Wednesday 22 May 2013

The new cartography of Google Maps Part 2

A few days ago I wrote up some initial thoughts about the new Google maps redesign in a previous blog.  After receiving my invite to try it out I've had a chance to explore a little and here are a few more the spirit that Google wanted feedback and in response to a brief Twitter conversation with my friend and geo-colleague Ed Parsons (Google's Geospatial Technologist)

Let's start with the practical...

Having spent years fine tuning their map from a pretty industrial affair to something quite beautiful, the design has taken a few steps back. Yes, the subtle, clean and muted colours are an improvement but the overall look and feel is of a crowded dsystopia. There is no way that any generically designed topographic basemap can do a good job of being equally useful for all combinations of individual, personalized content slapped across the top and it shows.  Technically, Google are pushing the envelope and as I said previously, this is to be applauded...but in so doing they've lost something of the clarity and balance that they'd imbued in their map.

I opened the map and hoped to be greeted with an array of all the things I expected to see where I live. Google knows where I go in this town. It knows what my local searches have been (or it claims to given this is one of the ways map content is chosen for me). So if this is a personalised map of my town then surely it should reflect my own mental map. Instead I got a map devoid of detail except locations of all the churches in Redlands (of which there are quite a few). Now anyone that knows me will soon realize this is not a map I would find useful unless I want to find a route that avoids passing the many alternative residences of god (think Damien in The Omen approaching Guildford Cathedral). So where is all my personalised content? No idea...and, apparently, nor have Google. So the map is actually devoid of any practical value until I start using it to search and then we hit another problem...

I searched for local Mexican restaurants knowing full well which in the local area are my favorites. Google presented a range of options, all symbolised and sized based on other people's preferences. Hang on...where's my favorite? It doesn't even appear as anything other than a small insignificant dot. I don't like the way that symbol size is now used to order thematic content and connotate importance. The use of size is critical in cartography to order things; to make sense of visual signs being thrown at us in parallel so our eyes and brain can form a partial picture of relative value in series.This is a vital graphical approach when a map is made objectively but not when the ordering is based on pseudo-analysis. The answer I got was not the one I wanted so validating Google's attempt at creating a personalized thematic map against my own mental map shows a serious flaw...the bigger problem being I now do not trust the map for any other place. The baseline for personalized content has to be that the map as a minimum meets what you expect in a familiar area...if it doesn't then you lose trust in the product and when that happens it becomes useless. Objectivity in cartography as a mechanism to ensure consistency across a map in terms of selection, omission and graphical treatment just died. Everyone's maps are different and everyone's maps will be wrong in different ways and to different extents.

I feel that some of the slick, ease of use that Google had developed has also been lost. It's slow, it's quite clunky to control. While uniting Maps, Earth and Streetview is probably a good thing the transition between them is often quite disorientating and needs some work. A lot of stuff is happening and my brain at least found it difficult to keep up...and I spend most of every day working with maps so I'm attuned to them. Pity my mother who is just going to get lost.

There's also technical issues and after eradicating most of the imagery rendering problems that caused so many guffaws early on...they are back! And there I was thinking Apple had stolen the idea for hilarious image drapes...seems instead of suing Apple for breach of hilarity, Google have just decided to step back into the game. Let's see how quickly they can work these errors out because it took several years first time round. Take the hybrid 3D for instance and after you've got bast the rendering gaffes, you get inconsistent labelling (2D/3D), labels that appear and disappear behind buildings randomly and overprinted vector detail (particularly roads) that just doesn't match up any more. As one of my former lecturer's might have commented.."it looks like it's been drawn with a bull's c*ck". Probably harsh but they've certainly lost much of the finesse they had seemingly worked hard to build.

The UI has gone from a clean, simple version with intuitive controls to a new design where the default appears to maximize screen space with controls. This is always a fine balance...give people what they need where they need it but try and make it blend into the design. now the tools are dominant. The map recedes. The search box is particularly (unsurprisingly) dominant now the map is nothing more than a canvas for search. Search results are presented on the map in a pseudo-structured way.

That's a brief look at some here's the conceptual...

This is a revolutionary, not evolutionary, map. It's personalized thematic mapping but on an industrial scale. I said before that objectivity in cartography just died and it's been pointed out that many maps owe far more to subjectivity than objectivity. That may be true but it doesn't hold for a well designed map made by a cartographer whose role is to try to get as close to objectivity as possible to serve a defined user group. Nowhere in my cartographic education did anyone tell me to make the map how I want and sod the end user. My job was to make a map based on what I researched the user needs to be; and what those who were going to use the maps told me they needed to use the map for. So have Google killed objective cartography...killed cartography? I guess the argument is they are meeting the needs of each and every one of us (but that only works if the map works...see above). I think there's some really interesting work to be done in developing a framework that does support personalized cartography but I'm not convinced the approach taken with the new Google Maps is it.

This is more of a cartographic's abdicating responsibility to make decisions about map content and leaving it up to algorithms and advertising. So the thematic content is placed according to your Google identity (which for me, apparently, is all about needing to find salvation as my colleague wittingly suggested) and those who pay to promote their business. That isn't personalized's propogandist mapping and now we're into a whole new ball park. I once made a map based entirely on subversive needs. The map was wrong in so many ways but everyone that looked at it thought it was right in so many ways. It did the job it was designed to do but it's possibly the most intentionally incorrect piece of work I've ever made but whomever let the truth get in the way of a good story? It was an experiment in hoodwinking and giving people what they thought they wanted rather than an objective view of the theme being mapped. It was consumed without question. No-one thought to query the reality; they accepted the view I'd presented. In our world of democratized mapping more and more people have the power and scope to make maps to tell whatever stories they want. I've said before that I feel this has led to a deterioration in quality and you really have to search hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is a tougher problem for people who have no reason not to believe the map they are looking at; no reason to question the apparant impartiality of what they are seeing; people who unwittingly consume the map without even considering they could be seeing a wholly subjective view.  There is a real need to encourage people to make maps as objectively as possible so as not to distort the landscape and truth and so we reduce the need for people to mistrust what they consume. They may be altruistic ideals and maybe we're past the point of objectivity in cartography but I still feel they are important guiding principles. Unfortunately, now everyone's favorite map is morphing to tell a whole new slew of lies we may very well have just tipped past the point of return.


Thursday 16 May 2013

The new cartography of Google Maps

There's already a lot of comment on the interwebs about the new Google maps redesign. Here's a few of my own thoughts...

I like the new design. Yes, it shares many design cues from Apple's own maps but at least Google have the content to back it up. With so many players in the map-making market, maps will always begin to morph to what fashion is dictating. Why would any company make a map that jolts its users (customers) too much? The fashion is for clean, simple, uncluttered cartography with soft colours and minimalist symbology. Hmm...they are all basic cartographic principles; it's amazing it's taken so many companies this long to figure it out!

The big news is that Google have been the first to jump with their move towards personalized cartography. A map on your device that knows who you are, what you like and populates it accordingly. Based on all of the lovely personal details it captures on your movement, shopping habits, searches and who knows what else your map will show what you want, where you want it. The map will no doubt contain basic features but the thematic content will change. My map will no doubt show every football stadium (but I bet it shows American football stadiums in the US rather than soccer) and based on my recent needs, painters and decorators. So it'll be useless to me. Maps have always been based on decisions made by a cartographer and to an extent they all suffer in the sense that they are disconnected from the person who uses it. However, we used to have different maps for different purposes, designed for that purpose. Now we have one map, designed to cover every eventuality. It's impossible to make that work for everyone so the idea of tailoring it to individuals is at first sight a good one. But...what role does that leave for the cartographer? Maps now based on algorithms from searches doesn't strike me as the best way to make sensible choices about what to include and exclude on a map...because most people will make highly subjective choices; and most people's mental maps of the world, manifest through the stored searches and habits that Google will now use to build that picture, are actually pretty poor.

That is why cartography is important. The role of the cartographer is to figure things out to make a map that suits a purpose. Left to machines that build individual maps is potentially going to leave us with so many poor maps of the world it'll end up being impossible to make any sense of it. I'm due to visit Dresden, Germany, later in the year for the International Cartographic Conference. Do I really want the map to show me all the things that I use routinely around my home town? No...I use places differently. I will not want to know where the painters and decorators are. I want to see a map made by a cartographer for someone to use AS a search tool, rather than present the results of aspatial searches transposed to a new space altogether. I want to be able to explore; possibly serendipitously. I want the map to guide me, yes, but I want to be able to discover things that perhaps I never even knew about or had the knowledge or foresight to have somehow imbued my Google profile with ahead of my visit.

Where will borders be placed? Where I want them or where I perceive they exist? Will I see Starbucks everywhere (as one of my colleagues mentioned) or will I see small local independent coffee shops that might expand my coffee universe? Do I want to be constrained to my view of the world or do I want to see the world? Ultimately, I know where I live better than Google. My mental map is accurate already and I don't need it to go through Google's filters to make me that map. Elsewhere? I want to see that place objectively, not through some homogenized filter that makes it look like everywhere else I know. For that I'll consult a reputable, authoritative map made by a cartographer or company I trust to do the job properly.

Maps have always had the potential to lie and its true there are many poor maps that just don't support any meaningful use. But isn't that the problem? For many years maps have slowly become mainstream and lacked cartographic control or input. But rather than try to fix the problem by giving each of us our own narrow view of the world that will simply serve to narrow our outlook even further, why not just work harder to make good maps.

So the map is made for me is it? Well, I'm a cartographer and I can tell you now...the map Google is going to serve for me will not contain what I want. I don't want it based on how I use their other services. I certainly don't want it populated with ads. Let's not forget that Google are an advertising company and realizing that maps are a great way of getting stuff in front of people is their ticket to sales and revenue.

The landscape is changing rapidly and I admire Google for giving this a go. If it weren't for what they released on February 8th 2005 we'd not have seen such ground-breaking change and such a mapping revolution. This may well be another case of disruptive change that pays off (for them) but I'm not yet convinced. Democratized cartography is one thing but there's an old adage about people not knowing what is good for them so basing a map on only what people have shared about themselves consciously or unwittingly is fraught with potential pitfalls. I support good cartography and maps made by people who know what they are doing. Yes, some are bad and some lie but having millions of different maps that all lie in multifarious ways doesn't seem to me to solve any cartographic problem. It seems to me to be mapping for the lowest common denominator. Google have gone from a one map fits all approach to mapping for individuals. I'm of the view that somewhere in the middle is about right...and that's the art of cartography!

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Slip, slide, pan and zoom...web map interactivity

I've just finished creating a dasymetric dot density map of the 2012 Presidential election results. It's available as an interactive multiscale web map on ArcGIS Online that goes from 1:18m (where 1 dot = 1000 votes) to 1:36k (1 dot = 10 votes) which can be seen below:


I also made a 1:1,000,000 version of the large scale data showing 35 million dots for a huge wall map so I thought I'd use Microsoft's ZoomIt to create, well, a zoomed version which is here:

And the version at HugePic presents the work in much the same way (though you can get metrics there). The interesting thing here is the different types of useability. For the multiscale web map, each zoom level shows re-classified data so you get incrementally more dots as you move through the scales and you can click on the map to reveal data; but of course you don't ever get the impact of all the data at once. Conversely, the large wall map sacrifices some of the background detail but you can see the data at once (when it's on the wall). Every dot on a singel map but the zoomIt controls still allow you some element of interactivity to slip and slide across and within the map. If you have a view on which approach you prefer, add a comment and let me know.