Friday 21 September 2018

The United Kingdom of Cheese on a Board

A year ago I saw a lovely map entitled 'Biscuits' (cookies, but way way better, for my American friends). Made by friend and talented cartographer Chris Wesson, it was a quirky but really interesting way to look at 'a very British obsession', to geo-locate classic products and provide a little explanation. I liked it. And, as tends to happen when I peruse map galleries an idea popped into my mind.
 Biscuits by Chris Wesson

Since I've lived in the US, whenever people ask me what I miss about the UK my standard retort has always been 'cheese and electricity'. (actually, the real answer is my family and friends but that seems boring and wouldn't get a laugh). Cheese, because, let's be frank...cheese in the US is utterly awful. Tasteless plastic nonsense. And the electricity - at 120V is half-powered. Almost impossible to toast a piece of bread in anything under 10 minutes and the only benefit being you really don't need to switch off the mains to do home repairs. I forgot once in the UK and got thrown off a ladder with a charred forearm...proper 240V electricity. I digress.

So, I love English cheese and although I've seen occasional maps showing the location of English cheese I wanted to do something altogether more interesting. I decided right there and then to make a large edible real-life map exhibit. A cheese board of UK cheese. But let's not stop there. Let's get a cheese board in the shape of the UK. And let's fill it with geo-located cheese

I decided to give myself a year to plan the project. It turned out this was a necessity. The first problem was sourcing a cheese board in the shape of the UK. They don't exist despite extensive searching. So I decided to just make one. I made the map in ArcGIS Pro using data representing the ceremonial counties of the UK (that's the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). I was targeting it as an exhibit at the UK Mapping Festival in September 2018 so the map had to be the UK.

The original idea was to make a jigsaw out of cheese on top of the map. Each county represented by a piece of cheese that would be cut into the shape of the county. As the cheese is eaten, the map underneath emerges. Except, despite there being over 770 different UK cheeses the Modifiable Areal Unit Problem and boundary lines stymied my idea. There were some very large areas with little or no cheese production (particularly in Scotland and the East of England). Some cheeses, being very soft, would not be easily cut to shape. And the modern administrative map of the UK contains all sorts of weird and wonderful counties and Unitary Authorities. Ugh! So I went with ceremonial counties. The jigsaw of real cheese idea still wasn't going to work as there would have been over 136 tiny pieces of cheese on the board and a hell of a lot of waste considering most cheese is sold in a minimum 250g size.

Design for the United Kingdom of Cheese on a Board

The map was designed and I was originally going to make it myself but it soon became clear I didn't have the correct tools. I found Andrew Abbott, an experienced artisan woodworker who had the required tools - a CNC router and a laser engraver - and the willingness to help me with my crazy idea. Over a period of several months I worked closely with him here in California to make the cheese board. We discussed wood types and settled on Maple. I iterated the design and gave me good advice on what would and wouldn't work. He glued laminate maple blocks together and set to work. He worked from svg output from ArcGIS Pro to drive the machinery and he finished the product by hand, and stained the Maple wood to a beautiful finish. Here's a few pictures of the board in various stages of production. It's a metre tall and about 80cm wide at its widest. it's a big board capable of holding a lot of cheese!

Laminated block of Maple waiting for their first cut

The CNC router gets to work

Laser engraving the boundaries and labels

The finished cheese board, beautifully made by Andrew Abbott

There weren't too many design decisions because the map is really just administrative boundaries and labels. But a couple of fun dilemmas. What to do with the Isle of Man for instance? It's a self-governing Crown dependency and not part of the UK yet it would be silly to leave it off the map. I was going to get a hole cut in the board in its shape but the potential for cheese to fall through the hole was too much. In the end I just didn't label it. And what of boundaries in the Republic of Ireland? Well - I chose to remove them as the Republic is also not part of the UK and, instead, used the space as a perfect place for the title cartouche. I didn't label it either. I have had one person get somewhat annoyed about my apparent ignorance for the Republic but that was my cartographic editorial decision. Tough.

And the a time when debates were raging about the position of Shetland and Orkney in inset maps what the hell should I do? They are too far removed from the mainland to be cut in their real position. the wood would not have held and it would have necessitated a large expanse of nothing. Yeah, there's some very small local cheese producers on Shetland but not enough to warrant a huge proportion of Maple all for itself. So I opted for an inset and the islands now occupy the coastal area off eastern Scotland. A pragmatic decision but one which was preferred to the only other viable option - leaving them off the map altogether! Actually, after the cheese board was produced John Nelson suggested Shetland and Orkney could have been a floating olive dish. I still might get my jigsaw out and set them loose. John has a strange relationship with olives. You should ask him some time.

So, turning attention to the cheese. The criteria was simple...fill the board, make the cheese as geographically located as possible, and get a good mix of the classics and the rare, and of different styles. There were also a small set of around a dozen cheeses with European Union 'Protected Geographical Indication' and 'Protected Destination of Origin' designations. These were important and should be sourced. Whittling down a list of over 700 cheeses and sourcing the cheese became a challenge. I had an initial list of around 60 and was aiming for around 30-40 cheeses. And here's my top tip for anyone thinking of doing suppliers, work closely with them. Ensure that they will have product and can ship it to arrive on a particular day. Don't get too wedded to having a specific cheese as it may be only available seasonally. I eventually settled on a list of 30 cheeses, sourced from six different suppliers that met the criteria, were available, and would fill the board fairly well.

Dart Mountain Dusk Semi-hard Northern Ireland County Derry
Kearney Blue Blue Northern Ireland County Down
Smoked Cheddar Hard Northern Ireland County Tyrone
Young Buck Blue Northern Ireland County Down
Blue Murder Blue Scotland Highland
Caboc Soft Scotland Highland
Crowdie Soft Scotland Highland
Dorset Blue Vinney* Blue England Dorset
Isle of Wight Blue Blue England Isle of Wight
Little Wallop Soft England Somerset
Perl Las Blue Wales Carmarthenshire
Strathdon Blue Blue Scotland Highland
Strathearn Semi-soft Scotland Perthshire
Caerphilly* Hard Wales Carmarthenshire
Cheddar* Hard England Somerset
Cheshire Hard England Cheshire
Cornish Yarg Semi-hard England Cornwall
Lancashire Hard England Lancashire
Stilton* Blue England Nottinghamshire
Beenleigh Blue Blue England Devon
Isle of Mull Hard Scotland Isle of Mull
Lincolnshire Poacher Hard England Lincolnshire
Red Leicester Hard England Leicestershire
Yorkshire Wensleydale* Semi-hard England North Yorkshire
Double Gloucester* Semi-hard England Gloucestershire
Golden Cenarth Soft Wales Carmarthenshire
Single Gloucester* Semi-hard England Gloucestershire
Stinking Bishop Soft England Gloucestershire
Pantysgawn Soft Wales Gwent
Y Fenni  Hard Wales Mid Glamorgan

*cheese of 'Protected Geographical Indication' or 'Protected Destination of Origin'

I'll not bore you with detailed logistics but given I live in California the cheese had to be delivered to my brother Colin's house in Lincolnshire and he (and my wonderful nieces Isabella, Amelia and Eloise) then drove the cheese down to London ahead of the conference event at which it was going to be displayed and devoured. Keeping it cool and fresh was paramount. My hotel room then began to get a little whiffy for a day or so and the mini-bar fridge was somewhat rammed with around £400 worth of cheese. And how did the cheese board get from California to London? That'll be British Airways allowing me an additional bag as part of my frequent flyer status. Very handy, thanks!

So the United Kingdom on a Cheese Board was then transported and set up at the #geomob event on Thursday 7th September at the Geovation hub in Clerkenwell, London. Each piece of cheese was topped with a small sign indicating its origin and history. Unfortunately 7 pieces didn't make it. They had been delivered to my brother's house simply too early and were no longer in an edible state. We ended up with 24 cheeses all told and that turned out to be just about right to fill the board. Around 50-60 geogeeks and map nerds were in attendance for the evening talks and the cheese board was very much a star attraction. With wine supplied by friend and colleague Ben Flanagan (and thanks to Esri UK) we had a glorious spread of cheese, biscuits and wine to wash down the geotalks and a good evening was had by all.

The United Kingdom of Cheese on a Board at #geomob, Thursday 7th September 2018

Here's a selection of photographs from the evening itself.

Awaiting the cheese

Labelling the cheese

The first cut

 The end result

I had a lot of fun with this project, combining my day job of map design using ArcGIS with the ability to turn digital maps into a physical product beyond a piece of paper by collaborating with people with the right skills and tools to put my thoughts into action. My goal of creating a one-off edible map exhibit was achieved and, so, the cheese board was washed and packed ready for its return journey to my kitchen in the US. Will it appear again? Quite possibly. In the meantime, it'll remain empty because provolone, sharp cheddar and pepperjack are simply not cheese. I'd rather poke my fingers in an electrical outlet socket :-)

Footnote...I'd contracted a gastrointestinal 'issue' in Tanzania the week before and so I didn't actually get to try any of the cheese myself. Very disappointing. And what's that you ask? My favourite cheese? Gotta be Stilton from Cropwell Bishop or Colston Bassett in my home county of Nottinghamshire. Perfect!

Tuesday 11 September 2018

Three conferences and a cheeseboard

I recently had the privilege of attending a couple of geo conferences and thought I'd jot down some thoughts. There's also one I didn't attend...but it's relevant to the discussion and it'll get a few comments too.

FOSS4G, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania 29-31 August
I've been to a few FOSS events. It's not my wheelhouse, so to speak, given I largely use Esri products due to the nature of my employment BUT, and it's a big BUT, it's crucial that all sectors of geo play a role in supporting the work of those in the FOSS community. We share values. We actually share an awful lot, and attending these sort of events allows exchange of ideas and an opportunity to perhaps foster relationships and contacts across communities. I've long held the belief that the tools you use to do your 'geo' make no difference to how you should be perceived. Proprietary or Free - it's just a different business model to get the tools in your hands. It's what you do with it that counts. Some of my closest friends in geo are FOSS advocates. We get along fine. Others should too.

FOSS stalwarts and good friends Steven Feldman and Mark Iliffe

There was the usual tribal minority who seem to revel in their almost religious hatred of others but I have to say this seems to be a dwindling faction. It was a really valuable few days discussing a multitude of projects and ideas, plotting the spark of a few new ideas and taking the opportunity to reconnect with people I rarely see at other geo events. There was considerable interest in my recently released book Cartography and, also, the MOOC on Cartography that I built along with my colleagues at Esri. Community focused projects, ultimately vendor neutral, that I helped bring to the fore to support the wider community.

This was only the second time FOSS4G had been to anywhere in Africa (2008 was in Cape Town). It attracted over 1,000 attendees, including over 150 young professionals and students who were able to take advantage of an innovative travel grant programme that supports them with a financial contribution to help them attend. But what amazed me more than anything was here we were, in a part of the world with many significant barriers to the successful organisation of a large, major, international conference and it appeared to go with out a hitch (I know it didn't, but that delegates were unaware is the success). This is no small feat by the organisers. The web site was populated early, the programme was put together professionally. There was a good mix of work on show, and people from all walks of geo: academic, professional, big business, NGOs, startups and pretty much all the major players such as OSGeo (obviously) but also Esri, Mapbox, Carto, and Google were on board as sponsors.

The conference was run professionally. It was dynamic, interesting, vibrant. The social programme was carefully designed to facilitate delegate interaction. There were all manner of meetups. Water, tea, coffee and food was copious and always on tap. There were film crews and a professional team doing the AV. There was professional signage everywhere from booth graphics to directions and room information. The organisers sweated over the small stuff. If you pay attention to the detail you bring together a coherent whole.

But here's the thing. It's a serious undertaking trying to organise a conference, any conference, and in this part of the world the challenges are numerous. I was privy to some of the behind-the-scenes issues and to say that some were huge is an understatement. Kudos to the entire LOC for overcoming often very acute problems and delivering a superb event. People left with smiles and I only heard positive comments.

UK Mapping Festival, London, England 2-7 September
After FOSS4G I hopped to the UK for the inaugural UK Mapping Festival.  In past years I've been critical of the model used by the British Cartographic Society whose preference for their conference to be a one day event at a hotel (often in a remote area, often undergoing refurbishment), a single track of presentations (often including product pitches from sponsors), and very little more than an old boys reunion.  Now don't get me wrong, the opportunity to reconnect with people you possibly only see once a year at such an event is important (particularly for an ex-pat like me), but it shouldn't be the raison d'ĂȘtre.

So I was delighted that the organisers of the annual BCS conference were changing things and going for a week long celebration of UK mapping. Brilliant! Flights and travel booked. Looking forward to it. Unfortunately, after the wonders of FOSS4G I have to say that it was one of the biggest letdowns I've experienced on my 25yrs on the conference circuit.

There were signs well ahead of the event. The web site was late being populated with way too much placeholder text and I was hearing murmurings on various backchannels. The booking system was unclear and unwieldy. Speakers and, crucially, keynotes, were being added right up to the event itself.

There were supposed to be three main conference days run by various UK geo societies and bodies co-located yet, strangely, with separate registration fees. The Association of Geographic Information went on the 4th, BCS, in conjunction with the Society of Cartographers, on the 5th and the British Association of Remote Sensing Companies (BARSC) on the 6th. OK, so there's no way I'm paying for three separate days so the 5th was it for me. This was a real opportunity missed to support cross-pollination of communities. I'd certainly have been interested in some of the stuff from the other days but not for separate registration fees. I went to the exhibition on the 4th and 6th and numbers were not healthy. This strategy must have hurt attendance.

And on the 5th, there were workshops that delegates may very well have gone to but the one-track presentation session was on all day. Why weren't workshops on another day to encourage people to attend for longer? I'm sure there's arguments for all of this by the organisers but it's a baffling approach for delegates shoe-horned into making a choice when there would appear to have been alternatives to avoid that problem. It's not like the conference had parallel tracks so you effectively had to choose between a bit of hands-on training or listening to the talks which, on the whole, were very interesting it must be said.

The exhibition was odd - a so-called London street scene which comprised some wooden huts, a London bus and a huge British Army truck. The latter got some interest. The bus got no use at all from what I can make out and the exhibitors...hardly any traffic because it's the same companies that exhibit year on year to the same small group of attendees. I tried to get a coffee on the 4th when I only had an exhibitor pass and was charged £2. If the exhibition was free, where was everyone? Is this an apathetic British population? Is it poor advertising? Is it poor location? Timing? Well, possibly all of these. Holding the conference the week that children went back to school after the summer holidays wasn't smart. Charging a lot for exhibition space didn't help. Locating in London (8 million people) should have yielded a large population of potential visitors but where were they? I've heard a few people say that the accommodation and travel costs to London are too expensive to make it worthwhile but I do wonder whether they are assessing it against the value of the event itself. Make it worth every penny to attend and people WILL attend. I was bemused about the idea of creating a so-called London street scene. I mean, honestly, there was a London street right outside the front door. The conference was actually in London!!! Everyone knows what a London bus looks like!

Chair of the Society of Cartographers, Steve Chilton, who taught me
everything I know about guerilla t-shirt marketing

And herein lies the problem - the UK Mapping Festival ended up being a BCS conference in disguise. Same organisation behind the scenes. Same structure. Same exhibition. Same faces. Sure, there were a few variations around the edges but not much. It was stale, unimaginative and, frankly, rather dull. And let me be clear - this is not just me saying this. Many others voiced similar concerns during the day. It cannot continue like this because UK cartographic societies are dying, fast. The Society of Cartographers AGM resulted in a formal winding up process because the Society cannot continue on a shoestring. This is dreadfully sad. SOC has at least tried to move with the pace of change in modern cartography over the last few years where BCS has stood rather still. I sincerely hope some of the smart people involved in the running of SOC are given positions on the BCS Council as SOC members are encouraged to move their membership fees over.

The UK Mapping Festival web site was difficult to navigate. Ideas that I know were proposed to the programme committee (and even by those on the programme committee) were either ignored or never followed up. A series of potential high profile cartographic experts as keynotes was replaced by a minor celebrity whose talk was poorly targeted. Ken Hames (who?) was not a motivational speaker. Anything but. Anecdotes from army days and friendships with the late Princess of Wales really aren't what people want from a modern mapping conference. Oh - and it was an additional tenner to attend if you hadn't got a pass for that day. Even the choice of beer at the nearest hotel bar came down to Corona, Budweiser or Becks. And there wasn't even a single complementary beverage. The so-called comedy night was also poorly thought-through as well. Much of the material may have worked in a dimly lit comedy club with a tanked up crowd but only a couple of the acts even bothered weaving in some map-related material. I understand they were cheap to hire. That probably says it all. It's simply not good enough! There is far better out there. People expect far more.

Advertised as part of the UK Mapping Festival, the #geomob event on the evening of the 6th was, at least, a little more forward thinking. It was held at the geovation hub. It was free to attend and that garnered nearly as many people as had attended the BCS/SOC conference on the 4th. Event space is given for free. Sponsors help buy beer, nibbles and wine. The atmosphere is one of mutual interest and genuinely, people had a good time and, en masse, decamped to the bar where conversations continued. Organising events is not rocket science and the stuffiness of the days evaporated with the freshness of this particular evening. But why...WHY were only a handful (maybe 3 or 4) people who had attended any of the day's events also at the #geomob event? It's simple. Events that are put on in the UK, unlike the way FOSS4G was organised are targeted to a very very niche group. This is why they fail. There's no real attempt to foster integration. As I said earlier, this attitude has to change.

Some cheese at #geomob

I was also due to present at a Better Mapping seminar on the 4th but it was cancelled with a few days notice due to lack of interest. Only a few people had signed up and the event space (the Royal Geographic Society) needed 12 attendees to make it viable. Now I do not know the finances and the fees structure for the event but it strikes me as astonishing that we cannibalize our own group of core societies by charging for space in this way (if, indeed, that's the case, I only assume it is) and holding it on a day when another competing activity was taking place.  The organiser, Chris Wesson, had done a great job putting the event together but it was advertised late, it was a paid-for event (£75 sounds steep to me, though it was free to BCS members) AND put on against a day's event at the main conference site (all sadly out of his control). You can get so much training for free these days that these events have to look at alternative models if they are going to succeed. Cut out venue costs and speaker expenses (they should offer their services and costs for free to contribute...they get exposure for their ideas and companies for a start) and then look at ways to get people interested. This is valuable outreach for BCS and it's another failed opportunity to place some of the UK's prominent cartographic experts at the fore, sharing ideas and espousing the value of a wider community.

There were events for children to get involved with at the exhibition. I didn't see a single child involved with any of the mapping activities. I felt sorry for all the hard work that the organiser of that component (Alice Gadney) put in to make a fantastic event space but it was ultimately poorly used.

Even the BCS awards dinner descended into minor farce with none of the awards certificates being signed and one award (the Henry Johns award) not even judged by the time of the evening ceremony. This may seem a terribly minor issue and it is, in many ways. But it's not the first time it's happened and it's just symptomatic of the issues that bubbled to the surface once more.

And what of the attendees - yes, many of the usual faces but perhaps surprisingly, some very notable absentees who you'd ordinarily see at these events. Again, it's unclear why but I'd have thought the Chair of the UK Cartographic Committee, also on the Executive Committee of the International Cartographic Association, might have attended. UKCC represents UK cartography on the international stage. Some sort of report, review, or statement would be useful. In that person's absence, surely some sort of acknowledgement of how the UK is shaping up for the International Cartographic Conference in Tokyo in 2019 might have been forthcoming? Nope.

Anyway, to many of the people I spoke to at the event, it was simply a letdown and the promise of something fresh and different simply did not materialise. Back to the drawing board for next year but I feel there's more than simply a change of city and venue and tinkering with the model that needs to change.

GeoCart 2018, Wellington, New Zealand 5-7 September
I didn't go, but I know someone who did. I had to make a choice earlier in the year whether to go to the UK Mapping Festival or GeoCart. I've been to the last four events (they're every other year rather than annual events). They attract a similarly sized crowd to UK events (around 100 people). I plumped for the UK but regret my decision. By all accounts GeoCart was vibrant and fascinating.

With a similar amount of people (from a population of around 4 million - half that of London!!!) they manage to encourage not only attendance but participation. Instead of a single track with 12 presentations there were well advertised pre-con workshops and two tracks offering over 100 presentations. There's ice breakers with free wine. There's a relaxed gala dinner where you don't have to decide your menu choice months in advance. All in all - a similar conference yet the difference with the UK Mapping Festival could not be more profound. And my simple question is this...if a society like the New Zealand Cartographic Society can develop something really rather magnificent, why do we continually fail to do so in the UK?

Wither UK cartographic events?
As people who know me appreciate, I make these sort of observations and comments out of a love for the societies that I have grown up belonging to. I hate to see them, and the events they stage, wasting away. While some (like the New Zealand conference and, also, the hugely enjoyable NACIS conference in North America) seem to have moved with the times, adapted, and worked hard to develop a model that works, the UK efforts are sorely flagging. They are tired, generally expensive to attend, and disappointing.

There are so many geo events that people are making hard decisions on what to attend and, currently, events staged by the British Cartographic Society, their preferred organsing company and the like are suffering. they're actually making decisions much easier to make! Heck, I even sent an email and get a private visit to Bellerby Globemakers arranged with no effort at all. It can't be that difficult to arrange events that actually interest people, take advantage of a locality and make them WANT to visit. Everyone knows what a London bus looks like so having one parked in an exhibition hall isn't going to be much of a draw. But what an opportunity missed - London. There are so many fascinating map-related places and people in and around the capital and none were harnessed.

A visit to Bellerby Globemakers - not a UK Mapping Festival event

And I have left the biggest issue of them all until last. The UK Mapping Festival was scheduled for 2-7th September. It still says that on the web site. Some (me, and a few others at least) booked flights and London-based accommodation on that basis. It turns out that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, on the 2nd, 3rd, or 7th at all. I was told that the intent had been for other events to take place but they didn't emerge. Why? And when it became clear that the 6 days was fast shrinking to 3, and just a single day if the other two conference days weren't of particular interest to you, the organisers should probably should have been a little more honest with your potential delegates. I made the best of my time by arranging meetings, visits to places like Bellerby, the Imperial War Museum and the Design Museum to explore their cartographic collections but I wanted to enjoy a week's festival, as advertised...not have to build my own festival.

Two UK Mapping Festival delegates (me and Bill Cartwright) who, between them
traveled  nearly 45,000 miles and stayed 16 hotel nights in London.

So what now? Will the BCS conference revert to type? Will anyone actually review what happened and put in place mechanisms for change? Does anyone have the will? I fear there's a long way to go. There's a number of good, young people who have tried to get involved to affect change. My understanding is it's a challenging environment in a volunteer society that has many longstanding officers. But I wonder what their experience is beyond that of their own conference? I don't see them anywhere else so it makes you wonder. They cannot simply live in a bubble forever. Others have to pop it and force change to reinvigorate UK events. I hope for better, I really do. But let's be honest, this is not simply an accusation I'm leveling at the UK and its various geo societies. Many societies and many conferences are stale. They have relied on the same approach for far too long, often underpinned by the same team of people who just rinse and repeat. People aren't stupid and they are getting wiser when deciding where to spend their shrinking conference budgets.

I tried my best to help this year by bringing my Lego globe (no-one really commented about it), by making sure we had book giveaways, and by proposing my edible map idea that became too difficult to arrange anywhere in space and time on the 5th that I switched it to the #geomob event where it was devoured. Conferences these days have t-shirts, stickers and badges. I made some of my own as giveaways. Tote bags full of corporate brochures is so 1980 and they only go to landfill.

If a small organising committee of volunteers can make a large international conference work in Dar es Salaam, and a similarly sized conference can work with a much smaller population in New Zealand to put on a stimulating event, why can't we get it right in the UK? Hopefully 2019 will see some progress. I live in hope at least.