Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Academic parochialism

Last week I went to a schematic mapping workshop in Vienna, Austria. Schematic maps are some of my favourites and I'd used this opportunity to finally get round to developing my own ideas about a redesign of the London Tube Map. I'm by no means the first and won't be the last but after penning a discussion of what I characterised as the over-use, mis-use and abuse of Beck's original style from 1933 (The Cartographic Journal, 51, 4 pp343-359) it really was about time I put my money where my mouth was and had a go. The workshop provided a hard deadline and an impetus to make a map and throw it to the lions.

Me. And my map.
There were about 40 or so people attend the workshop. People came from a wide array of academic backgrounds - psychologists, computer scientists, graphic designers, cartographers and the transport industry itself. I'll be blunt. It was disappointing. While there were some interesting talks there was very little true sharing of ideas or development of collaborative opportunities. The cliques stayed within their own cliques and so the opportunity was lost. I displayed my maps and not one person wanted to actively engage in a discussion, or offer ideas for improvements. Having paid for the trip out of my own pocket that's disappointing. So what we ended up with was another example of academic parochialism at its worst. Niche groups striving headlong up their own small part of a much wider discourse and not really willing to engage beyond what they know or do. There were lots of words but not much else.

We had people focusing on usability, but not really appreciating practical implementation. We had people searching for efficient algorithms for label placement or line arrangement, not appreciating that many software packages already exist to do much of that heavy lifting. We had the idea that a fully automated map is difficult to create but never a real discussion about why you'd want that anyway. After all, maps are always made by humans to a greater or lesser extent. We had the idea that many who make schematic maps do so with design software. There was little from the GIS or data-driven cartographic community and no real appreciation of its existence or value. A lot of it was searching for a solution to a problem that isn't properly defined. It's low-level academic effort. The sort that keeps people busy but doesn't ever actually get anywhere purposeful. I know. I used to live in that world, and the further I get from it the more I recognise it for what it is and the more I am relieved to be out of it.

And the classic examples of 'research results' based on a survey of a group of students who are easy to cajole into research always has me raising my eyebrows. At best it's lazy, at worst, it undermines your work beyond it being useful. Of course students are likely to also be public transport users but they are not a diverse enough set of people if you want to capture the wide variety of people who have many and varied needs. I think we can do better. But there was also something else that made me think about the event in a way that I cannot ever recall feeling before.

I guess what I found most disconcerting is I felt like an outsider. This is a group founded and moulded by Maxwell Roberts who describes himself as "the world’s leading specialist in schematic map design". So, inevitably, there's going to be some disciples of his work in attendance and, as it turns out, all but 4 talks were 'invited'. Dr Roberts even took the floor twice for two 35 minute stints to bookend the event. Except I'm not one of his disciples. I like much of his work but ever since I wrote that journal article, Dr Roberts has made it known he took exception to my characterisation of some of his work as being unhelpful to wider debates about the value of Beck's work. To me, there's value in debate. Just because person A says something, person B does not have to agree. I used the opportunity to write a refereed paper that expressed my views based on the evidence I presented. In normal academic discourse, such views can and should be challenged. Different views expressed and published and so forth. But, it seems, this is not the case and it was unfortunate that Dr Roberts went out of his way to avoid me in Vienna. It's unfortunate but I can live with that. Should I have approached him? Possibly. But when you get bad vibes you tend not to bother in the interests of self-preservation.

Map Gallery at the Vienna Transport Museum.


There was a gallery of work on display at the Vienna transport museum on one evening. My maps were up there and earlier in the day I'd expressed my wish that people tackle them, rip them apart and let me know what they thought. I even wore my London Underground District Line Moquette shoes for some added interest. Maybe Dr Roberts would take the opportunity? Unfortunately not. Again, he went out of his way to avoid me (and my colleague Professor William Cartwright too).

Professor William Cartright and I at the map gallery.


I was going to leave it. If that's how these people want to work and (not) foster collaborative opportunities or, even, have a good old-fashioned academic slanging match then that's up to them. I returned from Vienna glad to have reconnected with some good friends, met a few new people and, once again, to have visited such a beautiful city. Except this morning I woke, to this tweet by @TubeMapCentral (aka Maxwell Roberts)



So let's get this straight. Dr Roberts had every opportunity to talk to me last week. He had every opportunity to discuss my previous paper as well as my effort at making a map of the London Underground. But no. Instead, he posts a bitchy tweet (without using my twitter handle). It's a shame he didn't say my font was too small to me in Vienna because I totally agree with him. In fact, the prints were the first time I'd seen the work printed and my first reaction was the same - fonts are way too small. WAY too small. And this is the point of critique - to put your work in the gaze of your peers and others and to take on board comments and criticisms. A future iteration will address this limitation.

I wasn't going to write about my experience in Vienna but his tweet has me annoyed simply because he could have spoken to me in person. I should have seen the signs. Last talk on day one. My colleague, Professor Cartwright given less time than the other speakers. It all added up to support the fact that we simply were not wanted at the workshop because 5 years ago we had the audacity, the sheer temerity to offer some critical thoughts on some of his work as part of a wider debate. Yet they took our registration fee quite happily to boost numbers. If you're going to marginalise people then do so with class. But it doesn't achieve much. It narrows your potential for considered debate, albeit some of which might be challenging, but which ultimately strengthens a discipline. I don't like some of his work so therefore he doesn't like me. Makes sense eh? Not to me it doesn't. Tweets are cheap. I know, I send enough of them! But having had the opportunity to tackle me about the 2014 paper, or even chide me for my amateurish effort at tackling a really tricky map he, instead, waited until there was no danger of discussion. Ahh well.

What I did find of immense value at the workshop was listening to a presentation by the train manufacturer Siemens along with those at Wiener Linien who are exploring their cartography in relation to real needs, namely to fashion maps for a new generation of trains. So they are getting on with the job. We weren't allowed to take photos and I should probably not say too much as the work is currently not public and remains confidential. Except to say, they are experimenting with some really innovative animated maps. These go well beyond having a simple animated symbol that shows where you are on the route. There's morphing of the map under particular circumstances, changes to content depending on location and conditions, focusing of detail to serve the needs along the route, and real-time information delivery that goes way beyond simply showing train times and connections. I've honestly not seen anything like it and had a wonderful chat with the people behind it. These are the conversations you enjoy and ones which take you forward. The small-mindedness of a few has not detracted from my experience of this particular work and the potential it offers.

This, to me, also shows where we are in terms of who is driving research these days. Industry has overtaken academia in many fields. Cartography is one such field. Small groups of people doing very niche academic research into aspects of map design are becoming unimportant. And I think that's why these sort of workshops become increasingly frustrating. They aren't really helping move things forward, certainly not with much pace. There's too much reinvention and no real cohesion. They seem to exist to further one or two people's aspirations for relevance, rather than a sustained research agenda that feeds into real implementation. And along comes a train operator who, along with their customers, defines a need, researches it, and develops a solution.

I expressed this view earlier in the day at an 'open mic' slot where I used 10 minutes to play devil's advocate. In 2005 Google both decimated and utterly reinvented cartography. Since then, most transport networks persist with their schematic maps yet I contend that people are more interested in travelling between places of interest, not station names. Of course, this goes against Harry Beck's principles that above-ground geography is unimportant to the traveller but I think times have changed. So, for instance, if I'm in London and I want to travel between the London Eye and Selfridges how do I work out my route? I open Google Maps and I type in directions. I would suggest most people will likely do the same. In fact, I cannot recall the last time I actually saw someone use a pocket London Underground map. And even if I did I have to know where the two points of interest are in the first place and relate them to the location of stations. That's often very difficult with a schematic map. And yet Google Maps returns the optimal route (walk to Westminster station and catch the Jubilee line to Bond street). It gives me real-time train arrivals, journey time, walking routes to bookend the tube journey, as well as bus alternatives, and it now even tells me that a Lime scooter is nearby and could be quicker. The map zooms to become hyper-local. We see the actual location of station entrances so we can relate our geographical surroundings to where we actually need to go. And the map has the geographical tube network overprinted. So, my assertion is that, in 2019 the schematic map as we know it and love it may be dead. People use their smartphones and Google Maps to do their journey planning. It may well be the case that the printed schematic map has been killed by Google. Maybe this is what upset Dr Roberts? I don't know. I don't particularly care.

Unfortunately, in retrospect, the workshop was simply about his self-promoting academic parochialism. I'm glad I'm out of it, and Max, if you're reading this, please be assured I'll not darken your door at the next workshop. But I will be buying your next book on airline schematic maps because I'll likely very much enjoy it.

Professor Georg Gartner and Dr David Fairbairn discuss the Vienna map.
Update:
Unfortunately, Dr Roberts has decided to double down on his twitter rant.

Seems a little unfounded to me but I made the point that the opportunity to discuss, debate, argue even, was last week. Why didn't he take the opportunity to have me on a panel discussion for instance? Or even have a quiet word with me during one of the breakout sessions? It's not unusual for people who are passionate and knowledgeable about a subject to sometimes disagree but the art of academic discourse is to attempt to appreciate other people's perspectives. If you are closed to that, and wrap it in unsubstantiated personal attacks then you are doing yourself a disservice. I am concerned for his students if this is how he fosters discussion and engages in debate. It also reflects poorly on the University of Essex if this sort of approach to academic discourse is in any way supported.

1 comment:

  1. I feel like the situations you are describing here are something more than a few people can relate to or have encountered. Reading about your responses to the situation at hand reminds me that struggles like this are not something I alone encounter. I think you have provided an outstanding example of how to address the issue with class and professionalism. I intend to apply what I've learned here in my own professional life. Thank you Dr. Field, and please keep up the writing. Your take mapping and Cartography is always a welcome addition to my day.

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