Wednesday 28 December 2016

Favourite maps from 2016

2016 hasn't been the best year. Tinged with the sadness of so many iconic people checking out before having to face the political turmoil ahead, the number of 'best maps of the year' blogs has also diminished. Greg Miller has already posted his Best Maps of 2016 on the National Geographic blog and we share quite a few in common. Is that consensus? Or possibly the cream of the crop are that much more distinct from the rest? What of others? Is blogging really dead because no-one wants to read anything beyond 140 characters any more? I'll just put these here to log my personal favourites from the year.

I wrote last year that I felt the quality of cartography was improving and I see a shift in the balance in quantity of poor maps vs good maps. I think the pace of that shift may have slowed a little but it's still on course. As people's recognition of weak maps becomes more atuned; and their tolerance for meager offerings becomes lessened, it's harder to throw something into the ether and make it stick. That translates to the map-making process where greater care is taken not only in the analysis and accuracy of the data but also the artistic representation. Whether digital or hand drawn, there's certainly more aesthetically pleasing maps being made.

So, in no particular order here's some of my favourites:

The Two Americas by Tim Wallace at New York Times
The Presidential election brought out numerous thematic maps but Tim Wallace stole the show by transforming the electoral geographies into two pseudo imaginary landscapes complete with new labels. They're really just red and blue maps, one for Trump and one for Clinton, each showing the territory of the two candidate's winning counties but it shows how a cartographic imagination can transform a map into something completely new.

A traditional shanshui Japanese painting produced computationally. A beautiful piece of work that demonstrates how cartographies of the past can be re-imagined using modern workflows to go beyond what we think is possible. It's based on building height data for Manhattan Island. Stick it on the wall....that's all!

I continue to be impressed by the work of Mike Hall. This is a work in progress for a private client but shows how working in only two-colours can be so sweet! Mike has also done some great single colour retro maps this year which are also worth a mention,

It's not even finished yet but this is a stunning large format hand drawn pictorial map. The detail is exquisite. It's painstaking work but the result is pure cartographic gold. I love the way Anton drew in the labels first then fitted the detail in around those key items - the reverse of how many make maps.

Transportation Clusters by Martin Grandjean
A force-directed layout of the airline transport infrastructure. If the geography doesn't work to display the data, make the data work to display the geography. It makes much more sense to escape the grip of real geographies for so many datasets and this example works well. The colours and layout add to the overall composition.

Attention all Shipping by Jane Tomlinson
How do you make the BBC shipping forecast visually interesting? Paint it! The British obsession with weather is encapsulated with the daily shipping forecast and the strangely named areas at sea which it references. Tomlinson refers to it as visual poetry which may even be a new form of cartographic sub-genre. Either way, a beautiful map of an otherwise mundane subject.

Hiking in the Grand Canyon by Charles Preppernau at National Geographic
Scrolly story maps have become popular this year. This example is perhaps the pinnacle of the genre, skillfully merging fantastic photography, video, text and other multimedia components with superb cartography. But it doesn't end there. The maps are windows and they're used creatively with transitions, pans, zooms and fades that bring focus. The changing of the map's base to show winter snowfall is genius.

Paths of Amity by Andrew DeGraff
I'm not even sure Andrew drew this one in 2016 but I came across his work in 2016 and it's stunning. His movie maps series plots the paths of the key actors and story for different films. I picked his Jaws map here but, equally his maps of Star Wars and others are just as good. He builds the film's locations as a single uninterrupted backdrop then plots colour-coded lines throughout the map. Simple idea, beautifully drawn. More here.

Here There be Robots by Eleanor Lutz
There were several maps of Mars in 2016 but, for me, this hand drawn map was the best. It has an antique quality with clever use of colour and, in particular, the relief depiction. Colours change as the relief changes at key contour lines which makes it appear a little like a carved woodcut. The various adornments such as the measured graticule, rhumb lines and hand-written style fonts add to the effect.

The national maps of Switzerland have always been at the pinnacle of national map agency cartography. Swisstopo have updated their topographic map series and they've somehow managed to improved on them. Clarity, composition, colour, typography and beautiful landform representation work in perfect harmony at each scale and acrsoss the scales. There's a splash more colour and a little more sans serif but they're unmistakably Swiss.

FaVVEs by Roger Beecham et al.
Small multiples are a great way to juxtapose different aspects of a related dataset. Here, the idea has been developed to show faceted views - multiple perspective small multiples that allow more than one variable to be viewed concurrently. Symbol and cognitive overload are often the cartographic enemy but this research shows that it is possible to develop new ways of seeing that make sense, work well and look good!

There weren't any valleys as promised in the map's title but the one thing I liked about this map was how they rotated the map so east to west was top to bottom. It works better that way on a scrolly story map layout. A neat way to modify how the map is presented given the form it is likely to be viewed in.

Five+Years of Drought by John Nelson
A bivariate map showing the relationship between severity of drought conditions and length of sustained drought using bold but stunning colour choices. All of the context to the map sits (nearly) on one subdued visual plane with text, linework and labels almost apologetically fading away to create contrast with the main theme and force you towards it. Clever symbology and subtle topography.

Mapping the Shadows of New York City by Quoctrung Bui et al. at New York Times
Simple idea. Beautifully executed. But this isn't just a computational exercise - it's an interactive map that gives you a tool tip showing the amount of day in shadow for different seasons as you pan across the map. Monochrome backdrop and good use of a single colour for the shadow detail which differs by season.

There's plenty of other great maps I could have included but then it becomes a comprehensive list rather than my personal highlights.

Finally - let's have a brief roll call for some of the carto crap out there...The stuff that would make you laugh if it didn't make you cry. There really is far too much to mention but here are some delightful examples presented as small as I can to avoid personal injury:

My eyes...

Because no-one fact-checks any more anyway...

And sometimes you don't even know what the map is even trying to show (it's the election!!!)...

Generalisation is a core cartographic technique but you can go a bit far (with only 931 responses)...

And there's also problems when you zoom out a little too far...

Rainbow hurricanes...

Extreme heat - the obligatory annual entry from the meteorological community...

That's it. Happy New Year!!!

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Can't see the wood for the trees

The Mayor of London's office recently published the London Tree Map. Like other similar maps of major cities (e.g. New York, Melbourne) it 'suggests' by its very existence that it's a map of every tree on the streets of the city.
(Click to open the actual map in a new window)

The map looks decent enough and I was compelled to head to the London Datastore to take a look at the data myself to see if there was value in playing with it.

The main map page is clear to say the map is 'an initial attempt' to present the tree data but when you dig into the small print, in fact there exists a number of issues including:

  • incomplete coverage from different Boroughs
  • surveyed dates are unknown and likely prior to the date specified
  • no agreed or consistent framework for the data collected
  • lack of naming conventions for recording species

The data represents an uncoordinated set of efforts to collect information. I'm fine with that; and also that they are highlighting these drawbacks. But, how many people are going to go beyond the map and dig into the veracity of the data? As with most (all?) maps, this one lies but this one tells huge porkies! With an estimated 8 million trees in London, this is likely only 10% and the data is so fraught with possible error it makes even this 10% questionable.

Publicising such a map leads to misinformation. It's duplicitous by the very act of it being published though I am in no way suggesting those behind it did so intentionally.

A couple of the geo-twitterati thought I was being overly harsh, suggesting "it's a good start", "it's better than no map at all", "it's just an attempt", and "I've seen worse", I don't disagree with these sentiments (and yes, there are way worse maps on the interwebs) but these sort of comments gloss over my general point. Whatever you put on the internet becomes THE view of reality regardless of the quality of the data. In this sense, this map becomes THE view of the pattern of trees in London. There's no getting away from that reality and it does the subject matter a disservice in my opinion.

My suggestion is simple. If you have access to data like this, be careful and seriously consider not mapping it until you've dealt with the errors and inconsistencies. I appreciate that one of the first acts when you have data is to stick it on a map but sometimes restraint is the better path.

All of the same points about raising awareness and issuing a call to action for a framework for consistent and thorough data collection can be made without making a map that lies so badly. At least the unsuspecting public won't get fooled quite so much,

Tuesday 1 November 2016

The NYT election map

It's election time in the US. It has been for well over a year (which is madness in itself) but we're down to the wire now with only a week to go before polling in what must be one of the most hate-fueled, vitriolic contests ever. Lies and misinformation have taken centre-stage but the sad truth is there are people (people who vote) who are easily taken in by lies and misinformation. They are sold it as a version of the 'truth' they can relate to and in which they wholeheartedly believe. And so that's how propaganda becomes reality and how candidates gain disciples. It's often the same with maps because they too sell a version of the truth.

We're arguably on the cusp of something far more important than worrying about a map in a newspaper but to my mind, at least, today's HUGE map in the New York Times warrants some cartonerd attention.

It is a truly magnificent piece of work. Large format. Eye-catching. Detailed. The US is a big country so if you want to show 30,000+ zip codes you better make your map big. I am a huge admirer of the New York Times graphics team and their cartographic work but this map, I'm afraid, contributes to the misinformation that has become so toxic this election season. Let's not worry about the periphery because it's the main map that takes centre-stage. It's that image which is defining and the impression that people see.

So what do they see? RED...lots of red. Any map that attempts to summarise a sparsely populated data set into a surface that exhausts space will mislead. It's inevitable. And with the USA, with a very heterogenous population distribution and vast swathes of land with barely a single rattlesnake of voting age it's a problem that is accentuated. The map uses Zip Code Tabulation Areas instead of counties, voting precincts or other geographies. There are problems with how ZCTAs mis-shapes the view but, frankly, any arbitrary boundaries have the same problems - the Modifiable Areal Unit Problem - statistical (and ultimately visual) bias that results with how you aggregate data into areas. The geography is what it is...but rather than perpetuate visually incongruous issues it's beholden on map-makers to deal with it.

For the last few years in my day job I've given a workshop at the Esri International User Conference that takes a single dataset of the 2012 election results and explores a range of about 20 different ways to present the very same data - each of which tells a very different story. Some of the maps can clearly be used to portray a particular dimension of the result and some can be used in deplorable ways (pun intended). Some reveal detail. Some mask it. Some show red. Some blue. You can see the full range of maps here if you're interested. The point of the session is to open people's eyes to the inherent biases that maps contain. What surprises me year on year is that an audience of people heavily invested in geo are equally surprised at the problems we explore. I guess it's to be expected - not every geo-expert is going to be a cartographic expert and they come to the session to learn and that's a great thing. But they are merely a small fraction of the population. The vast majority have no access to this sort of education. More than that - they have no idea they might even benefit from it or that there's a problem with how they read the maps they are served.

It's really a much bigger problem of geographical illiteracy and the lack of the basic need to view maps and graphics critically. With all these much larger issues it therefore becomes crucial for media organisations and those involved in communicating information to be cognisant of the limitations of the consumer. It's not really their fault - we're all born that way and we have a natural tendency to believe what we see, especially if it comes from a so-called reputable, impartial source. Maps should portray reality in a way that deals with the biases people inevitably see - to counter them rather than feed them. You only have to read the comments in reply to the NYT tweet to see how the map has been viewed and interpreted.

The problem with this New York Times map is the country itself which, admittedly, there isn't much they can do about but they could deal with the problem using different maps.  The size of the areas used to summarise the data are unequal. Some are therefore more visually prominent than others. Republicans hold on to large swathes of centrally located territory. Democrats get a shed-load of votes from the smaller, peripheral northeast. Additionally, they contain very different numbers of people so population density is unequal across the map - yet in terms of the symbology, each area is treated the same.

So you end up with large swathes of sparsely populated large areas in the mid-west being seen prominently and very small, densely populated areas on the coasts being seen much less prominently. The problem is compounded by two other factors - colour and focus. Red for republican is a colour that is seen more brightly than blue for Democrat. It is cognitively processed as 'more important'. Our eyes also naturally tend towards the centre of an image and a map on first inspection - so that's our initial focus. this all adds up to one massively misleading picture of the political geography of the USA. It screams REPUBLICAN which given Trump's persistent comments about the corrupt media is either an attempt for NYT to redress the balance or the Russians are to blame. And yellow for the marginal areas? I understand the desire for a neutral colour but in a generally two-horse race (mule, elephant, whatever) adding in other colours paints a different picture as well.

It can be different as these following maps of the 2012 election results, mapped by county, show. Using a value-by-alpha approach that overlays a layer of population density that is symbolised so that sparsely populated areas are more opaque will modify the image. It tunes out sparsely populated areas and brings a little focus to the areas with more people (more voters). All that deep red on the NYT version has now gone. Focus is shifted.

A cartogram does a similar job but by changing the shape of the areas - either warping them in relation to population density (e.g. a population equalising cartogram) or by giving each unit area the same shape (e.g. a hexagon grid). Yes, these are abstract and there's sometimes a challenge understanding the geography but they deal with the problems.

There's even the simple, yet effective, proportional symbol map that often gets overlooked. Symbol overlaps are often hard to reconcile but the symbol sizes do a good job of showing where there is more and where there is less as well as encoding the different colours.

Finally in this small selection of the myriad of alternatives, a dasymetric technique which uses a secondary layer of data into which you can reapportion the data can also show a more accurate distribution of information (e.g. dasymetric dot density) though, of course, any map of population data presented in this way will take on a similar appearance because, well, that's where people live!

Ultimately, there are dozens of different ways that the map can be made. None are 'right' and none are 'wrong' but they all tell different versions of the truth. This isn't cartographic pedantry. It's an important issue because it plays to people's views, opinions and search for the truth. My point here, is that maps can be extremely dangerous graphic tools. The NYT have, in my opinion, contributed to the misinformation that has enveloped this election by publishing this map in the form they chose. It presents a version of the truth that suits a particular view of reality. It is biased and dangerous. It's also too late because it's out there now and is simply just another piece of rhetoric people can use to support their own version of the facts.

By the way, I don't get to vote in the US election but I have lived and worked in the US for 5 years and call it home. yourselves a favour and go vote. You only have to look at what happened in the UK a few months ago where the vote was to leave Europe...a vote massively impacted because many people failed to turn out to vote who would otherwise have voted not to leave. You can't vote by liking or re-tweeting. Whatever the map says to you...just go and vote and help redraw the one you want.

UPDATE: Since writing this less than an hour ago the Washington Post has published a very well-timed piece entitled Election maps are telling you big lies about small things. They've been advocating cartograms based on one area per electoral college vote which I like. It retains a State-based appearance (which isn't as difficult to read as the population equalising versions) while doing a good job of presenting a visually balanced view of the data. I encourage you to read.

UPDATE 2: And now a good review of past approaches from NYT here. A rebuttal of the criticism they've faced? Maybe. They try and frame the big map as an attempt to look at the way physical geography impacts political patterns. That's a very nuanced way to explore the distribution of voting and I'd still argue that most who read the map will take away one message...more red = more Republican. Seven days out from the election is not the time to be playing with people's inherent perceptual and cognitive bias.

Monday 3 October 2016

Brewdog: Stick to the Beer

I've written about non-normalized choropleths before (e.g. here and here and here) but when one of my favourite breweries makes the mistake I feel compelled to mention it again.

Brewdog are setting up in the USA. This is a good thing because their beer is spectacularly good. I have become an investor in their USA Equity for Punks campaign to support their efforts. But they need a cartographer because their maps are spectacularly bad.  They've been running this map showing how investors are spread across the US.

Clearly they're mapping totals as a choropleth which as most who know me will know gets me really rather upset. I mentioned this to Brewdog but their reply suggest (a) they don't get it and (b) they don't care.

Yes, I get that it's a bit of a fun but that's not actually a good excuse for making a crap map.  I could make some shitty home brew just for fun as well but what's the point of that? I'd rather try and do the job right and make something that tastes good. They've also used a poor blue to red colour scheme but that's a different argument. Anyway, I have offered to help them correct it so just because I can, here's a couple of efforts whipped up in less than an hour.

Here's the (incorrect) totals version as a choropleth in Punk IPA colours:

And here's the same data of the number of investors, normalized by the number of people over 21 (drinking age) in each State to create a 'Punks per Million' map. I guessed on roughly what the data might be from their original map:

Compare thee two maps. You see - because the population of each state differs massively and the size of States differs massively, using totals inevitably skews the map numerically and visually and you get a warped sense of reality. Texas will always come out as a lot. Montana always not. But actually, as a proportion of the population, there are more Punk investors in Montana than Texas. Ohio still gets shown as having the most investors because they have a lot (as totals) and as a proportion of their population and that's where the new brewery is. But California isn't a stand-out because it has roughly the same Punks per million as Oregon and even Wyoming.

Still want to map totals? Well use a proportional symbol map:

There you go - now you can clearly see the huge difference in the pattern of investment between states. And if you want to Punk out the map...well go right ahead:

And yes, I used the same bottletop technique on this quick map as I did on the much larger Breweries of the World map which, if you want a copy, can be downloaded here.

So, Brewdog. I like your beer a lot. You take great care to make it right. I like maps a lot and I take great care to make them right. You stick to brewing and I'll keep drinking your beer. I'll stick to making maps. If you want some help with the maps, just drop me a line.

Wednesday 20 July 2016

Taste the rainbow - third helpings

If I'm going to have a carto-argument I may as well have it with the President of the United States.

Today, President Obama used this tweet to encourage us to be aware of rising temperatures and the need to stay safe and watch out for others. I have no qualms with the intent but as you'll appreciate, the cartonerd in me got quite irked by the leading statement.

"This map says it all". Well despite rainbow colour schemes being used to death to map anything and despite people preferring their own facts and telling me everyone understands the scheme I resolutely beg to differ.

I wrote about this problem several times before herehere and here. And so have others here, here and here. Rainbow colour schemes do not work well for numerical data where the analytical task is to determine what is higher and what is lower across the map.

Put simply, our brains do not process colour (strictly speaking hue) in a way that tells us a quantitative difference between them. Different hues (yellow, red, blue etc) work very well for showing qualitative differences on a map. Single hues, that vary from light to dark, or even a dichromatic scheme that blends a couple of colours do a much better job at encoding a quantitative difference.

In the map above, there's no logical consistency in the brightness of the colours. Some stand out more than others. Magenta is arguably the colour we see as the brightest yet there's a sort of light cream colour in there that actually means 'more'...and that's before we get to yellow. Yellow is not 40 degrees hotter than cyan on the spectrum either. Rainbow schemes are not perceptually uniform, they modify meaning beyond what the data supports and create visually false boundaries. You could also easily reverse the scheme and it'd make just as much sense.

The argument that people understand it is borne out of the simple fact they see them every day so they believe they understand them. They're conditioned to them. It's called brainwashing. I get it, We're all liable to a bit of brainwashing from time to time and just because you relate hot with red and cold with blue then it's all good OK?

Well no...because on this map yellow, magenta, a light pink and burgundy is hotter than red which happens to be in the middle of the spectrum. And how hot is green exactly? I've never been green-hot. I would still argue vehemently that without a legend these sort of maps are harder to interpret than they need to be.

Given in every other aspect of life people seem to want the easiest, laziest path of least resistance to something, why they force their brains to interpret rainbows baffles me. More so, the arrogance of constantly using your own facts to contradict cognitive science just shows a complete unwillingness to accept a better way. Hell, rainbow palettes aren't even 508c compliant!

End rainbows! #endtherainbow

Saturday 16 July 2016

Chip paper silly season

It's likely most will have already forgotten that a few days ago the Wall Street Journal published a short article on Null Island. After all, today's news is tomorrows fish n' chip wrapping.

A couple of months ago a journalist contacted me wanting to chat about this mythical place he'd heard of. I agreed. It was supposed to be background for the piece he was writing but I made it clear I was not qualified to be regarded in any way as an expert or even protagonist for the rise of the Republic of Null Island. We spent well over an hour chatting about basics of cartography, maps and such like. We got into coordinate systems, datums, map projections and so on.

I never got to see a draft of the article but there it was, front page of the Wall Street Journal. In some ways it was a nice piece for a general audience but tucked away was this fantastic quote I'd apparently made: “There is a lot of terrible-terrible-terrible math involved,”. Did I say that?

To be honest I can't recall but the conversation was about the need for different local coordinate systems and because the earth was a geoid (I never said lumpy egg-shape) that involved maths to make flat maps. I am liable to the odd quip but I can't recall saying 'terrible' three times. Maybe I did, but the point I was making was that making maps involves maths and it can get rather complicated whereas the article juxtaposed that alleged quote with something unrelated to what we'd discussed.

By the way, that's maths with an 's' because I speak English English, not American English. I entirely understand the s being dropped as it's a U.S. publication but it did cause amusement among a good number of my geo-pals.

The paragraph then went on to label me a 'Senior Cartographer'. Umm - nope. No such job title at the place I work. The full title of my employer was written out (despite it hardly ever being used these days to my knowledge) and then another alleged quote was appended: “Every part of the planet differs from every other part and that is why we have all these different maps.” shit Sherlock! Again, I was actually referring to different coordinate systems as context for that but clearly that was deemed irrelevant.

So what's the problem? Ultimately it's just a media piece. My grand contribution boiled down to two pretty pathetic alleged quotes in an otherwise decent piece.

The bigger problem lies in the fact that so many journalists these days seem hell bent on taking information they gather from numerous sources (often Wikipedia, organisation web sites and LinkedIn) and just pasting it together in a way that they think makes sense. Context is lost. quotes appear uninformed and vapid. And in only a few lines the article managed to make me sound daft, give me a different job, include my employer's details (despite this having nothing to do with my employer) and dumb down the conversation we had to a banal au jus. This has consequences. I get a good ribbing and some eyebrows are raised. For the reader, they take away something only half-formed and that can then propagate. I guess this has always been the case with news media. It's not the first time I've been involved in a piece that ended up less than impressive.

Thankfully I did urge the guy to contact Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso which he obviously did and it can't be a bad thing that he and others get recognition.

And just as I thought things had died down someone on social media posted a link to the article clearly suggesting that I had said Null Island was "a place for people who can't use maps". I never said that. Neither did the article.

Lightweight reportage followed by Chinese whispers (that's the 'telephone game' for U.S. readers).

Silly season has arrived. Anyone fancy a chip?

Friday 22 April 2016

Cartographic Cost of Open

The recent retirement of Kobe Bryant of the LA Lakers had the LA Times reveal a beautiful map of every shot he ever took - all 30,699 of them. It's a lovely piece of large scale mapping that sits at the intersecton of data art and information graphics. You really should see the live interactive map here because the screengrab below doesn't do it justice. That said, I'm sure you'll already have seen it. The LA Times also gave us a great 'how did we do it'.

My good friend Mike Gould this morning posted this:
My thoughts on this congealed over breakfast, spurred on by a twitter conversation I followed in the wake of the LA Times map on Bryant's shots. Mike's right in many respects - he's alluding to the idea that it's getting a little tedious seeing so many so-called re-inventions of maps.

You see, this sort of shot chart/map has been done before, most notably by Kirk Goldsberry who also mapped Bryant's shots back in 2013.

Plotting data points on a map is not a new phenomena that began with Kobe Bryant shot data but a few people pointed out the similarity between the LA Times version and Goldsberry's. There's no getting away from the fact they do look similar but - same dataset (although LA Times is more up-to-date), same court structure (hard to get away from though LA Times flipped the court) and same colours...well, any self respecting map-maker would inevitably use the Lakers' purple and gold colour scheme in their overall design.

So what? To my mind there's no copyright or Intellectual Property Right on a mapping technique. Yes, there's a lot of copyright associated with cartographic brands - because the style of a map or a map series often goes hand-in-hand with a long-term objective for brand recognition. Think of any major mapping agency such as SwissTopo, National Geographic, Ordnance Survey. Think London Underground. Think New York Times graphics. They are all very protective of their brand which is really just a function of the very particular style they have designed and honed over many years. Yet many other people use the same mapping data and make maps of the same places that all these mapping organisations do. That's what's happened in this era of open data. Mapping data has become democratised, often emancipated and made available to everyone, not just the big cartographic and media guns. Further, data feeds and all sorts of interesting datasets (like basketball shots by individual) are made available for free or at low cost. It brings tremendous access to the data and inevitably, a clamor to map it. It's therefore inevitable that similar designs will emerge.

But c'mon - the fact that one person makes a map of the data and then someone else does really shouldn't get people so upset because you can't have it both ways. All this free and open data does not come with a disclaimer that:

1. If you are the first to make a map with it you win and no-one else can
2. If you settle on a design that riffs off others then sure, give them a nod, but it's not obligatory

Importantly, you should probably be aware that you probably weren't the first anyway. The same thing has happened with the NYC taxi cab data. There are plenty of people doing very similar things. That's the cartographic price of open. We're getting a lot of maps shouting and competing for attention, all clamoring to be seen as original, distinct and the best.

This presents real tensions. I often get asked if you can create a particular map using Esri software and the answer is almost always yes BUT...and it's a big but...if another mapping company has an example of that type or style already (or someone who is a proponent of an alternative mapping platform has made one) then if I go and make one that looks similar guess who gets slated? For instance - making stacked chips on a map is neither new or difficult. Erwin Raisz was doing it by hand in the mid 1900s for example. I had a good friend make one in our University project atlass in 1991. If I go and make one now I don't get accused of copying Raisz...I get accused of copying a more recent viral version. This mindset of attributing originality and intellectual property to only recent versions of techniques is baffling and damaging. The fact you can use any number of different pieces of software to deploy a particular mapping technique is a good thing but please don't see that technique as belonging to one person or organisation over another.

I've had similar experiences in the past and, again, recently. I'd been playing with the Mars MOLA elevation data as a bit of a side project and then Chris Wesson drops his very elegant map - in the style of an Ordnance Survey map sheet. Now, Chris works at Ordnance Survey so he's entitled to use that design and it's an interesting take on how to process the data. Then Eleanor Lutz published a lovely hand-drawn map of part of Mars herself. And what of my map of Mars? - well, was I relegated to the third person to get their Mars map out? It depends when your starting point is.

Maps of Mars have been made ever since Giovanni Schiaparelli had a go in 1880. USGS has been publishing topographic maps of Mars for decades. Do a quick Google search for maps of Mars and you'll see that neither Chris, Eleanor or myself were the first though, to be fair, none of us has claimed to be. We just used the same data, did something different and hey presto - three more maps of Mars.

The crux is that if the data exists, people will map it. We really should stop being so precious about one map over another because if truth be told, pretty much nothing is actually that original any more. It's true that some maps bubble up and become internet stars and they are often seen as the version that people see as definitive. But it doesn't and shouldn't stop people from using the same data and even using some of the same ideas. Let me be clear - blatant rip-offs do exist and should be pointed out as such but there's often a fine line as I personally feel the LA Times map illustrates. Organisations and individuals have also developed very specific styles and these too should be seen as something worth protecting. But why would LA Times use triangles for the symbols and colour them in red? Makes no sense. It'd make a crap map. As long as they use circles and purple they run the risk of getting accused of some level of plagiarism.

Cartographic techniques are not copyrighted. I never see anyone reference Baron Pierre Charles Dupin in the footnotes of their choropleth maps, or countless weather map organisations as inspiration for the hideous rainbow colour palettes that seem to have become de facto in mapping weather. So - the LA Times need not reference Goldsberry's work or, indeed, John Snow as an early example of mapping discrete events in space using single symbols to see a pattern emerge (and that's not including the use of dots in demographic mapping going back to the early 1800s).

My data has brought a wealth of new maps to the canon. They build off the legacy of many that have gone before but hardly any are truly unique. If we are happy to support the notion that we want open data and open access to data we have to also be happy with the notion that cartographic techniques and their use are also to use and (as we often see), open to abuse.

Now go and search Google for Kobe Bryant shot'll see plenty more and also a load of hex-binned versions and so-called heat maps to boot. That's another story.

Finally - just a heads up...If I can find time, I'm going to try and make a map of some aspect of England's 1966 World Cup win as it's the 50th anniversary in July this year. I'm quite sure no-one else knows of this and no-one will either be thinking of making a map or of using the same data.

Tuesday 12 April 2016


I had the pleasure of working with Mamata Akella when I first started at Esri. Mamata went on to work for the National Park Service and is now at CartoDB where she seems able to flex her design wings with thematics. This is fertile space in mapping in general and it seems never a week goes by without someone re-inventing a thematic mapping technique, occasionally with a new twist. Mamata's latest map caught my attention.

In response to her call for comments I hope she won't mind me using this blog as a space in which to offer my opinion and insight so here's a critique of the map above.

It's visually arresting. It's one of those maps you immediately stop and look at so it does a great job of getting people to pause and spend some time with it. That's probably the point so it's already done it's job. Because it lacks a title or any popups or marginalia one quickly gets lost though. As Mamata explains, it's a test and, no doubt, not designed to be used as a fully fleshed out project but it would be useful to include the basics.

It's the 2012 US election data. A well worn dataset that's just about exhausted most techniques. I spent some time with it myself a couple of years ago creating a gallery of various thematic map types. But with the 2016 election on the horizon many will be experimenting with new or modified techniques to prepare for that mapping extravaganza (me too...but you'll have to wait for that).

So what's going on in this map? Mamata calls it a 'modified cartogram'. Symbol size is total vote. Colour is the winner (red=republican, blue=democrat). Units are counties.

First off - I like the appearance and I like that it's in an equal area projection (Albers). It's eye-catching and somewhat different. I then quickly get uncomfortable with the function and how the data processing encodes meaning. Clearly the real geographic boundaries have been processed. My sense is a regular grid of rectangles has been used in which to bin the counties that fall within. That explains the regular grid and also the irregular number of symbols per location.

Geographical boundaries have been replaced by an abstract geography. It's referred to as a cartogram, likely because of this abstraction but a cartogram it is not. Cartograms distort space but they don't aggregate in an irregular fashion. Think Gastner-Newman, Dorling, Demers or a basic non-contiguous cartogram which all treat geography in different ways but which do not apply a binning technique as an interim step. Further, cartograms don't have overlaps. Mamata's symbols do overlap. It's therefore difficult to know how many counties are represented by each location and it's difficult to ascertain the distortion of the underlying geography which will inevitably be greater in areas with larger numbers of smaller counties. It's adding in a visual complexity that isn't necessary even though it gives a neat (as in regular - pleasing to the eye) looking final appearance.

I don't particularly like the way transparent overlaps on the symbols yield overlaps with darker shades - to me that visually implies 'more' yet is purely an artifact of symbol size bleeding into an adjacent symbol and not necessarily a function of geography at that place or overlapping geographies. Of course, when we're talking about mixing blues and reds it gets even more difficult to visually disentangle. That''s not a problem simply on this map though. I wrote about it before in regard to proportional symbol maps.

So it's a gridded proportional symbol map? Looks that way. Are symbols stacked? Possibly - in which case a lot of colour is missing due to occluded symbols which changes the ratio of blue:red colour across the map as a whole. If the data is really represented as rings then OK, we're seeing everything but it's also hard to determine why some symbols have more transparency applied than others (strength of vote?).

There's no labels which makes it difficult to describe the pattern verbally and causes even more problems if you don't actually know this is the USA. When you zoom in, the map refreshes with some very big changes in symbol size and larger white spaces so the structure we see for the whole is lost. This makes it hard to retain a mental image of pattern at one scale and compare it to that at another and we very quickly lose where we are on the map.

If it's a proportional symbol map then why not just use geography, even if you discount the boundaries and make a proportional symbol map?

I'll tell you why - they just ain't sexy enough in today's modern mapping landscape. So that's why Mamata experiments. It's why I experiment too. Sometimes we hit, sometimes we miss in our search for something just a little bit unique to develop cartography and showcase the tools and technology of our trade.

For my money this is a miss. I like the look but I think it complicates the subject matter and confuses the cognitive process of understanding the patterns in the data. For me, form should never outperform function. Cartography really is, at its very essence, that art and science of marrying form and function in harmony. You've got to get both right to make a good map.

Back to it being a cartogram - no. It isn't. But maybe Mamata's created a grid-O-gram?

Update: Inevitably, whenever I do one of these critiques I get called out for it being on a map made by someone who works somewhere that I don't. First, Mamata asked for comments. Second, I couldn't care less where she works and this IS NOT about the tech she used. None of my critiques are about the tech. It's about the cartography. Sure, tech affords opportunities or constraints but I don't care one bit about who uses what. This is not about scoring points. I don't publicly critique maps made by colleagues at the place I work because there are better mechanisms for me to use to try and effect change from within. And surely, if anyone thinks it's a good idea openly calling out your employer and those who you work with, you must work in an incredibly forgiving place. I do call co-workers maps out all the time using appropriate avenues. They critique mine too...often in very stark terms. Critique is good. Using different mechanisms to get the job done is important for cartography whomever you work for. So - don't get irate just because Mamata and I work at different companies. It's irrelevant. And yes, many maps I see made by friends, colleagues or whomever are truly awful and I tell them that. Silence in a public space can often be deafening.

Friday 25 March 2016

Kindergarten Kartography

Over the years I’ve seen many changes in learning in the realm of cartography. I’m going to use this blog post to reflect on those changes and offer some thoughts on the current state of education in cartography as I see it or, more specifically, how it's become monopolized by people with very little cartographic education of their own to speak of.

Many of us in the geo or cartography business, whatever we do, can point to a love of maps in our school-age years. Struggling for motivation to do something else, I took my own love of maps to what I saw as a more serious step by taking a formal qualification when I studied it for a Bachelor’s degree. I had in mind that I wanted to be involved with maps as a career of some sort and getting an education in them was a key component to becoming proficient and, well, qualified!

My degree course was a very vocationally designed course because it had served as an entry point to the UK cartographic industry for decades. A lot of it was practical but the practical techniques were nothing without the theoretical and conceptual understanding we were taught alongside. Of course, history now shows that many of the techniques I learnt (scribing, photo-mechanical production etc) are long gone and if truth were told, the course was probably lagging behind the technology at the time as computers were replacing many functions of the cartographic process. This is a fairly typical scenario as University courses still struggle to keep pace with the rapid evolution of technology.

As I graduated, the UK cartographic industry was rapidly shrinking as GIS exploded onto the landscape. But while the technology has changed profoundly, many of those key ideas, concepts, theories and abilities to critically evaluate have changed very little. The technical and practical aspects were quite honestly the most trivial aspect of my degree. It was the thinking and the development of a cartographic mind that was the most important aspect. Of course, at the time we though just making a decent looking map would get us a good grade. Often that was the case but rarely did we really appreciate that our tutors were actually grading what was going on behind the map…not what the end product looked like. I used to use a pen and scribing tool. I have coded maps before and now I work with servers and portals and other ‘stuff’….increasing animations and 3D. Anyway, the point is, we can easily pick up new ways of doing but picking up the thinking behind the doing isn’t a trivial learning task.

So I loved maps and wanted to better understand them and how they were made. But more than that – I wanted to prepare myself for entering the workforce doing something I loved. And in deciding upon that, the logical step is to do your research and find out where and who is going to give you the best education. I was going to go to Swansea University to do their Topographic Science degree but I ended up going to Oxford Polytechnic. Like most people looking for higher education, University was a logical step. I wanted to learn from the best; people who had been there and done it and who had their own qualifications as badges of authority and experience in cartography. My tutors were internationally known and contributed to cartography in academic and industrial settings. I went to arguably the top place for budding cartographers because I wanted a high quality education and to join the pantheon of cartographers who could point to their alma mater as a badge of quality. The best I could get from masters in the area to set my career up in the best way I could.

As I entered an academic career I soon began learning how to teach and how to be a researcher. Pedagogy became a very important component of my professional life. I had learnt domain knowledge during my degree studies and the mindset of lifelong learning means that I still learn every day. I had practical ability yet the practice of cartography was already rapidly changing and I never used photomechanical production techniques in a real workplace. As an academic I probably wasn’t as practiced as I could have been (a common accusation of teachers generally) but the skills and techniques of being able to teach and lecture were vitally important. I took courses in pedagogic theory and various diplomas. Over the next 20 or so years the process of lifelong learning you acquire as a professional academic meant I kept abreast of current thinking to inform my domain knowledge, my practical abilities and changes in pedagogy. You never become a finished article either in domain knowledge or the ability to teach but knowing how to question and, importantly, to find out the bits you don’t know is important. You also learn an awful lot about people and how to help, encourage or push people to achieve their own goals. Teaching has its very own set of vitally important skills over and above the content.

So where’s this going?

Ultimately, I left academia because I was tired of the admin and bureaucracy. I really enjoyed teaching my students and helping them realize their own passion in mapping. Sometimes I’d lose some along the way because they actually weren’t that interested. Some now have very successful careers in geo and that makes me proud. Some teach…some teach cartography. I stay in touch with many of them. During my academic life I went to many conferences and I could be absolutely certain each would have a panel or a discussion on pedagogic approaches to teaching geography/cartography/GIS/whatever. The format was largely the same. Often it was the same people. The outcomes were normally the same…largely boring summaries of the need for more…better…free…blah blah blah yackity schmackity. Alongside this in the literature, debates raged about the fashion for degrees that were focused on theory to become more vocational and vice versa. The training vs teaching argument was well worn. With heavily practical disciplines like GIS (whether it was ever a discipline at all was another debate entirely) should we be teaching concepts? Should people always have to learn using ArcGIS? Was a broad spectrum of software important to know? Were courses simply driving schools for buttonology? The debates were endless but one thing that characterized them was that rarely did people start from the last end point or argument. They just started again rather than consider the wider context. Their own narrow empire was their only concern. They did one thing very well and that became their very own ivory tower – the pinnacle of knowledge and learning for others to find and believe in.

Towards the end of my time at Kingston University myself and colleagues were well travelled, often leading sessions for other lecturers and academics in the UK on how to teach GIS, or cartography, or mobile mapping fieldwork. We were seen as leading in both discipline, practice and pedagogy. We received numerous research grants for developing technical innovations. We were researching and mapping social media feeds and taking advantage of them in teaching and learning nearly 10 years ago and helping others devise their own approaches for instance.

So have things changed?

The mapping landscape has changed profoundly. New software. New companies or organisations. Free and open data and software. Everything is quicker with social media feeding an endless daily appetite for something, anything, that people consume as ‘new’ (which often isn’t but that’s also a different tale). One person does x, the next responds with y. One person colours their OpenStreetmap in one fashionable way, another makes a hand-drawn version and yet another still does some crazy psychedelic trippy animated thing. All fun in the kiddie’s sandpit but what about outside the sandpit where the real world of mapping exists; where making a version of a basemap in an arty style actually doesn’t cut it for any practical purpose?

Things haven’t really changed and so the disconnect between theory, practice and praxis widens. I’ve seen panel discussions at recent conferences that have opened up the same tired debates, just with different people ignoring what’s gone before. We’ve largely solved the pedagogic debates about training vs teaching. It’s out there (in the literature) if one cares to find it but of course it totally destroys people who want to be seen as innovators to not be seen to be carefully considering this stuff. The discussions are repetitive and say more about the naivety of the panelists rather than their depth of understanding of either their chosen domain or pedagogy. They love playing in the sandpit but the tantrums start as soon as someone wants to play more seriously.

What I have observed is that the players involved are very different to those of 10, 20, 30 and more years ago in terms of the cartographic domain. Cartography seems to have become a past-time rather than either an academic subject or a professional vocation. Many involved in making maps are doing so from a background of education in anything but cartography yet they’re found a passion for making maps. They want to be seen as makers and doers and that is sufficient. Most of this is due to the burgeoning availability of data and the internet as a powerful democratizing tool. Cartographic technology has shifted so rapidly that it’s hard to conceive of someone now wanting to take a Bachelors degree in it. It doesn’t conjure up the image of a real subject any more. It’s been demoted to what a hacker might do with a couple of spare hours and a Mac Book in Starbucks.

So what courses do people want to study to gain qualifications in? It’s pretty much anything but cartography because you can now get your cartography from the internet or from meet-ups or from anywhere but an institution which is set up to deliver education. But the craziness of this situation is that many people who now purport to be fine purveyors of map education sought expert tuition for their own non-cartographic qualifications at some point. Yet now, they’re shouting loudly about how they are now best-placed to offer cartographic training. Let’s be clear – I’m happy for anyone to offer advice and training and help in areas they have some level of knowledge or expertise in but there’s no substitute to learning from experts – people who are experienced, have deep domain knowledge and have played beyond the sand pit. The mantra of beginners for beginners doesn’t cut it. Students in a Bachelors class being taught by an intern or teaching assistant is no substitute for the Professor. They have the merit and background to support and lead learning. They can assess the quality of work against expected norms and relative work. Not everything is super cool or awesome. Some work is, frankly, awful and you’re doing people an injustice by telling them simply by taking part you are becoming proficient or an expert in either domain knowledge or practical ability. As a lecturer I was happy giving fail grades. I was also happy giving grades well into the 90% and higher range. The variation was huge. Not everyone excelled. Some had natural talent, some worked hard to achieve. Grades reflected ability and outcome. I was only able to understand how to assess and comment on quality because I knew my subject and knew how to support teaching and learning through an understanding of pedagogy. By all means go and enjoy the colouring in with computers at a local meet-up and figure out a little trick that makes a task easier – but do not be fooled into thinking this equates to expertise.

And how did this dumbing down of cartographic education and the rise of kindergarten kartography come about? Because of the admin and bureaucracy I so hated. The documents, forms and paperwork that we had to complete to get a new or revised course up and running were horrific. We had to get industrial reviews. We had to pass the work across many other academic and practitioner’s desks. We had term reviews, semester reviews, annual reviews, quinquennial reviews and validation and re-validation events at which external people would pour over ever small item of our plans to check it and assure themselves of the standards it sets. That’s how proper education works. Checking and cross-checking and review after review after review. That was how, ultimately, we could stand in front of students and know we were delivering top class content in a modern, stimulating, caring and professional environment. All of that developmental work gave assurances to the student too. When we could claim most graduates got jobs in the field on graduation we were not making vacuous statements. We knew what we were delivering was what industry and society wanted and needed. We had their buy-in. We were meeting government-set targets for qualified and able graduates. We also kept pace with developments to ensure students were at least on the curve if not as much ahead of it as we could make it. Proper education leading to proper qualifications that were the student’s license to demonstrate they had a proper qualification in the subject they studied. A subject that had an avowed intent to marry domain knowledge with practical skills; to develop knowledge and understanding; a critical and evaluative approach; and a desire for lifelong learning. But too many people have become fed up with this requirement as they search for a quick fix. Taking time to learn something is not seen as a requirement for becoming an expert. Playing the long game is no longer regarded by many as a wholesome approach to learning and by many of the current crop of people who claim to offer educational or training services they do so based on a complete lack of quality assurance that anyone can rely on.

This is why I find today’s trend for short-form online learning and meet-ups as being heralded as THE place to learn cartography so dispiriting. Many of these people seem unaware of so much both in domain knowledge and pedagogy. They’ve rarely gone through any education or training in cartography so their badges are from other disciplines yet they now claim to be the carto-educators of choice. Frankly it’s a tough job to counter that culture precisely because so many formal courses are no longer offered but it doesn’t make it right. It simply doesn’t stack up. You can’t want a qualification from one set of experts then profess to others you’re one in some other subject. MOOCs, I feel, are a special case and most people seem to avoid the reality that many are done as loss-leaders to whet people’s appetite and get them sufficiently interested to take a fee-paying version of the course. Universities do it. Corporations do it. You hardly see any reading lists any more either – the ability to use Google seems to be the only requirement for an inquisitive mind. If content isn’t already online then it’s all too often seen as irrelevant.

Of course, much of this has to do with the death of cartography in the classroom. It’s inevitable people seek education from people offering it and if the traditional arena has dried up then of course motivated individuals and groups will see a gap in the market they feel they can fill. And I am part of that problem because I’d had enough of University life and the crap that got in the way. But I also hope that reaching an audience through various blogs and by continuing to go to conferences and meetings helps others. I’m also writing a book…yes, a real, live book to support much more than the return to button-pushing that current quasi-carto-educators seem to have returned to (side-note…you know, coding is also just button pushing by a different form. I don’t care whether you change the colour of a highway using CSS, javascript or a GUI). And, of course, people love ‘free’ and so free meetups with free content led by people who don’t charge for their time and where free pizza or beer is offered as enticement are bound to be a win win. Except what many don’t seem to realize is it’s a false economy. My suggestion is do some research and ask around. If you want to know something about cartography and really want to get an education in it, seek out a professional who has a background domain and pedagogic knowledge. In the UK I’d look at UCL, City University, Leicester or Nottingham University. In the US, just go check out Penn State, University of Madison-Wisconsin or Oregon State University. Of course, others exist but I’m just picking out a few places to start. Get your qualifications from relevant experts and not from the market stall purveyors who are offering knock-off merchandise. It might look like a good deal but it’ll probably break after a week or two. Get your background in cartography and don’t see Kindergarten Kartography as a sufficient substitute.

As a final thought I do want to be absolutely clear that I'm happy for everyone to have a go at making maps as I have said numerous times before. I'm also more than happy for people to pass on tips, tricks and nuggets of advice via many different forms. I use this sort of advice and self-learning ever day to supplement what I know and to learn from others. Don't mistake this discussion as some sort of claim that no-one is allowed to utter anything about cartography unless they've put in 40 years and have multiple badges of honour. That would be absurd. There is a place for everyone to contribute to the wider realm of cartographic understanding. It's just that the balance has gone. I feel we've tipped into a dangerous area where people are getting hooked on relatively appealing and accessible fayre masquerading as quality assured content. Get hooked on the good stuff and you'll find it sustains you much further than the local sand pit.

And by the way, next time you're at a conference watching a panel discussion on the topic of Cartographic education just step back and think about whether the panelists really have the chops.