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, or, possibly assuming the list should be something different to what was intended. In terms of online content, 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 the page that caused the most consternation in my book is what are loosely called 'contributors'. This is a page that lists the people who wrote one of the 25 alphabetical divider pages; great maps that have ~150 words written by someone other than me. I thought it would be good that the list was not just my list and the words not just my words. There's a good spread of people from different backgrounds, ages, disciplines, expertise and nationalities but all but one are white and male. And that has caused a small number of people to be very upset. this is difficult. Any defense I might want to make will always look like a desperate attempt to cover my tracks. I've had conversations with some of those who have taken offence and they are difficult conversations. Did I drop the ball?  I had only focussed on content but I’ve thought about this a lot since. I asked people who I felt had gravitas and who could reflect on maps from their experience and their domain.

And as I pondered the issue I stared back at my bookshelf. There’s 129 books on my bookshelf published between 1962 and 2019. Only 11 have a female author or editor. That’s less than 10%. And all of those were published in the last 10 years. There’s only 2 from (the same) non-white author. You see the same pattern reflected in blogs and other forms of social media. And if I widen that scope to look at the International Cartographic Association then of the 27 Commissions, only 6 have a female Chair. This is not an excuse but it is a reality and one that is changing for the better.

I did add sections of further material and resources in the back matter which perhaps have a better balance.

But my list of contributors simply does not satisfy some people and I fully understand that and accept the criticism. I also entirely agree with their assessment that there are many more women, in particular, getting involved in cartography and I do very much hope the person who writes the equivalent of my book in 20 years time has a greater opportunity to draw upon a more diverse range of expert contributors, and it needs to go beyond simply improving the gender balance. If there’s ever an appetite for a second edition I’ll try and deal with the issue too.

That said, I hope the content in my effort speaks for itself regardless of who wrote or contributed. If you approach any work and view it through a very specific lens you will find fault. You will find problems. If you use raw counts as a way to frame your argument then I don't think you're helping move the conversation forward because that misses the point and, arguably, means once you've fixed one balance you've likely fallen foul of another. Should my list have had 50% women? It's an argument I know some would make. But widen that approach and you soon find that it's impossible to implement without it becoming an artificial construct, or seen as positive discrimination, or, leaving others off the list. The shortage, or under-representation of certain groups of people is easy to see when we count but that metric often hides the illusion that we might in some way have some element of control over it. I've had people say I should be using my position and the position of the book to do more and be that agent of change but forcing my list of contributors to be something other than the criteria I used was not an agenda I wanted to get into. There were commercial reasons why some people were not approached (whom I might otherwise have done so). The book was published by a private press and while I got considerable latitude, there were still a few rules I had to play by. There were also many many great up and coming people who some think I should have included. Yes, maybe in 20 years when they have a body of work and a background that qualifies them. I have made the point that if the criteria was 'make a list of 25 great, cool, modern cartographers then that list would be fundamentally different. In fact, most of the people that were listed as contributors wouldn't find themselves included.

If you see my book through a specific lens then I think you're distracting yourself from the substantive work. It's hard to see the forest when you're busy counting trees. My friends, colleagues and those I know in the business are many and varied. I engage with them in different ways for different reasons and needs. I juggle who I contact, highlight or work with based on who is expert enough. The very idea that looking from the outside on a list, and deciding whether I'd made it 'correctly' based on gender seems really presumptuous. If you're going to argue for diversity to capture a fuller portrait of reality then I agree, but to do so means you need to look more widely than a list of 25 names. Look at the maps made by people in the book, look at the ways in which others have contributed. Look at the entirely female team of experts in editing, copyediting, graphics editing, aquisitions editing and so forth that brought the book to life. Focusing on that one page gives a very false sense of clarity or certainty to your argument. Categorising people by anything before determining if their presence is just seems to be to the detriment of the final objective.

Let me be clear. I wholeheartedly encourage increased participation from any and all under-represented groups to give a better balance in all walks of life. Cartography is no different. I hope those that feel my list(s) did a poor job of representing diversity can see the value in the wider work as it pertains to cartography.

So, rather than focus on a list of 25 people, here's a list of my sources which is far more useful Here's the one that's in my 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 (or the person involved) 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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