that don't or deliberately shun them. If those who write cartographic blogs tend to reflect wider patterns in the use of social media then any list will likely reflect the same. And I wholeheartedly encourage increased participation from any and all under-represented groups to give a better balance.

So, you want my list? Here's the one that's in my forthcoming book and you can download it as a small poster here.



If you post links below citing a blog, tutorial or person's work that I didn't include then two things. First, if it's genuinely something I am not aware of then I'll give it due consideration and it'll be included in future lists if it makes the grade. Second, you are, of course, presuming I haven't already considered it and decided it wasn't going to be included (based on the criteria I explain above) and that's already the case with many that have already been proposed on other social media platforms. Thanks.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

A new map in prospect

We took @wisley_dog to one of his favourite local parks the other day. Prospect Park in Redlands is a lovely spot that sits a little up the hill in south Redlands offering spectacular views across the San Bernardino valley to the mountains beyond. It's a mix of trails, orange groves, places to picnic and also houses an outdoor amphitheatre. It's also next to Kimberly Crest House - one of Redlands historic houses. At 11 acres it's not a large park.

Like many, we parked on Cajon St and entered the park by its North-East access points. There's a shady picnic spot and, as I found, a new information board which houses a new map of the park. Here it is, measuring about 3ft wide:


That's a lot of map for a small park. It kinda ruined my walk. It likely ruined Linda and Wisley's walk too as I bent their ear about the map and its problems. So let me bend your ear too and, hopefully, in the process, show you how to critique a map.

On the face of it it looks nice enough but as with anything that's dressed nicely it can often deceive. So let's deconstruct it a little and have a conversation about some of the cartographic and design choices.

The information board is located on the North-East edge of the park. You look at it facing South-West. Yet the map is oriented with North-West at the top to align Highland Ave with the top edge of the paper. This makes absolutely no sense. Fundamentally, the map is oriented incorrectly. These sort of in situ maps need to be oriented so the map is laid out as you look at the park in front of you. This map should have Cajon St at the foot of the sheet and, as you look (and wander) beyond the map you can then easily process the lefts, rights and other locations of points of interest in the park. Rotate the map and you get this which is far more useful from that location:


This is an all too familiar problem of maps on information boards like this. It simply needs the people who commission the map and those making it to have a conversation about where it's going to be displayed. It means if it's to be displayed at several locations it should be rotated accordingly but that's not difficult if you use a GIS and it's data-driven. It's also not difficult with some forward thinking as this other Redlands park map shows. The Caroline Park map is on a board on the south edge of the park. North is top and you stand looking at the map, looking northwards. Perfect. It's also a beautifully illustrated map that shows you the function of different parts of the park as well as the flora and fauna you may see.



Back to the Prospect Park map. Orientation is not the only problem. The labeling is awful because you have difficulty reading it.


Simply overprinting black text (in boring Arial) over the background is never going to work. There's so many ways of improving this. Masks, Halos, Shadows. Anything! And there's leader lines everywhere. they're unnecessary.



There's so much space on the map which makes should make lettering it an absolute joy compared to most maps. And as far as the overlooks are concerned, a symbol might be more useful and that would obviate the need for a typographic element and three ugly leader lines altogether.

So...overlook. That tells you something. It means that there's some elevation throughout the park. Yet the map displays no information to warn the casual visitor that there nearly a 100ft elevation gain between Cajon St and the highest point. A vantage point that then allows such beautiful vistas towards the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains (and the San Andreas Fault but I try to ignore that most of the time). OK, but there's a network of nicely paved paths right? They're all shaded grey so they're all the same?

Imagine you're a wheelchair user or struggle with walking up a moderate incline. You'd not only be frustrated that the map shows no detail of the elevation gain but, worse, many of the trails are nothing more than dirt and gravel making them almost impossible to access for some people.

By making all the paths the same symbol type the map infers they are the same. Yes, you can drive up to the parking lot at the top via Prospect Drive but you can't take your car anywhere else. You can't similarly access it from the other apparent entrance on Cajon St either. the map might not need detailed contours other other ways to show elevation but showing how elevation changes along the trails would, at the very least, be an extremely helpful piece of information.

And what of the parking to the left of the map that you can access via Highland Ave? Well, technically, you have to go through the entrance to Kimberly Crest house to get there and that has a gate that is locked at times when the adjacent park is open. Useful information, particularly so you don't get locked inside with no way out. In fact, that car park is not really part of Prospect Park at all. It's the access to Kimberley Crest House and Prospect Court as this OpenStreetMap map helpfully symbolises by specifically not including it in the green that designates the park boundary.



Take a look at the OSM map again - it shows one route into the park for cars to get to the central parking lot. It shows clearly how you access it via Prospect Drive. It shows other trails inside the park differently to distinguish their use. But while we're at, it there is an error on this map too. If you access Prospect Drive from Highland Ave you cannot drive through and round the bottom edge of the park and into the Prospect Park lot that way. There's a chain across the road to prevent access. And neither OSM or the new Prospect Park map has the new footpath included between the Kimberley Crest car park and Highland Ave.

Zoom in to the OSM map. See those water fountains? Redlands can get kinda hot. Water fountains are important for dogs and humans alike. They should be on the map. The Prospect Park map has restrooms (labelled - maybe another case for a symbol?) but not water fountains. Makes the map a little partial with basic information.

And back to the map's background. At first glance the Prospect Park map appears to be a hand-drawn and painted map. I think it's based off some form of digital data (possibly even just traced off imagery). It looks OK but it could be so much better. Each orange tree gets a uniform symbol. A bit of rotation on each would make the groves look more organic and 'real'. And what about all the other vegetation? There's palms, giant mature specimen trees, a bamboo forest, seating and grassy areas to name a few major parkland types of ground cover. yet pretty much everything other than orange trees and the palms along Cajon St gets the same smudgy fill. This could have been so much more exciting with other tree species canopies or symbology.

There's also a small creek than runs between the picnic area beside Cajon St and the park beyond. Why wouldn't you mark that? It has 6ft walls despite not always having much water in it. It's hard to miss in reality yet the map makes no mention of it. It's a prominent feature yet all the map has to indicate anything is a bridge label next to a cross-hatched rectangle that is presumably supposed to represent the bridge itself. A bridge over what?

Possibly a spelling mistake too...lower left 'Orange trees on Terrance'. I think they mean 'terrace' though I can't be absolutely sure. I've never seen Terrance there. I don't know anyone named Terrance.

The north point thing seems to be a small apology wandering aimlessly in a vast space because there was a space and to cap off the entire map the title and credit lines are in Comic Sans - that font that every map-maker loves to hate. Is this a subtle bit of carto-trolling? Could be. Could just be a pointless use of Comic Sans that makes no sense on a map that otherwise uses Arial. And why on earth would set the title in horizontal letters aligned vertically? Use Comic Sans with purpose. Reserve it for the uses it was designed for (children, comics and, latterly, to support those with dyslexia). It has no place on an information map like this - in the same way Papyrus has no place on restaurant menus.

So...what to do. Well, I've had a moan. I've justified my thoughts based on what I know about cartography. I tell you what, I'll make another version (for free) and offer it to the City of Redlands Parks Division. I'll post back when it's done and invite anyone and everyone to critique my map. In the meantime, you'll find me at Caroline Park where I hope they're not planning to update the current map with a similarly weak replacement.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

In praise of insets

Sky News reports on the Scottish politician Tavish Scott (real name) as he proposes a ban on maps that use an inset to show Shetland. Utter nonsense.

His reasoning is that the 'islands should be in the right place on the map' and 'to ensure that in future that government publications and documents do reflect the reality of Scotland in terms of its geography, and not something that fits neatly on an A4 sheet of paper.'

Well let's just break down (sorry, I mean utterly destroy) his preposterous statements. Shetland (The Shetland Isles) is a part of Scotland. It's also part of Great Britain...and the British Isles... and the United Kingdom (and at the time of writing at least, Europe). The following usefully clarifies the terminology:



So in that sense it has a rightful place on any map of which any of those jurisdictions is the focus.

If you're not aware of where Shetland is in the world then this should help (map to scale, UK National Grid):



In simple geographical terms Shetland is approximately 130 miles from mainland Scotland though it's also on the same line of latitude as Bergen on the west coast of Norway at a distance of 200 miles. That's where it sits. At a nice northerly 60° 9' 11" N and 1° 8' 58" W. We can argue all you like whether it should be part of Scotland or, perhaps, a bit of waste left over from Slartibartfast's design of the Norwegian coastline but for now, it gets put on maps of Scotland and any other that includes Scotland. And that makes it a pain in the arse for cartographers.

By the way, did anyone spot I deleted France from the map above? Guess that'd annoy the French too but whatever, I doubt the scots or Scott cares much about that little cartographic editorial decision.

Anyway, as the scot, Scott, says, many maps are made on A4 (or any A series piece of paper where the length and width are in the same proportion). So here's the above map proportioned as A4:



The area outside the yellow line is superfluous to the map as the Republic of Ireland is irrelevant on many maps that show thematic data for Great Britain and Northern Ireland (or UK etc). So as a rough estimate the page only uses approximately 60% of its overall space to show the mapped content.

Put another way, we need a fifth of the entire page (above the green line) just to get Shetland on. That's Shetland, population 22,000. Or, in geographical terms, an island that is 566 sq miles which is 8x larger than the City of Glasgow but which has 27x fewer people. So you're making a decision to allow geography to not only influence the design but take an inordinately exaggerated status simply by virtue of position.

Now, admittedly there'e lots of lovely space for titles and legends and all the other crap we put on a map but, nevertheless, it's wasteful. But that's what you'd have to do if you want Shetland on the map, on that proportion of paper, in its correct geographical position. Alternatively, as Scott bemoans, cartographers will often use an inset and you'd end up with a map like this:



This fits the map to the paper (not the paper to the map). And there's far less wasteful space. Far less prominence to unpopulated swathes of water. And yet Shetland gets its own little special place on the map, with the addition of a neat border that clearly demarcates it. Often, Shetland is even exaggerated in scale to make the inset worthwhile. I bet you didn't notice but in the example above Shetland is about 25% bigger than it really is. So, if Scott wants Shetland back in its proper geographical location then he can have it reduced back to its real size too.

Insets are a neat solution and one that has served print mapping well for centuries. It's also a solution that people understand. You could add a small arrow and distance marker to point to where the inset exists in reality. Many even use a marked graticule to show clearly the lines of latitude and longitude that apply to the inset to make it clear that it differs from that of the main map. Even the Sky News article showed an historical example that clearly uses this technique (and note how exaggerated in size Shetland is on this too):


There's other considerations...

Returning to the City of Glasgow. In fact, any relatively populous place. They suffer horrendously on any maps of thematic data because large areas, perhaps relatively uninhabited or sparsely populated take visual prominence. Scotland is a great example. It's total population is around 5.3 million yet 1 million of them live in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Their population densities are far more than the far greater share of Scottish land, including Shetland. So why give such visual prominence to sparsely populated areas?

Insets are not just used to move geographically awkward places. They are commonly used to create larger scale versions of the map for smaller, yet more densely populated places. Often they are positioned over sparsely populated land to use space wisely. I'm guessing Scott would have an objection to an inset that, to his mind, would exaggerate the geographical importance of Glasgow compared to Shetland. Yet...in population terms it's a place of massively greater importance so one could argue it deserves greater relative visual prominence on the map. Many maps are about people, not geography.

In addition to moving Shetland south to make better use of map space, you could very well argue that you should use a cartogram to give far better relative visual prominence to the places where more people live and work. Now that will utterly delight Scott as it completely distorts geography. Not only could you have Shetland moved, but squished to an almost unrecognisable shape. Here you go Tavish...enjoy this beauty of population totals morphing geography (courtesy: worldmapper.org):


Whatever your view of insets (and Scott's is incorrect), there's so many valuable uses for them that counter the problems of geography making it awkward to make maps. Generations of cartographers have come up with novel solutions to many, if not all, of these dilemmas about what to show, where and how. And if the map has an overarching location map showing everything in its correct position then there can be absolutely no confusion whatsoever.

I would guess Scott would equally be horrified if Shetland was seen poking outside the graticule or neatline on an atlas page too - another common way in which maps break the rules of either geography or design in a creative way to simplify and communicate. He'd be delighted by this classic Times Atlas of the World page showing Shetland in its correct position as part of The British Isles but horrors of horrors...Rockall (also a part of Scotland so has equal rights on a map based on Scott's nonsense...but ignore the more northerly Faroe Islands, not part of Scotland) slips off the left edge:



And what of digital maps? Scott seems to be stuck in the age of print cartography because insets are rarely, if ever, a requirement in digital cartography. Everywhere exists where it is. The map is slippy and you can pan and zoom to your heart's content. Want to see a densely populated area? Zoom right on in. In fact, whisper it quietly in case Scott is listening but...if he uses the standard Web Mercator web map he not only gets Shetland in its rightful position AND it's also exaggerated in size compared to the southerly latitudes of mainland England by virtue of the projection. Now isn't that the map he really wants?

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Dotty election map

Well that escalated quickly...

While I've been working on the forthcoming book and mooc I've been doing some data wrangling in the background at work. For the 2012 Presidential election I made a gallery of maps that illustrated diverse styles of cartography along with some comments on the map types. Each map can tell a different story of the election. I've been in the process of updating this with a new gallery of the 2016 election results (currently around ten maps but more to come) and I got to the tricky one - the dasymetric dot density map. It requires quite a bit of manipulation of data so here is the map, and in this blog I'll explain a little of the process.


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Update: There's now a web map which shows the data at 6 scales in much more detail than the screengrab above. Check it out here or below:




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In 2012 I made a similar map for the Obama/Romney election. It was a product of the web mapping technology of the time. Made using ArcMap (full disclosure for those who don't know I work for Esri - who make ArcGIS). At the smallest scale 1 dot = 1,000 votes. At the largest, 1 dot = 10 votes and if you printed the map out it would be as large as a football field. It took 3 months to cajole the largest scale map onto the web!!! I wanted to update the map and the four years that have intervened have brought new software capabilities. For 2012 I had to generate up to 12 million points and position them. Now, using ArcGIS Pro I can use the dot density renderer and let the software take the strain and if I were going all out then why not try and make a map where 1 dot = 1 vote. So, for me, the map is a technical challenge. Part of what I do at work to push the software to see what it is capable of, to test it and to show others what capabilities it affords.

So how to make the map? Well, it's a product of a number of decisions, each one of which propagates into the map. I'll be doing a proper write-up on the ArcGIS blog in due course but, in summary, a dasymetric map takes data held at one spatial unit (in this case counties) and reapportions it to different (usually smaller) areas. It uses a technique developed by the late Waldo Tobler called pycnophylactic reallocation modellingThose different areas are, broadly, urban. The point of the map is to show where people live and vote rather than simply painting an entire county with a colour which creates a map that often misleads [Waldo sadly passed away recently and I was running the model when I heard of his death a couple of weeks ago. I met him a few times and his legacy to computational geography and cartography is immense].

I used the National Land Cover Database to extract urban areas. It's a raster dataset at 30m resolution. I used the impervious surface categories and created a polygon dataset with three classes, broadly dense urban, urban, and rural. I then did some data wrangling in ArcGIS Pro (more of that in a different blog) to reapportion the Democrat and Republican total votes at county level into the new polygons. There's some weighting involved so the dense urban polygons get (in total) 50% of the data. The urban get 35% of the data and the rural polygons get 15% of the data. Then I got the dot density renderer in ArcGIS Pro to draw the dots, one for each vote resulting in a map with nearly 130 million dots.

The result is a map that pushes the data into areas where people actually live. It leaves areas where no-one lives devoid of data. It reveals the structure of the US population surface. Most maps that take a dasymetric approach will all end up like this but I think there's value in the approach. To me it presents a better visual comparison of the amount of red and blue that the standard county level map that maps geography, not people, and overemphasises relatively sparsely populated large geographical areas.

So the map I saw on my desktop late Tuesday afternoon took 35 minutes to draw. Technical challenge achieved. ArcGIS Pro nailed it. This is a map that I couldn't have made in the previous election cycle. I was excited and so I took a quick screengrab, sent out a tweet and went home to walk Wisley the dog.

And that, I thought, was that. I'd put the map on the backburner and return to doing layout reviews for the book and doing last-minute work on the mooc over the next couple of weeks. But then something unexpected happened. My phone started pinging. Slowly at first but then a little more during the evening as people began to see the map on Twitter and like or re-tweet it. That's nice, I thought. I went to bed. Wednesday morning I woke to a relative avalanche of likes and retweets. I spent the day in Palm Springs at our Developer Summit and my phone never stopped. By the end of the day it had received around 3,000 likes and had been retweeted 2,000 times. I'm writing this Thursday morning and it's currently at 7,000 likes and a little over 3,000 retweets. The side-effect of this 15 minutes of map fame is I've picked up an extra 1,000 followers (25% increase) on my nearly 10 year old Twitter habit.

But there's a problem. The screengrab was quick and dirty and while there have been many and varied comments on the 'map' it's by no means the finished article. I want to create a hi-res version and also make a web map like the 2012 version. I don't have time to do this in the next couple of weeks but it will happen. But be assured, I am aware of a number of issues. Some have already spotted them and commented.

The symbols - I chose a very default red and blue. Each dot has 90% transparency so overlapping dots at this scale will undoubtedly coalesce into clumps. The impression will appear to bleed across the map. I need to tweak the colours (less saturated) and adjust the transparency to get a better effect. I will also likely do what I did for the 2012 map and classify the data so that at small scales 1 dot = 100 or 1,000 etc. To remove visual 'noise' at those scales. I'll also check for too many overlaps and overprinting. I actually think there's a problem in some areas with blue dots overprinting red. There should be more mixing and more purple. And no, there's no yellow dots. The map only displays Democrat and Republican votes in what remains, effectively, a binary voting outcome.

The data - it's county data, reapportioned. Dot maps convey a positioning that is a function of the processing, not where people actually live or vote. Dots are positioned randomly. Some have, quite reasonably, interpreted the map as showing where votes are and this is a fundamental drawback of the approach. No personal information is in the map at all. I also need to double-check a few areas where people have pointed out apparent anomalies in the map, compared to their personal knowledge of the areas. There may be errors. I need to check. That said, it's a function of the way I've used the NLCD so that data is the basis for reapportionment.

The geography - yes, I hold my hand up. There's no Alaska or Hawaii. I apologise. I'm not sure I'll go back as it requires doing some movement of those states to position them around the lower 48 and put them back in. It's easy but a non-trivial task when you're working in a GIS but I'll think about it. I understand this is unpalatable for some and I accept that criticism.

The interpretations - many have offered some fascinating insights into the gaps and the patterns through Twitter replies. I'll be going through these more carefully when the hullabaloo dies down and teasing out some. But more than anything I've been blown away by the nice things that have been said about the map. It shows the election result in a different way. It tells a different story. One of my favourite responses was this by Thomas de Beus...a lovely mashup and play on the classic photo of Trump's preferred view of the data to hang on the wall of the White House by Trey Yingst.


And this is the point of making a map like this. It presents the SAME data in a different way. It leads to different insights, different interpretations and a different perception. Neither of the above are right or wrong. They are different. Of course, we all have out own view on which serves our needs and which we prefer but that's for us as individuals.

My only regret is that I excitedly tweeted a rough version. I should have waited until I made the map properly. I'll do that but I suspect this is my one viral 15 minutes of fame and I regret it doesn't reflect the quality I know the final version will exhibit. A finished map likely won't get the same traction but we'll see. At the very least it has ignited a discussion. It brings different cartographic eyes to the dataset. Will it ever be hung in the White House? Unlikely.

Thanks for your interest and comments thus far!
Ken

Hurriedly written from a hotel in Palm Springs during which time the map's had many more likes, 11 more mentions and I've picked up another 86 followers. I can only apologise to them when they realise I tweet just as much about beer and football as I do about maps.