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.

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