Showing posts with label education. Show all posts
Showing posts with label education. Show all posts

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Testing..testing...1, 2, 3.

I was reminded this week of a number of ways in which you can assess cartographic work in simple ways. A conversation between Alberto Cairo and Moritz Stefaner trod over some old ground but their conversation is worth exploring because much of what I see fails these simple tests (and leads to me blogging). They debated the first and second of the simple tests I set out below. I added the third. These are tests that I (and many others) apply when looking at and critiquing maps. They are the basic tests that anyone can apply:

So What?
The first test is simple...does the work you are looking at leave you asking so what?. This is how we used to assess student dissertation proposals and get them to reflect on whether their proposal was worth doing. Was it persuasive? Did it make me want to know more...to explore or find something out? Did it make me care? All maps ought to, at some level, inspire their intended audience to want to care about what it is that's being illustrated and the message of the map. It has to have a function and if the form is well crafted that function should be visible. The map may very well have a good purpose to the map-maker but has that been extended to an audience?



This isn't an exact science though. Different people and user groups have different so what thresholds and so what works for one may not necessarily work for another. This is where a consideration of the audience comes in when you are making a map. Engage your audience first. Bring along others if you can. Pleasing everyone all the time is impossible though.

It's also perfectly reasonable to experiment and at the moment we're in a period of cartographic development where technology is out-pacing best practice. Animation and 3D are just two areas that we've always played with but now the tools are mature enough to allow people to really get their hands dirty...and they are. At the moment there's too many failing the so what? test. This may not be a bad thing IF it leads to new ways of working that make good use of the techniques.

Ah-ha!
Let's assume people have got past the so what moment because, let's face it, if they haven't then they've already clicked to another web page or left dissatisfied with your work. Upon inspection, does the map give you some sort of mini-eureka moment? Is the message communicated with clarity and has the map-maker made it legible? Clarity and legibility are key though they are not the same thing. Clarity relates to the message. Has the message been encoded into the map's syntax effectively. Legibility is the way in which the map-maker has brought focus to that message through effective graphical structure.

Put simply...do you get it? This is the ah-ha! moment when you realise what it is you're supposed to learn or find out. It should come relatively easily.

The person that reads your map should leave with a deeper understanding of the theme or topic. They shouldn't have to work too hard to gain that understanding either. The ability of the map-maker to make you care enough to want to look at the map and give you some sort of clarity about a topic is what good cartography is about.

The squint
Does the story of the map immediately jump out at you? Given we cannot rely on people spending that much time or effort viewing your map, making the message legible is crucial and this has a lot to do with your ability to structure your map. This is down to what British geographer William Balchin termed graphicacy. He coined the phrase in a 1972 address to the Geographical Association. Graphicacy is the natural counterpart to other cognitive intelligent processes of communication such as literacy, numeracy and articulacy. Maps and other spatial documents are the tools of graphicacy and the very basis of geography. Cartography is the professional application of expertise in graphicacy.

Becoming proficient in graphicacy will help you tell your story more effectively in the same way that effective writing or speaking skills helps you communicate using the written or spoken word. If you know how to speak in a graphical language then you're half way to being able to communicate your message. This goes beyond knowing constructional techniques and mechanics for knowing how and when to use certain graph or map types though. It's just as much about how you organise them on the page or screen. While written and spoken language comes at us in serial...one word after another in a sequence that our eyes follow and our brain systematically decodes, pictures arrive at our eyes in parallel. Maps are presented all at once. So we need to encode them so that certain components appear more prominently to give our brains a chance at decoding into some sense of order. These lead the eye. they may be larger or more visually prominent, they may use lighter or desaturated or bolder or more saturated colour, they may appear in a certain animated sequence or they may require interaction but doing a squint test is a good way to determine whether what you are looking at is communicating well.

So...sit back as if you're in a wild west film, chewing on a cheroot and pretending to be Clint Eastwood. then squint and look at the map. What do you see? If you can still make out the main features and the central topic of the map then chances are it's got its graphical structure well proportioned and balanced. It's a simple way of seeing whether what you are seeing is what your brain is receiving. If your eyes are picking out peripheral or less important components under this test then that's going to cloud the message. There is some science behind this...what you're doing when squinting is reducing the amount of light entering your eye. Your peripheral vision is also impacted. You therefore have lower levels of visual acuity (visual resolution) and so you are trying your hardest to pick out key shapes and features.

And finally...some words from a master
As with everything, there will always be examples that break the rules. there will always be innovation that overrides some of this so be mindful of that when looking at maps. Also, remember that the value of a map is going to vary between audiences so that will undoubtedly affect your impression. Then there's the final matter of subjectivity. While the above are semi-objective tests there's no doubt that we all have preferences for certain types of maps and particular looks and feel. Do you prefer Monet, Turner or Banksy? We all bring our subjective preferences to the table.

In the week that the great designer Massimo Vignelli died it's worth reflecting on some of his basic tenets in design and thoughts on why experts in a field are important in the context of shaping best practice. This gives context to the simple tests described above:

"I like design to be semantically correct, syntactically consistent, and pragmatically understandable. I like it to be visually powerful, intellectually elegant, and above all timeless."

"If you can design one thing, you can design everything."

"I thought that it might be useful to pass some of my professional knowledge around, with the hope of improving [young designers'] design skills. Creativity needs the support of knowledge to be able to perform at its best."

"If you do it right, it will last forever."

"The life of a designer is a life of fight against the ugliness."

"There is no design without discipline. There is no discipline without intelligence."

"Good design lasts longer."

"...and that is why I love Design."

The three tests outlined here are basic things you can do to see if your own designs are working and to look at whether other designs are working. It's not rocket science but it may just help you to take a step back and reflect on the quality of the work. There's lots of fancy ways to make maps but fundamentally...are they working?

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Cart-oh-nono #1: blending choropleths and basemaps

The first post in an occasional series pointing out why what you think is a good idea for your map might not be so cool after all.

Here's a choropleth map. It doesn't matter what it's showing but the use of colour to conotate low to high is fairly easily understood. Yellow is seen as 'low' and as you move through to red you see something that means 'more'.


This works because we see light as less and dark as more and this colour ramp fits that schema. There are 6 colours on this map. We can differentiate them pretty easily. We can therefore easily establish which countries share similar characteristics (the purpose of the map). Any more than 6 or 7 and we start to struggle to distinguish unique colours on the map. Simple. Easily understood but...my don't people find these boring so how about we jazz it up a bit...

Here's another version, this time mashed up onto a topographic basemap.


Is it better?

I'd say no because a choropleth is its OWN basemap and by adding an underlay we add unnecessary visual clutter. Thematics are normally single-themed, so omitting detail that would make them harder to view is a core principle. Slapping it on top of a topographic map that obscures labels and other detail seems pointless. Labels are, in fact, cut off when they perhaps extend across water into the land area anyway. This adds nothing yet putting thematics over the top of topographic basemaps is a trend we see all the time because online basemaps are visible by default (they can normally be switched off).

But it gets worse...I've lately seen this type of choropleth...the blended choropleth.



Here for some reason, known only to the map author, the basemap and the thematic overlay have been blended together. The problem here is that by blending the two maps (or even using transparency for the thematic layer) you actually create a result that leads to significant problems for reading the map, seeing the patterns and understanding the distribution of the mapped theme.

Look at the following version without the water.


It's not now a choropleth. You just destroyed it. This map has, in fact, 44,271 colours. That's a few more than 6 or 7. It's impossible to identify areas of similar characteristics because they no longer exist. It's almost impossible to even see that there's a thematic overlay or that the theme is at country level.

If you really want to blend your choropleth with a basemap...pick something neutral so that there is a consistent canvas. Your colours will change and become a little duller (because you're adding grey) but they will be consistent across each area and will remain relative to one another visually. The following uses a grey basemap. You could argue internal water masses are a problem and you'd be right...but at least the map still functions at a basic level.



Blending choropleths with a basemap is a cart-oh-nono, particularly if you use a topographic basemap. You may think it looks cool, but it isn't. It makes the map that much harder to read and understand. Please don't do it.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

A cacophony of cartography

Here's my Editorial from The Cartographic Journal Volume 51 Issue 1 for those that do not have access to the Journal itself (if not...why not...go take a look at a British Cartographic Society subscription and get The Journal for free!). Long read...


As 2013 turns into 2014 and we reflect on the state of cartography what do we know, what have we learnt and what might the future hold?

Well, maps have changed...quite profoundly and quite irreversibly. Maps are omnipresent; ubiquitous; largely self-aggrandising; transient; personalised even. Many are single purpose, single-themed and exist to exist because so many more people make them now than they did 10 years ago. They are often used to demonstrate a technical approach or a dataset rather than having a purpose beyond merely being made. They too frequently come with quite disturbing bias and uncertainties which are ignored by the author and unseen by the reader. The type of person that makes maps now extends from the cartographic professional to data artists, journalists and coders hacking together the latest data the internet has made available. They map this, they map that, they move on. Is modern mapping showing signs of autism, being characterised by repetitive behaviour? Certainly a lot of contemporary mapping exhibits a serious lack of development of the understanding of cognition and the language of cartography and many map-makers repeat some basic mistakes that has professionals wincing. Or maybe modern mapping is simply showing signs of immaturity as it seeks to emerge from a fast-paced technological change that has characterised its recent development? Maybe we're just seeing the reinvention of mapping in its tricky adolescent stage and its struggle to overcome growing pains. The maps know they're always right; they answer back; they're often rude to the point of arrogance and disobedience but they'll grow up eventually; and all the time the parents hover with sage advice that is rarely acknowledged. The professional cartographer vs amateur map-maker debate rages on which is why I opened this Editorial questioning where cartography is, yet have reverted to using the term mapping. Mapping, to my mind, is what anyone can do. Cartography is what some of us do. A lot of the former and not much of the latter made the headlines in 2013.

2013 also saw another leap in map-making technology. The web is now becoming the publishing mechanism of choice for many people because the barrier to use has reduced dramatically.  That’s created a demand for mapping tools with most major players offering a web option for making maps. Some are free. Some you can subscribe to. Some are packaged with other licenses.  As more data becomes freely available then the push for free mapping tools continues and people are using them. Empowering indeed but I'd wager this type of map-maker has never really looked upon a Coronelli globe, or pawed a SwissTopo map sheet, or been amazed at a Berann panorama. For every one inspired individual who has a magic touch and creates beautiful work there are dozens of terrible maps. Map-making, then, is in rude health but it's a cacophony of cartography...a harsh, often discordant mixture of the weird and wonderful. Maps are everywhere but it’s worth repeating: a cartographic product is a map that has been constructed professionally. A map-like product can be made by anyone...a mapper, not a cartographer. That distinction has, unfortunately, become somewhat irrelevant and I was recently invited to point to great examples of cartography by providing a list of URLs. Well here's the thing...not every map comes with a URL. It's fruitless pointing this out when a list lives online because it simply ignores any map that doesn't have a URL. URLs gives ease of access for so many but also causes a problem. People see what they see online and that becomes their cartographic baseline such that when they get round to making their own maps that's where they get their design cues.  This then perpetuates the idea that mapping begins and ends with the internet and so we're developing a society whose standards and very belief models are driven by online maps and mapping. This needs addressing because there's a wealth of great work being ignored by the mapping masses because they don’t know it exists. It’s revered by cartographers but unseen by map-makers.

It’s inevitable that the cacophony will continue apace. As we move into 2014 and beyond our technology will continue to improve and undoubtedly create new opportunities for mapping but unless we strive to reveal better examples then people's appreciation for quality will become harder to tackle. My hunch is that we'll see more temporal maps as animation becomes easier to work with and more 3D as browsers become more capable of handling the graphics. So much of the data we can now work with has a temporal component or a third dimension so the search for optimum ways of revealing meaning has to be at the fore of cartographic work.  We’ll also see more moves in the open source and open data community and social media data will continue to be worked over as people strive to make any kind of sense of it. Trouble is, as so many of today's maps amply demonstrate, data is simply placed on a map, in a sequence and the viewer is supposed to make sense of it and be amazed. They are...but for the wrong reasons. They like the novelty but beyond that? Lots of data (often mistaken to be 'big data') needs generalising and simplifying but rather than making sense of lots of data by portraying salient aspects efficiently so they stand out, maps will continue to strive to just show more and more as if more is always better. Less, of course, often reveals more but in a cacophony, the loudest maps often get heard the most above the general din.

As people who spend their life immersed in maps, cartographers have a particular perspective on the state of cartography as I'm sure most readers of The Cartographic Journal can relate to (that’s why you read this!). We hear all the latest buzz about this map and that map but where is this cacophony coming from? We're seeing the maps we're seeing because of one thing...the public has an appetite for them which is driving another process altogether. Where there is a demand, someone is always going to meet the demand and there are numerous online forums, sites and commentators all clamouring for a slice of the new golden age of cartographic pie. The demand at the moment however is for quantity, not quality and the internet, not the discipline of cartography, is reacting to that demand.

Take, for example, the Facebook and Twitter pages of 'Amazing Maps'. They have tens of thousands of followers...the sites exist simply to push maps that are found on the internet to their followers. I'm one of them but for every one that piques my interest and which I find genuinely intriguing, well made and purposeful, there are dozens more that fail on a very basic cartographic level.  Often the maps display disturbing mistakes.  I see them. So do other experts. But many public do not...they are busy being experts in their own field and simply see the map, consume it and move on.  The difficulty here is that there is a natural assumption that ‘Amazing Maps’ (and other similar sites) are in some way curated by experts who are undertaking a process of careful selection. They’re not and so we’re as likely to get utter rubbish alongside a decent map. The apparent authority of the name itself gives people a false baseline. Bad maps are bad for you simply because you get the wrong message. It's a waste of calories.  I'm all for quick and dirty maps made well...but not ones that are constructed poorly. I mentioned this myself on Twitter a while ago and someone said to me that yes, they agree but while they like fine restaurants they also dive into Subway on occasion.  The food analogy is easy to relate to but I think it needs to be more subtle here. Sure...go to a Gordon Ramsay restaurant and enjoy fine dining (with expletives, obviously). Go to Subway and enjoy a sandwich too.  Both serve different 'qualities' of food and you would never expect a Subway to serve up the quality that you know to expect from fine dining. However...would you want to go into Subway and order a cheese and pickle sandwich that comes with the cheese on the outside, trying desperately to envelop some bread with a coating of pickle for good measure? At least Subway construct their sandwiches according to the basic rules of sandwich construction so it works as a sandwich.  Bread on the outside, filling in the middle so it works (regardless of its taste or nutritional quality). Discounting Heston Blumenthal, there are very few chefs who take their ingredients and use them in ways no-one in their right mind would conceive of yet still manage something that delights the palette.  Yet people are mashing up all sorts of ingredients on maps and creating inedible fayre. That, for me, is the problem with a lot of contemporary maps...they suffer from basic constructional issues that really affects their performance as a map. If the public doesn’t know the difference in the nutritional quality between a well constructed map and a poor one then there is no hope of them knowing whether what they are consuming is any good for them. The maps that get peddled on such sites are being selected because they are pictures. Often you struggle to see what their purpose actually is so in that sense they fail to function as a map because the person who made them wasn’t particularly concerned about the qualities of a map…they wanted a picture and a map seemed relevant. Their entire purpose is to provide quick visual delight and nothing more so to do so they often break fundamental cartographic rules. Some of our cartographic rules are there to be challenged but some are there to maintain standards. If many of our new maps ignore the rules they are simply ignoring what is good for them so they fail as a map yet delight the curious who are just wanting a picture of something vaguely interesting or entertaining. The appetite is there because the 88,000 (actually it's risen to 135,000 since I wrote this article) Twitter followers that @Amazing_Maps has dwarfs the combined Twitter following of virtually all of my map expert friends combined. Just by way of giving you a sense of scale I have 1300 Twitter followers, the British Cartographic Society (@bcsweb) has 750, our President Peter Jones (@geomapnut) has 66 (come on people…help him out!). Mapbox (@mapbox) has 16,000, Esri (@esri) has 35,000, and my dog Wisley (@wisley_dog) has 9. You could make a good argument that any in this latter list is more authoritative than ‘Amazing Maps’ and you’d be right….but people go to ‘Amazing Maps’ and that’s what they consume.

Tabloid newspapers have higher circulations than quality broadsheets and this is what’s happening to satisfy the public’s appetite for maps. No-one seems particularly bothered who made the map and what their cartographic chops are. The reporting is dubious but it sells. I would strongly argue that being authoritative in your domain is crucial in distinguishing your work from the masses but if the tabloids don’t particularly care it becomes a moot point. It's therefore not the fault of the makers of map-making tools or the map-makers themselves that we see so many poor maps. It's the consumers, where they go to get their daily fix and the negative feedback loop this generates in terms of informing their own work.  Just like any service based on mass consumption, if the demand is there, there will be someone keen to feed it regardless of the quality. The demand is for maps, good, bad, big, small, whatever...as long as I can click to see it and then click to see another. As long as I don’t have to put in too much effort and it vaguely tantilises my tastebuds (pass the salt). There are plenty of people and organisations that have set themselves up in the last few years to satiate the demand purely to serve their own agenda of being purveyors of content just like ‘Amazing Maps’. How many of these have any real cartographic credibility? Take a look...you won't find many publicly visible examples that have a strong cartographic background. If we look at some of the most popular web sites who routinely ply maps to the internet and check out their so-called best maps of 2013 we can see the point illustrated.




Figure 1. Wired Maps

Run by two self-admitted map novices, the Wired Maps blog has become an interesting repository of the internet's offerings. Here they mix the contemporary with historical curiosities with an eye on what went viral though claiming they were all relevant in 2013 is odd when you look at some of the historical examples. There's nothing in the title of the list that suggests 'great' in cartographic terms yet the list is described as being that of 'great maps' and 'favourites'. The question of greatness has to be measured against something though...page hits? their own subjectivity? professional judgement? As with all the popular lists, that's not entirely made clear so it is what it is...a list of maps that piqued their interest. What I like about their list, however, is a mix of new and old. It's not, like many others, confined simply to maps that you view using a URL. There is a world of mapping beyond our glass interfaces that they acknowledge which is good to see.




Figure 2. Fast Company

These maps are U.S. focussed and specifically about how we look at the U.S. in terms of some interesting themes...language, expenditure, tweeting etc. Purely thematic but at least there's some coherence in the categories of maps that they have chosen to explore. At least there's a focus to the list rather than a collection of random curios. That said, this is possibly the weakest list in purely cartographic terms. Some interesting data and themes but poor craftsmanship. This is largely due to them being a range of thematic overlays mashed up on basemaps that tend not to support the purpose. So we see the usual problems of overprinted labels, Web Mercator defaults and thematic maps on top of topographic basemaps. The language and twitter maps, in particular, go the heat map route and Fast Company clearly go for maps with highly saturated colours.




Figure 3. Slate

A really rather bizarre set of maps that range from the most basic push-pin overload efforts to maps that support online quizzes to historical and heavily pictorial maps. The one striking aspect of Slate's list is the variety of map they chose. They are extremely inconsistent in cartographic terms which suggests that Slate are more interested in the novelty value of the map rather than its inherent quality as a map. We get Bob Dylan's world, a map of etymologies, maps of Starbuck's locations, American folklore and 'This amazing map shows every person in America'. I love this last one...labelling the map using the adjective 'amazing' in itself is genius. The map wasn't actually titled that way...but Slate's own blog came up with that blog title and so the amazing map was born. It is, of course, in Mercator and mapping at the one dot = 1 person from aggregated census data plays fast and loose with the ecological fallacy.




Figure 4. Gizmodo

A list heralded as showcasing a 'banner year for beautiful, information-dense cartography'. The maps actually illustrate Gizmodo's panchance for what might be termed boutique mapping...where really obscure datasets are the interesting aspect and the map has been used as a way of tapping into it. So we get maps of most popular names, the age of every building in New York, internet connections, proximity to pizza, where American's are moving, swimming pools in Los Angeles and the rise of craft beer. It seems that if you can get your hands on some obscure data that effectively writes its own headline, the map will instantly become 'liked'. You'd be hard pushed to get a professional cartographer to 'like' them in terms of quality cartography though. In fact, a number contain some pretty hideous errors in construction that have clearly gone unnoticed by the majority. Is that a problem? Well yes...because it changes the message. A banner year? Hmm...what these maps show is people can access really interesting datasets fashion them into maps and give them a URL, some with innovative user interfaces. This trend will continue in the short term at least.


The Atlantic Cities - Our favorite maps of 2013



Figure 5. The Atlantic

Titled as a 'favourites' list, actually The Atlantic's list of 7 maps is interesting because it attempts to go beyond choosing maps based on novel or useful information. Instead, it picks out maps it suggests 'we've never seen before' due to their manipulation of time, dimensions, perspective and atmosphere. They herald their picks as being 'innovative in design' and that they have set a new bar for 2014. Maps are picked out for being cloudless, personalized, real-time, animated, comparative, predictive, lots of dots or 3D. None of these are new though. The fact they portray them as new simply shows they know little about cartography and are ignoring that vast body of work that has gone before. So these may be new to The Atlantic writers and are more than likely new to the people that made the maps but let's have a little perspective here...just because you aren't aware of prior art doesn't mean they are new. What The Atlantic have done better than most, though, is showcase maps that are, for the most part, well produced and they are certainly of a better quality as a collection than many on the other lists. Interestingly, while the likes of Mapbox and Google are trying to apply sensible cartography to produce better products (generating cloudless imagery or generalizing content based on the person viewing the map), for others the map is an opportunity to dump data. Take the meta-map of OSM contributors for instance (Figure 5 bottom right). What can you really see? Colour used to signify the more than 1 million OSM contributors makes it meaningless. It's just a view of data but not a map.





Figure 6. GIS Lounge

A mixed bag here, referred to as the 'most interesting and best maps of 2013' but which goes on to admit that in fact the maps selected were based on those that seemed to resonate most strongly with people and which produced the most public reaction. Interesting approach...so the masses on the internet get to determine what is 'best' based on what has become most popular? In that case, make the list one that simply showcases the 'most popular' rather than inferring that they are therefore the best. Again...there's cartographic flaws abound and some of them are quite serious. Does the fact Justin Bieber has such a great following make his music any good? Does the fact McDonalds sell billions of burgers mean they're nutritious? Of course not...and there's nothing wrong with those two examples but no-one claims they are the 'best' of their genre. They sell. They do it well. They are simply the most popular.

I would like to think that the top 10 lists are not what we aspire to because let's be honest... apart from a few examples that genuinely add to the canon we can do better as cartographic history proves. Most of the maps are not innovative or new. Mostly the lists are compiled by non-cartographers (non-experts) so it’s questionable whether their view can be deemed authoritative in any sense.  Some are simply regurgitating what's been most viral during the year which is pretty lazy. How many have gone beyond their keyboards and screens? How many saw the work on display at any number of cartographic conferences this year? That answer is probably zero because none of the lists above include any work that won any number of awards at cartographic conferences during the year. Neither do these lists pay any attention to commercial cartography, national mapping or any other major cartographic activity. There is a vast wealth of cartographic riches that are totally ignored because it’s not self-promoted and not available in a bite-size format via a URL promoted by an irrelevant social media non-expert account. So we have a situation where experts give kudos to one set of maps that are unseen by the popular purveyors who give kudos to a completely different set of work.

There are only 5 maps (out of 66) that appear on more than one of the lists I've reviewed here.  Of those, only two make it onto three lists: Ollie O'Brien's Bike Share map and Joshua Katz's American Dialects map. I made my own 'favourites' list this year and neither of those made the cut. In fact, 6 of the 11 I selected didn't appear on any of these other lists.  So the winner is...diversity. Perhaps in pure cartographic terms they all contain limitations and we can pick them apart for what they don't do rather than what they do but one thing's for sure...cartographic beauty is at least in part in the eye of the beholder. And what of the concept of ‘quality’ anyway? Isn’t that in some ways a subjective ideal? There is as much subjectivity in what we see as 'worthy' as there has ever been because cartography is part art. What works for one person is not necessarily the same for another and that subjectivity is precisely why there isn't more commonality across the lists and precisely why mapping is such a diverse church. Even lists based on expert opinion fail to reach consensus. The survey I did with Damien Demaj a while ago showed that professional cartographers themselves have their own favourites and ideas of what they feel is in their own personal top 10. This is to be expected because cartography is as much about how we value aesthetics and our own perception of quality. Some maps trigger an emotional response.  To a cartographer, though, many of the maps in the lists reviewed here simply don't make that connection. They do not trigger that awe. To amateur map enthusiasts who are perhaps more interested in the technical way a map was produced, or how the data was manipulated, or the cool UI design...it creates the emotional response they seek. 

Therein lies one of the fundamental differences in the way I (and other cartographers) might look upon a map. We're looking at the value of the cartographic work. Cartography is the focus. To gain our respect it has to achieve more than what most can produce; it has to speak to us, communicate, and do it efficiently. But with most maps now being made by most people with so few having the touch of a cartographer involved it's no surprise that so many fail to get us so-called experts excited.

For most of the examples above we can point to far more nuanced examples of the genre or the technique. There's prior art for much of what we see today that is better crafted. One's never going to be able to excite a public hungry for 'new' examples by showing them something made 20 years ago if it doesn't come via a URL...but how, then, do we encourage a public to develop a better sense of quality, a better sense of cartographic taste? This is a huge question but in an age where you'd hope that brain surgery was done by a qualified neurosurgeon, your car service done by a qualified mechanic, your divorce settlement handled by a qualified lawyer, your tax accounting handled by a qualified accountant why is it that we accept maps that are handled by anyone and everyone? There is such a thing as a profession of cartography; a body of professional cartographers. It is these people who need to stand up, produce great work and show the world that quality matters…otherwise the cacophony will simply grow louder and more discordant.

There are other impacts to the popularisation of map-making. It’s not just where people see their mapping and take their design cues, it’s where they now seek the knowledge to make their maps.  I was disappointed to read the preface of a textbook a couple of years ago which said quite blatantly that the author was not schooled in cartography but because they couldn’t find any books on the subject they felt it necessary to write one. I was astonished since there are dozens, most of which were far more useful and well written. All this illustrated was this particular author hadn’t cared to look (the book wasn’t particularly good either). This phenomenon has now transgressed onto the internet. There are some really well produced online resources (e.g. The Geospatial Revolution videos and MOOC from Penn State University) but there are also others that just leave me scratching my head. While I’ll not point directly at a particular site (mostly because the author gets really quite uptight), very recently a new online resource appeared to provide a ‘free introduction to geo’, GIS and cartography. The author’s expertise is as a programmer. He has openly shown disdain for cartography and its history, rules and prior art across social media. Yet here he is, creating a slick online set of resources to ‘educate about mapping’. Slick in the sense of it looks nice but you don’t have to dig very far to spot the problems. It’s mostly utter nonsense and anyone with a vague knowledge of geography, cartography, geo or GIS can blow holes in some of the gross generalisations and misrepresentations. But then he pickes up nuggets here and there (usually after a period of Twitter related mud-slinging with people who know better) and then passes them off as if he's the expert. Yet it’s this sort of tabloid nonsense that gets traffic. There’s no consistency to his work but people like it because it isn’t challenging and they don't have to go far to find it; it makes making maps appear to be rather simple and requiring minimal knowledge; it validates their own desire to see something as quick and easy (and free); it justifies their belief that experts like making things difficult to preserve their expertise; and that this new breed of map-makers has somehow tapped into a magic that makes map-making trivial and simple. This individual, with no cartographic background whatsoever who is now professing to be a one-stop-shop for people who want to learn how to make maps has nearly 3000 followers on Twitter (if you're following then you're spotting a pattern).


So we're awash with tabloid reporting of tabloid mapping and tabloid style courses teaching people how to make maps poorly. Mapping is mainstream and it's now news worthy for those that don't want to look very far or deep so we digest a daily diet of this map and that map. Somewhere in the mix, though, the rasion d'etre of cartography has gone awry. Making a map used to be all about communicating something meaningful to a reader. The map itself is merely a document that someone consults to learn something. It's a vehicle to take that person along a particular route and guide them to a destination. The same is true for maps that support navigation to maps that support the understanding of global economics, or patterns of breast cancer or election results.  But tabloid reporting offers little or no critique and a map is 'liked' for the mere fact it's a 'map'; a 'cool map' even. How many of the maps that appear in these top 10 lists are described in terms of the meaning they impart, the analytical task they support or the understanding they reveal? Not many. Most are in the mix because they are simply 'maps'. There's little attempt to understand whether they communicate their content efficiently, effectively or meaningfully. They just map. Which brings me back to the point about professionalism in cartography. The people selecting these lists are no more a map expert than many who populate their lists. They’ve also now moved to make web sites to tell people how to make maps. It’s a cartographic bypass. How is it that they are able to assess relative quality in the maps they see or in the statements they make? There's no real rigor to their process, no judgement made by people who know the profession. To be fair there's nothing wrong with anyone making a list of 'favourites' but where's the domain knowledge? Making a good map needs two essential drivers: domain knowledge of cartography and domain knowledge of the theme being mapped. Teaching about cartography needs more than domain knowledge; it needs evidence of practice, engagement in the cartographic community and also the ability to develop materials that are well researched, rigorous and based on an understanding of pedagogy. Maps made by coders whose domain knowledge is coding and doing fantastic things with data does not necessarily make a great map. Their main goal, I would suggest, is challenging themselves to do something innovative with the data and to make something that simply looks cool. Do they really have the intent to communicate something about the data or is it simply just mapping of the data? We see this so often...an interesting data set mapped poorly which, in the hands of a professional cartographer (or even a semi-skilled non-professional) and someone seeking to understand something about the data could reveal something so much more. Likewise when they turn their attention to trying to educate the rest of us about cartography. I prefer my education to come from people who know what they’re on about and I would like cartographers to use 2014 as the beginning of a drive to reclaim cartography.

I would like to see 2014 belong not to the new map-makers and their lists and courses but to the map-consumers who find more appropriate ways to get excited about maps and learn about how they are made.  I'd like to see a public whose appetite for maps is matched by one that demands better quality and who are better informed about where to seek advice on making great maps.  I would like to think that over time, this might emerge as more people tire of the cacophony and, instead, seek the few examples of great work that are truly engaging and well crafted. Is this even a possibility or are we beyond that point already?  My sense is the latter is the default for a while yet but it doesn't stop me from some altruistic goal and a call to arms. The cacophony is simply too deafening at the moment. It's beholden on makers of maps to learn a bit about mapping so their work is at least based on basic tenets. It's also necessary to improve the diet that consumers are gorging upon to improve their appreciation for something that tastes better and to give them better materials to educate them. We, the so-called experts, retreat to our cartographic societies, our clubs and our friends who share the same concerns and see the world of mapping through similar glasses. We hope for a future where more people have the sense to pause before 'liking' but we rarely put our heads above the parapet.

So what's to be done as we move into 2014 and beyond? In addition to continually striving to improve the quality in The Journal and its international scope and presence, colleagues in the ICA Map Design Commission and I have pledged to write a daily blog during 2014 to showcase the very best in classic and contemporary cartography (see www.mapdesign.icaci.org).  The intent is to build a repository of 365 maps that cover the breadth of cartographic practice to illustrate, explain and emphasize the importance of map design and to give URLs to quality maps. We believe there is no other similar repository and instead of fighting the internet and the tabloid mapping we see, we’re using it. It’s the equivalent of introducing a new quality publication. By the end of the year we will have created a compendium that can act as a reference for high quality cartography.  Some of the maps you’ll have seen before…some possibly not. We’ll include both traditional print cartography and the very best that the internet has to offer. Each map will be illustrated and accompanied by a brief comment or two on why we feel the map exhibits great design. Hopefully the maps we’ll showcase will provide a barometer for modern map making, inspiration for those who seek ideas for how to map their data and also to improve the public’s appreciation of and demand for quality in maps. We need people to promote the repository so please do look and share the links amongst your networks. BCS has done well over the past few years with the excellent Better Mapping series and the Restless Earth Schools programme but as a community of cartographers we need to engage with the vast number of online mappers and make a stronger statement. Quite simply, we’re only scratching the surface along with similar cartographic societies the world over. The cartographic profession more generally has to step up to provide better examples of mapping and in places that are visible to modern consumers. We also have to develop our outreach as a profession and become more friendly, inclusive and engaging. It’s going to take more than one or two people or web sites. It needs a concerted effort by all those who consider themselves cartographers not just to sit and moan about maps they see online but to do something about it. We need to turn the tide and reclaim mapping.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Modifying a taxonomy of map types

Maps can be described in many ways as I explored briefly in a previous blog. Historically, they can be categorized into three general types based on their function, scale or type. In terms of function, a map might be termed reference if their function is to provide information about the character of a place, its general topography and the way in which the landscape is modified through human use. The detail was carefully managed to ensure a consistent design at a particular scale which resulted in often difficult choices for what to include or omit. Similarly, the term thematic often describes the function of a map in communicating something about a specific, often narrow theme. Alternatively, scale itself may be used as a taxonomy since small scale maps tend to share similar characteristics (highly generalized, country level) as do large scale maps that show detail of localities. The third main way of classifying maps considers their unique type such as choropleth, topographic map, aeronautical chart or cadastral plan.

Of course, there is overlap and there are outliers to this approach such as mental maps that exist in our minds to support knowledge of a place, navigation or wayfinding and so on. But the traditional three-way classification is now challenged as technology changes the way maps are designed and produced. Maps are now more fluid in their purpose and more flexible in the way we consume them so the overlaps have become more profound.

If we consider how the web has changed the way we consume maps we can see how the map itself has adapted and no longer fits into the traditional classification. Maps are now available as a mass consumption service through our web browsers and mobile devices. We no longer need to go to authoritative national mapping agencies for our mapping needs; instead we use maps supplied by search engine providers, news agencies and a plethora of organisations. Maps are made by everyone and consumed in many more ways.

A reference map may now be comprised of multiple layers that, viewed in a web browser can be selected or deselected. The map may rely on a basemap built and designed by someone else and consumed as part of a suite of layers of information. As such, that clear cartographic approach to ensuring different types of information sit neatly together is not necessarily the primary objective. If users of the map can switch between layers to highlight the reference layer of particular interest then, functionally, the map retains its core purpose yet it achieves it in a different way. The user experience of map consumption has changed and that requires a change in mindset concerning how we think of the map as a type.

We now also use reference maps as base layers for other information. More commonly called the ‘mashup’, the use of third party basemaps atop of which we add thematic content is becoming a common approach in contemporary mapping. the purist may suggest the basemap might be unsuitable but with more options available (such as neutral, decluttered basemaps) and the ability to modify the content and colour of map services to support your intended design, increasingly the ability is there to mashup thematic content on suitably modified basemaps. Here then, is a hybrid approach to making a map as we eschew basic outlines commonly used for thematic mapping in favour of a basemap that incorporates some geographical context (which itself may be modified to select/deselect certain features or modify the symbology to be sympathetic to a particular thematic overlay. This, of course, benefits thematic mapping by providing a language-based way of helping us describe and interpret the patterns that our thematics show us since we can more easily relate them to places we are familiar with.

Scale is no longer a universally suitable way to classify a map’s character. If we consider mapping series produced by national mapping agencies and the like then of course, each scale will undoubtedly have a common design across the various sheets. More often than not, similar approaches are often taken in designing different scale map series by the same organization, but not always. Now, though, the development of the multiscale map has reduced the scope of our ability to characterize a map based on scale. Maps now exist across a range of scales. This may simply be a version of the same information made visible through the process of pan and zoom but when designed effectively, the detail itself is modified to take advantage of different scales. More detail and finer resolutions at larger zoom scales and less so at smaller zoom scales. In a simple way, this may refer to changes in the ground size represented by pixels in satellite imagery, or it may refer to progressive generalization of vectors as scale changes. Of course, this brings with it a challenge since multiscale web maps now no longer have the constraint of scale as a guide for the mapping process. The map-maker now has to consider, say, sixteen separate scale each of which must have a map designed to take advantage of that scale. Additionally, the design at each scale must flow between scales. this is no easy task since we’ve gone from making one map at one scale to making multiple maps at multiple scales each of which has to work individually and also in series...and intuitively in terms of user navigation.

Individual map types now no longer characterize maps as well as they once did. Where once we saw a single choropleth map and the map type was obvious, we now see layers of different map types presented in interesting and interactive ways with the potential addition of multimedia and other information graphics. I like to call these info-maps, though in truth maps have always been a conduit for imparting information but most seem to have forgotten that and prefer, instead, to make up ever more intriguing terms to replace the otherwise perfect description - map.

Perhaps due to the increasing ease of production and the ability to pour data, pictures, video, text etc into a template, the map is now not the central focus of the work but merely a mechanism and a pipeline to the real crux of what map-making is all about - telling a story. Telling stories (actually, communicating information) is the focus. Again it always has been for cartographers. The story is the focus and the map is a component of the story, albeit one that deserves a central part and which is designed in sympathy to the message. Here then, thematic maps and discrete map types are being used inventively and interchangeably by people as they search for compelling ways to present their work. The clear distinction of a map based on type (because of its character) is no longer adequate as a way of differentiating.

In terms of map type, then, it’s possibly even more difficult to create a neat taxonomy by which we can describe and identify maps. The process of technological change, the mechanism for design and production and the explosion of people now making maps means the distinctions have become further blurred. Where once maps used to be made by standard photo-mechanical processes we then saw a move to desktop based design and production. This remains but has also been augmented by coded solutions, web-based approaches, maps as services and APIs. Map consumption has changed too, driving the demand for maps available on the web and mobile devices. This in turn drives development of mapping technologies and the further proliferation of map making. These have changed both the process and result of mapping endeavor yet they exist in parallel and in many ways are complimentary rather than being replacements of former technologies.

Based on these changes, I've attempted to modify the traditional broad categories. They cannot be considered mutually exclusive and it's up for debate whether they represent a new way of classifying maps or simply an updated description. Rather than differentiating on function, scale and type, I've attempted to tease out the salient characteristics of each category:

Reference maps: characterized predominantly by their function. These support general tasks of locating oneself, navigating, finding where things are and understanding the natural world and patterns of human use. These maps include those produced by national mapping agencies and the multitude of digital basemaps provided online. They might exist in paper form or digital form and can combine imagery with vector graphics and, additionally, commercially provided, paid for or personalised content. These will most often be produced by large organisations (though not necessarily mapping organisations) and require significant investment in time and development as well as comprehensive data.

e.g. Esri National Geographic basemap



Multiscale maps: characterized  predominantly by an online delivery. These maps may have varying functions yet in common they offer the user a way to explore a theme at different scales, each one working in harmony with the next zoom level. Such maps may be entirely reference-based or thematic but will commonly integrate the two and reveal more detail at larger scales. Such maps will likely use a reference map provided as a service and pay most attention to the overlayed detail. In many ways this category has replaced that which uses scale as a differentiating characteristic though, of course, scale remains a key factor in cartographic design.

e.g. Multiscale dasymetric map of the 2012 US Presidential Election 


View the map full screen here.

Thematic Info-maps: characterized predominantly by the integration of a range of media to present a rich, information product. The map will play a central role but will be augmented by graphs, graphics, pictures, animation, interaction etc. These maps may make fundamental use of new web technologies as a way of augmenting the map experience or may be the sort of high quality work associated with good journalistic cartography. They will often integrate a range of technologies using desktop, services and coded solutions to create bespoke products, often animated. Interaction is a key priority for such maps be it physically through a User Interface or through exploration of detailed information.

e.g. History of US motor vehicle deaths in the US


View the map full screen (with interaction and animation) here.

Ephemeral maps: characterized predominantly by simple, often linear, maps that offer an insight into a single topic with very clear boundaries, for instance the delivery of a set of images of a theme using map markers to show their location. Such maps will often be easily produced and delivered in pre-configured templates and be capable of being produced by many more people than the above categories due to the lower threshold of user knowledge/skill required. Here, the map-making process is as much a consumption service as users are encouraged to make use of pre-configured off-the-shelf mapping solutions. Such maps are inevitably short-lived.

e.g. Jeff Friesen's 50 States of Lego

View the map full screen here.

Map making and the map product have changed dramatically. Technologies now support a rich variety of possibilities, bringing the process of map-making to more people. The entry level to making a map now has a lower threshold. Quick, dirty and often transient maps are rapidly produced and quickly forgotten yet these add to the cartographic canon of work and possibilities and potentially create a new and developing class in our taxonomy. The traditional way of describing maps by function, scale or type has been fundamentally blurred as the milieu of mapping becomes increasingly varied affording more opportunities, more capabilities and more flexibility in almost every aspect of the design and production process. Are these new categories I propose different...or possibly just an updated description to take account of the changing map-making landscape?

Disclaimer: with the exception of the National Geographic basemap the maps illustrated herein are mine. I don't propose them as exemplar products, merely an illustration of type. Clearly the fact this blog is delivered digitally means the delivery mechanism is fixed. This illustrates the overlap between categories, whether old or as I've modified.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Cartolove

Via my geopal Ed Parsons I read an article in today's New York Times entitled 'A makeover for maps'. It's effectively an interview with Eric Rodenback of Stamen Design that frames an argument for how he is trying to rethink how data is presented...graphs, maps, animation etc. Time was when we called a graph a graph, a map a map and the art and science of making them... cartography. Not any more.

Ed pointed out that, unsurprisingly, the term 'cartography' is not mentioned once in the article (though it subsequently is in the many comments). This isn't the first time we've seen this apparent glossing over of 'cartography' and I've mentioned this issue before in a previous blog.. Is this a problem? Do maps need a makeover? Does everything new have to be described as 'rethinking' as if in some way that elevates it to some new, more profound level of importance for which we should be eternally grateful for the insight?

Maps have changed. The people making them have also...and so have the tools of production. Data is now seen as different (but possibly it's just because there's so much more of it and it's more complex to sift it into something meaningful). All of the components of cartographic practice have evolved immensely. Consumption has also changed. We demand immediacy in our information so waiting for weeks to publish a map or to see a map is no longer acceptable to most. It has to be done rapidly and with maximum visual impact to resonate and satiate the appetite of our fleeting interest. So we end up with people creating new 'visualizations'...and there we have another term to throw into the mix to avoid using the term 'cartography'.

Cartography undoubtedly has an image problem otherwise there wouldn't be so many people re-thinking it. It has for years been seen as old-skool, stuffy, populated as a disipline with people who yearn for the long lost age of the scribing tool. Even the modern ones are seen as archaic if they dare to suggest their tool of choice is Adobe Illustrator...heck, even GIS is now considered as 'paleo' if that's how you make your maps. But as much as some of this is true, people 'new' to making maps are also fundamentally responsible for perpetuating the myth that what they are doing is something new. They don't want to be seen as belonging to something that pre-existed because that dilutes their relevance. They want to be modern, clean and avant-garde...just like the 'visualizations' they create. They claim there is a gulf between what went before and what they are doing and it demarcates something fresh and different. It suits them to be different because different is good and it sets them apart as new and important players in the landscape. They need to be seen to be doing something 'new' to fulfill that destiny.

Bullshit.

I challenge you to look at any modern map or data visualization or whatever you want to call it and not be able to see clear lineage to cartographic theory or practice.  The challenge of how to present data meaningfully has been what cartography has been concerned with for centuries. The number of times I see something that purports to be a 'new way of seeing this or that' when I can probably pick out an example from 5, 10, 20, 50 years ago is becoming laughable. There is prior art for most of what we see today. Just because some people are unwilling to acknowledge it or aren't aware of it doesn't mean it never happened. Yes, people are experimenting and pushing boundaries. Yes, they are doing exciting things in the cartographic space. This has always been the case in any generation of cartographic evolution. Occasionally some seriously great work emerges to add to the canon that is truly a progression of note...but by and large I can see the use of Bertin's visual variables, cognitive theory or a particular projection, or the development of some experimental time-space animations from 15 years ago or a range of almost all other cartographic stuff.  Computing and technology are making it easier to implement. Graphics engines are making it possible to do things that are more polished, faster and more visually arresting...but the lineage is still there. It's cartography by whatever other name you want to call it....except most call it anything but cartography.

Making maps is now considered part of what designers do...but also what data scientists, journalists and artists also do. The pool of map-makers has expanded and people are now finding out about cartography in their own ways but if the output is a map-like object you are doing cartography to some extent even if you hate to think of it that way. You might do it well, you might do it poorly (depending who you show your work to), you might do it having read up on a technique or you might have stumbled across a way of representing stuff that makes sense to you and which you never knew had been done before. Whatever the process, you're doing some cartography. Cartography, though, is probably the last term you would use to describe your work.  It continues to have an image problem. It's just not a sexy term and old stuff doesn't sell well unless you invent a new way of selling it.

Digging a little deeper, most cartographers would probably concur that a lot of what they see isn't very 'cartographic' because use of that label implies a professional touch...a professional cartographer's touch. That doesn't necessarily make the work amateurish. Far from it...but that view does tend to support the philosophy that there is cartography...and then there is the new way. That distinction is crucial because it feeds the divide. Cartographers have a skill set learnt and practiced. It's their professional area of expertise yet as a discrete profession it's been on the slide for years. Unfortunately, when the rest of the world decided to get busy mapping, cartography was still slumbering and failed to pick up the pace. It got overtaken so the high ground of modern map-making is no longer ruled by people from that profession. Consequently their voice is diminished and their ability to influence is weakened. That's not to say others cannot become proficient or, indeed, far better at making maps. Many great maps are made by non-cartographers. But as long as that distinction of 'us and them' and the notion of what skill-sets new and old map-makers can bring to the table remains, the divide will grow...the term cartography will become even less attractive and it will slowly die. More people will seek their advice on making maps from designers, coders, data scientists and anyone else who has stumbled across cartography...rather than getting a cartographer involved. That would be sad to see because so much of what is being re-thought already exists. You've just got to talk to the right people, read the right books/blogs and engage with the past as a way of informing your desire to shape (not reinvent) the future.

Cartography is a great term and it's entirely appropriate for most of what we see today. Rather than being seen as elitist or defining a small group of like-minded old-skoolers its use should be expanded to encompass modern thinking and practice. As the President of ICA, Georg Gartner, said at the International Cartographic Conference in 2013 "It's OK to be a cartographer". Well yes, it is...but only if you want to be frowned at, ignored, derided  and so on...until some of the newer crowd get over their hang ups about the term and accept what they are doing is not profoundly new (as in not a new paradigm) but is, in fact, simply a development of what went before supported by changes in technology. It also requires those with a longer cartographic history to get with it...change has happened and fast but you might need to modify your view of what you do to be seen as relevant until people come round to using the term cartography in a positive way again. This is more profound than just semantics. This is about us potentially consigning a great term to history simply because different tribal tendencies have seen it fade out of fashion. We need to encourage some carto love (as another of my geo pals Gary Gale said) and once again see cartography as something more than just worthy...it needs to become fashionable once again. It needs a good re-branding job. Then we genuinely can begin to think of a new golden age of cartography.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Keep calm and study cartography

As regular readers (and critics...I know who you are) of this blog will know, this is where I point to examples of bad maps and try and explain why they are bad and why life may be that little bit better if they were improved. It strikes me, however, that this is fast becoming a complete waste of time because the tide of poor mapping is beyond endemic...beyond epidemic even. It's a pandemic. What's more...it seems less people neither want to know or care. They are content with sub-par efforts even if they contain basic mistakes.

It's one thing for the internet to provide a mechanism for people to get mapping, but another entirely when such maps are duly picked up and promoted beyond what they are capable of showing...and that's my beef in this blog.

Business Insider were guilty of this with a series of maps they made earlier this year...promoting their own cartographic ignorance (total of 808,000 views to date). This was also the case after the latest viral tweetmap (the Beyonce flawless map) was picked up by several online blogs and then hit TIME magazine online. Now we have another.

Jeff Sackmann of the blog tennisabstract.com has made an app to map ranking of players by country.

Here's a screen shot showing the top 1000 WTA players by country:



Here, then...the classic non-normalised choropleth. The data needs to be per capita. I might have mentioned this before (yawn!) and I was going to leave this map alone until anumber of blogs and then USA Today picked it up. Now to be fair, they do at least point to the same drawback of the maps but it seems to me a pattern is emerging and it goes something like this...

1. Person makes a map...it is alive therefore it is right (the internet says so and no-one's checking anyway)
2. Person self-promotes it on their own blog/site (nothing wrong with that...it's the internet!)
3. Some people look at map...most believe it because it's a map so it must be true.
4. Map becomes the modern equivalent of fish'n'chip paper except...on the odd occasion...

5. Other people in need of content to promote their own site trawl the internet for stuff happen across map
6. Said map is re-promoted on a new site to many more people (ad nauseum)
7. Any problems with the map are lost in the mists of time (the cacophony of 'Likes' speaks volumes)
8. The map is now cool so to be cool you have to like a map that is cool (hit 'Like')
9. A piece of cartography dies and...

11. Bloggers/commentators/experts (like me) get criticised for not liking the latest cool map

Just because I can...here's what the above map should look like when normalised (and on an equal area projection to avoid the visual bias caused by Mercator). I could have stuck this in an online map (to get clicky things so you can see values for each country) but no-one would have 'liked' it so I didn't go that far but I feel it proves the point anyway.



Now...if someone wants to argue that the non-normalised version tells the same story as the normalised version then I'm happy to use pistols at dawn.

I love that people make maps. I just wish more would make them properly...and even more, I'd like for those that promote maps on their own sites for their own purpose to do some basic research to figure out whether what they are showing is actually worth showing. If people reading maps are unable to tell the difference (and why should they...they're busy with their own lives and areas of expertise) then it's beholden on map-makers to make their maps right.

Keep calm and study (a little) cartography.

[update: edits to correct spellings]

Friday, 16 August 2013

Big Map with Large Fries

I've spoken/written before of my perception that more maps and more visibility of mapping does not necessarily equate to more quality. There's a tidal wave of tsunami proportions pounding away at the shores of cartography.  It's being powered by hundreds (thousands) of map-makers all keen to crack a technological issue, wrangle their big data into a map (data has to be 'big' these days to make your map, well, worth making) and unleash their effort into the milieu.

Many people view this as undeniably good for mapping and to an extent I agree because these are certainly empowering, exciting times to be involved in mapping. Those of us (un)fortunate enough to have a reasonably lengthy background have some perspective of where we were 10, 20, 30 years ago (some even longer...no names) and yes, there's no doubt that changes in computing patterns have led to not just an evolution but a revolution in mapping. Pace of change is rapid and each new day brings a new map; and every now and then something comes along that for a few days at least becomes a so-called game-changer. There's a lot of great work being produced but there's far more weak maps being made.  There's also a lot of weak maps being made that are promoted as being great.

Is the change in mapping, often seen as a result of democratisation, simply just a reflection of many other facets of society? My better half (@lindabeale) and I were chewing this issue over dinner the other day as I was explaining my exasperation over the latest map to hit the internet headlines and take unwarranted kudos. The food on our plates led us to an interesting discussion and analogies so here goes...

Maps are becoming like anything else. We want more, we want it more rapidly, we want it cheaper and, crucially, we want it via the easiest route possible because people have become lazy.  This applies to so much in the societies I am familiar with and, certainly, that society in the cloud. In short...we want fast maps in the same way that as a society we've embraced fast food, cheap clothing, cars and any other commodity we feel enriches our lives but which we can get easily.  We rarely want to wait too long or pay too much...and maps that drop in front of our ever-surfing eyes are the easiest of all to consume from whatever feed we pour into our online lives.

The Open Source movement has certainly driven change in mapping. Google have been major players too. Many large geo-companies and organisations have also moved with the times and they've had to because if they don't they die and will likely become the next Kodak. Everyone wants a franchise and, in particular, a cloud-based franchise...everyone wants to be the Starbucks of geo; to be visible on every street corner offering sweetened goo that approximates coffee.  Everybody wants to be McDonalds...burgers constructed from who knows what slapped together haphazardly and served rapidly with a huge dollop of sauce and liquid sugar to wash it down.  And if we could super-size it, all the better.  More more more...because, if we're not visible; if we're not on every street corner and not in everyone's faces, people drive by until they reach the next franchise by someone or some organisation that has a better plot and a better pitch to appeal to the fast-paced consumer with low standards in taste.




In many ways it's not even about the taste either.  In a taste test there is almost no one who would choose the taste of a fast food burger over a really well crafted burger but crucially, if they have to wait (more than a second), pay (more than a loss leader price) and go out of their way (more than an arm stretch from the car) then it simply becomes not worth it for them.  Chef quality is what we might choose but not if we have to work for it so if that's the market place then why would anyone go to the effort to supply anything more than the generic goo?  Instant gratification trumps quality every time.  We are a generation who are not used to having to work to get anything (I mean really work...hard graft).  It is given to us, and don't we deserve it! Haven’t we done well, don’t we work hard, isn’t life tough? No. Not really. To a greater or lesser extent society has become bone idol compared to past generations and this tends to permeate across most of what we do, with laziness comes sloppiness and quality takes a back seat.  Give it to us, now…whatever it is and even better if I don't have to move from in front of my computer!




It’s not just about being visible and in people’s faces – people gravitate to ‘fast food’ – a quick hit and nothingness and so for those of us who want quality, its tough because it's harder to find. We are competing on an uneven playing field.  The same might be said of many sports. Cheating has proven for many to be the path to winning for many high-profile people, and those who tow the line face a lifetime of being second or third, just praying that someone, somewhere will see what is going on and call out the cheat so they have a chance to win on merit.  Even when cheats are found out it's their names that persist, not those they beat along the way who are consigned to the "alleys of obscurity, sentenced to rejection in the morass of anonymity" (I always wanted to use that Marillion lyric in something but i digress...). There are too many people who cheat themselves and, along with them, the people who read their maps, and take the fast path with very little thought for the consequences.  Sometimes it's done knowingly because they might not care about overcoming a particularly awkward issue and sometimes unwittingly (ignorance is bliss) but short-cutting is a modern curse and a form of cheating.  After all, the winners route is always the preferred route for most people which is why band-wagons are routinely jumped upon.  The rewards out weigh the risks when taking the shortest path.  The taste of fast food out weighs the time and effort for a quality burger…otherwise you are condemning yourself to a lifetime of being second. And who is tough enough to do that?




So we kid ourselves that fast food tastes great. It's generally quick to find, buy, consume and heck...after a couple of hours you want to eat again! But in terms of nourishment and quality it hardly sustains.  Some people eschew fast food entirely.  They may stay home and cook alone. The fruits of their endeavor are never appreciated beyond the extent of their own dining room.  They take ingredients and fashion food that suits their own tastes; but others rarely get to savour their efforts.  Others might go the gourmet restaurant route.  Artisan burgers for instance? Less visible but often more tasty and more nutritious.  These are for people who have higher standards perhaps; possibly deeper pockets because they cost more. Then we have those who just don't dig fast food at all.  They avoid it like the plague...in fact, they probably view it as a plague.  They will only eat at exclusive restaurants, not chains, but independent operations with individual, unique menus.  Food is constructed by a chef...you know, a properly trained person in the art of food chemistry, preparation, design, construction and presentation.  This will be a person who has gone through years of training and hard graft; they've lost the ability to have children because their nether regions have been pushed up against a baking hot oven for the last 15 years in pursuit of excellence.  They have a passion for their art. So people who prefer to buy their food from a trained chef rather than a kid behind the counter at McDonalds are likely more discerning and have already reconciled that their life will be tougher in order to satisfy their desire to rise above the morass. Sure, they'll pay for it. It'll take longer to come...but aren't the rewards greater to them personally even if their friends don't understand their reluctance to conform? Well...not necessarily...






Take peer pressure for instance.  Snobbery is often used as a description of those who express taste – lets laugh at the person who knows what wine they like and people who won’t go to a fast food restaurant because they don't like mass-produced food for the masses!  “think you are better than that?”, “get you with your fancy restaurants!” etc etc.  So why would you want to be castigated for not conforming? Of course people generally want to fit in and be liked in whatever they do. Who wants to stand out and be ridiculed? So the lazy lead the way – set the standard, as low as possible and call out anyone who dares to stand up and say those burgers taste bad and are made of poor quality ingredients.

So just as fast food has become the staple diet of the people of many countries because that's how we conform, so perhaps we're seeing mapping going the same way. While I, like many, actually quite like a bit of dirty food once in a while I also like to go to a decent restaurant once in a while.  I cook at home from real ingredients as well.  The point of this is simple...fast food has become the de facto diet for the majority because the majority rule.  Democracy has spoken and the masses have won.  Fast maps are becoming the de facto view of the world for many now as well.  Because they are ubiquitous. Because they can be made by anyone. Because they are on every street-corner and in every cloud and they provide instant gratification. Amongst all these fast maps are a few decent scraps...some that actually taste pretty good but generally they lack nutrition and the consumer doesn't particularly care because they're not interested in the ingredients anyway. Does the burger taste good? Yep...so eat it and then order another.  Does the map look good...well, it seems to (I don't really know, but I guess I trust that it does)...good, well let's consume it with the same lack of interest and then retweet it...or blog about it.

Well I don't want my map carto-diet filled with such an imbalance of fast maps and have even more fast maps push out the independent quality purveyors. As a consumer I want choice and I want a better balance to that choice.  I don't want the masses to define and dictate what it is that I have to consume. It's incumbent on those of us who have some sort of taste when it comes to cartography to at least offer choice.  Yes, taste can be very subjective but the people who I consider have good cartographic taste all tend to agree on many of the values that define decent mapping. Maybe we need a Jamie Oliver of mapping to campaign against Turkey Twizzlers. Show the alternatives and find a platform to get visibility. We need to show people that taking good ingredients and preparing them properly does not have to be costly and can actually produce something more tasty than generic, mass produced processed fast maps. Maybe I veer too much towards the Gordon Ramsay school of criticism sometimes in my slating of stuff (the F word is quite a common expletive when I open up the latest fast map it's true) but at least the guy has passion and a background that suggests he might know a thing or two about decent food.  He's also had failures and learnt from them but he holds his standards dear to his heart and won't have some b*llshitter tell him how to cook/run a restaurant. Some of us know some stuff about maps too. I'm not suggesting we should all open high class restaurants but like Oliver and Ramsay in their endeavors to improve food quality and restaurants...get our hands dirty helping others improve and aspire to better things in their own mapping. That's a tall order in the current climate but it's worth a shot...and Ramsay has even taken on the burger himself by opening a new restaurant, BurGR, in Las Vegas based around high quality burgers!




So let's stop applauding those who peddle fast maps and whose work is re-peddled by those fine purveyors of instant gratification...the blogosphere (Gizmodo, Wired, TechCrunch, your favorite map media outlet or ├╝ber-blogger). Instead, lets applaud those who choose not to take the easy route and who battle the urge to be as lazy as everyone else. It's inherent in people to take the path of least resistance but sometimes there are those who choose to steer a different path and whose work is all the richer and tastier for it. Only that way will we redress balance in the force and offer people choice and a route to a more healthy carto-diet. You might not want to today...but your body will thank you in 10 years time.

In the meantime I'm trying to ensure not every dinner in our household revolves around cartography...and next time I'm in Vegas I'll be trying out Ramsay's new creation.

UPDATE: Amongst many positive reactions to my blog post above I got a proper slating by one guy on the Twittersphere for using 'amateurish sociology' to argue for higher standards in cartography.  Well, I'm not a professional sociologist so that probably explains that but while there are clearly arguments that we are where we are because of production systems and producers I still maintain much of what we see is driven by demand.  Because the demand is not particularly sophisticated, neither is what we get as an end product. Does this stack up? Well for probably over a decade now you can actually make some damn fine maps using desktop GIS.  How many people do? Not many.  So even when producers do provide the tools the masses make the choice not to invest in whatever it is they need to know/do to take advantage. They also whinge when people demonstrate what can be achieved because it shows up their laziness in not being able to harness what's in front of them.  That's what I meant by lazy...path of least resistance. Effort isn't something people are keen to expend.  And taste...how can 'doing it right' be regarded as simply subjective difference in 'taste'? When i refer to taste in a cartographic sense I'm not talking about whether we prefer orange or purple line symbols...I'm talking about the basics.  Too many simply get the basics wrong.  back to the amateurish sociology...if I use salt in a lemon meringue instead of sugar that's plain wrong...it's not simply bad taste. The recipe is wrong. The product will taste bloody awful though it may still look ok. Same with mapping...good cartography occurs when people get their recipes right.  Great cartography happens with a spark of something extra...a dash of an ingredient that makes the map shine.  Amateurish sociology? Hmm...maybe I was just using basic, one-dimensional ideas because I'm trying to appeal to those who would simply find my ramblings snobbish if i used far more sophisticated arguments.  KISS is important.  Given the individual claims to be a sociologist perhaps he is just annoyed that I'm operating in his professional domain in this instance?  Maybe, then, imagine how professional cartographers feel at everyone else thinking they're nailed the cartographic domain.