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.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

Not a very (oil) slick map

Just a short post on a map in today's The Telegraph showing barrels of oil per day by country.

Here's a screen grab and you can see the live map here.

Nice to see data represented as a percentage to allow proper comparison across the map but the classification scheme and colours used in the classification scheme have me a little bothered.

Here are the questions I ask...

  • Why a diverging colour scheme for a single variable with no apparently meaningful critical break value?
  • What is the value when the colour scheme breaks from greys to reds?
  • Why 2 classes for the greys and 4 for the reds?
  • What are the class break values has the data been classified?
  • If oil conjured images of a 'black liquid', why would you use solid black (implying totality maybe) at the lower end of the classification scheme?
  • Why do the reds vary not only in lightness but also in saturation, meaning the don't provide a good sequence in visual terms?
  • Why is it on Web Mercator when a choropleth really should be on an equal area projection?
  • Why, oh why, if you use greys in the colour scheme do you then use light grey to denote NO DATA (which places it somewhere in the middle of the classification)?

These and other questions we'll likely never know the answer to...but these are the sort of things that need addressing so the uninitiated reader doesn't fall foul of the tricks their eyes play on them when reading such a map. Misconstruing the message is inevitable if such cartographic issues aren't addressed to minimize the limitations of our cognitive systems.