Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Messy heat map

My last blog post on heat maps was an attempt to persuade map-makers that the term actually means something other than what you might think it means...and that doing cluster analysis of some form or other on your data more than likely requires a better understanding of data and technique than a so-called heat map generator provides.

My Twitter feed lit up today as Manchester City played Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16. Lionel Messi, the Barcelona forward, had a fine game by all accounts (to be fair he pretty much always does) and Squawka were on the ball with their live analysis during the game.

Squawka provide a web-based view of sport that collates and presents data as it happens. They tweeted the following:

Needless to say it brought on a nervous carto-twitch. If you read the previous blog you'll know by now that whatever the above is, it's not a 'heat map'. It's a density map of some form of cluster analysis but it illustrates far more than just another example of an inappropriately named map.

Here are some of the issues I see with this map and how similar issues are seen in almost all of these sorts of maps. They may help to understand that it isn't, in fact, a map of Messi leaking all over the pitch.

What is the data that was used?

Messi presumably ran about the pitch yet the splodges look like they are based on point data. Is this where he had the ball? Where he received the ball? Where he passed the ball to another player? Where he was stationary for a period or simply where he stood watching as Suarez scored the goals? Etc etc. While logic suggests that a map of Messi's running should be linear we are immediately confused in trying to decipher what this data actually represents because it looks like points that have been analysed to create a representation of clusters (more points = larger or more intense splodge). Without knowing what data the map represents we cannot decide whether he was all over the final third or not. If the data is indeed points then is that an appropriate metric and can it justifiably be used to show what they purport the map to be showing?

What are the fuzzy splodges?

The typical symbology on these sort of maps tends to go through some form of spectral colour scheme and this is no different. The hazy blue splodges are likely where less clustering occurred but is this a fleeting movement or pass or where he tripped over his laces? As Messi moves more or passes more (or whatever more) the intensity of the symbology increases. But what precisely does this represent? We have no legend to tell us what changes in colour mean and whether colour is mapped onto the clustering values linearly or logarithmically or...

Indeed - if you look at the overlap of two hazy blue splodges near the bottom centre of the map you'll notice that a simple overlap at the edge of two hazy blue splodges results in a bright, intense change in symbol. But if these hazy blue splodges are built from point data (presumably at the centre of the hazy blue splodge) then the overlap is simply an artifact of overlapping symbology...not necessarily overlapping data. These artifact overlaps occur everywhere on the map so it's unclear what the relationship is between data and symbology and how that then translates to Messi's actual movement or involvement.

The statement of being all over the final third also doesn't exactly stack up either. The main splodges are in a zone towards the top of the pitch graphic...a little left of centre but certainly not all in the final third. We'll assume Barcelona are attacking the left half of the pitch graphic and that even though teams switch sides at half-time the graphic maintains teams in the same half for mapping purposes.

All in all it's a graphic that reveals very little except gross error and uncertainty and which is utterly impossible to interpret in a way that reveals anything sensible about Messi's contribution to the game. 

These sort of back of an envelope 'heat maps' are unhelpful for any visual or analytic task. Quick to produce yes, but you can't make any sensible or quantifiable interpretation. Finally, we have no-one elses maps to look at so we simply have to presume that every other player's heat maps are in some way visually inferior to Messi's map.

Messy data. Messy clustering. Messy symbology. Messy map. Messy communication and very messy ability to interpret, compare or understand. Poor old Lionel Messi who is, quite literally, an innocent bystander in all of this...as the map, sort of, shows.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

When is a heat map not a heat map

Actually, the answer to the question in the blog post title is most of the time...

The term 'heat map' has gatecrashed the cartographic lexicon. It has seemingly replaced other, more established, more accurate and perfectly good terms. It's used as a catch all for any map that portrays a density of point-based pieces of information as a surface. Here, I try and explain why I find it unhelpful.

Heat maps have become a popularist way to label a surface representation of data that occurs at discrete points. On one hand the search for a better way of showing point based data which avoids death by push-pin is a sound cartographic approach. Imagine simply looking at a map of points and trying to make sense of the patterns. Chief Clarence 'Clancy' Wiggum would certainly struggle to make sense of the pattern of crime in Springfield just from coloured dots.

It's difficult to process patterns of dots (other than more here, less there) and even harder when you're looking at thousands of dots that overlap (death by pushpin) so...let's make a heat map!

In analytical terms there's a number of ways one might approach the problem. One way is to bin your data into regularly shaped containers like hexagons, effectively a spatial summary of the point data. Another way is to interpolate lines of equal value across the map to create a surface which then helps us to see areas that display similarly high or low values across the map. Of course it's important to remember that any interpolated surface is effectively inventing data values for the areas on the map for which you don't have data or sample points. It's therefore important to think whether you want data making up for the areas between your data points when you know damn well nothing exists.

For instance, make a map of temperature and you'll likely use sample points. It's perfectly reasonable to infer that temperature exists everywhere as a continuous surface so filling in the voids where you have no data is fine. If, on the other hand, you have accident data for road intersections and you interpolate a surface it makes much less sense. Intersections do not exist across space so filling in the voids with made up data values is not really appropriate.

Let's assume Chief Clancy is making a surface based on some sensible logic. These interpolation methods collectively result in an isarithmic map. That is, the planimetric mapping of a real or interpolated three-dimensional surface. So Chief Clancy might see the pattern of crime in Springfield a little more like this (and before someone suggests the interpolation is a little off..yes, it's just for illustrative purposes. I'm a cartonerd but seriously...):

These sorts of isarithmic maps are used everywhere for displaying temperature (isotherm) to atmospheric pressure (isobar); and from height (isohypse) to population distribution (isopleth). They're also commonly, and erroneously,  referred to as heat maps.

Technically speaking, the map of crime activity points that Chief Clancy is looking at might be termed isometric data since it shows locations of discrete events that do not necessarily exhaust space. The fact that the dots are coloured actually suggests more than one incident. Rather than a simple interpolation of discrete points, he might instead do a kernel density analysis that uses the values at each point as a weighting factor to end up with a map like this:

His analysis needs to very carefully decide the shape and size of the kernel (search area) used to compare nearest neighbours. A small kernel will create a map that looks much like the original...just discrete points on the map but displayed as splodges. Choosing a kernel that is too large will create an over-smoothed, highly generalised map.

A more advanced version of kernel density analysis might be used to calculate a K function which constructs zones around events as a way of summing and weighting values which end up on the interpolated surface. It goes beyond simply looking at nearest neighbours and can help map patterns across a wider area. They're also commonly, and erroneously,  referred to as heat maps.

Hopefully Clancy knows what he is doing and not simply using a slider in a haphazard manner to achieve a map he likes the look of. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with sliders but it's also useful to know what the slider is doing to make what you're seeing.

If Chief Clancy is feeling particularly brave he may even fire up his favourite geo-analytical powerhouse and calculate the Getis-Ord Gi* statistic for the variable in question. The resulting p-values are mapped to show where statistically significant high or low clusters occur spatially.

This is often termed a hot spot map (again, sometimes referred to as heat maps) and which typically use red to show 'hot' areas (or a lot of something) and blue to show 'cold' areas (or much less of the thing in question). It doesn't show hot places and cold places and, frankly, if you don't use the right data inputs and know what it's mapping it can distort your view of reality beyond comprehension. It's a map of statistically significant clusters of data based on a multitude of decisions taken in setting the parameters. It's a complex but perfectly good analytical technique though the fact we're now beginning to see the introduction of terms that reflect 'heat' and, often, colours that connotate temperature, it begins to form a basis for misinterpretation.

These techniques form a valuable collection of related methods that create interpolated surfaces from discrete data points. They create isarithmic maps; predominantly isopleths because they map distributions of populations of some variable or another. Referring to them as a heat map is wrong because a heat map is something else entirely. Badging them as isarithmic maps is fine but it's important to recognise that they have very different data demands, functionality, complexity and potential and knowing these differences helps you understand and interpret the maps they create.

Just for the cartonerds, let's decipher the definition...an isopleth is a form of isarithmic map and shows change in the quantifiable variable over space. They differ from choropleth maps in that the data is not grouped into a pre-defined region (e.g. countries, census areas). They also work particularly well for data that exists continuously and which doesn't necessarily change at an abrupt point or a pre-defined boundary. In this sense, any surface of population based data that can be interpolated from point data is an isopleth. That's ISOPLETH from iso- Ancient Greek ἴσος (ísos, equal) +‎ Ancient Greek πλῆθος (plêthos, a great number)....or more easily understood as a map that shows equal numbers. The equal numbers being demarcated by isolines of equal value which divide areas which display similar characteristics.

So I've hopefully established that isarithmic maps are not heat maps but if we turn our attention to the use of descriptors and colours in such maps it helps to understand the misrepresentation a little more.

In all of the example maps Chief Clancy looked at earlier the colour schemes suited the analytical technique. The kernel density maps used single hue colour schemes which went from light to dark. The Getis-Ord Gi* map used a diverging scheme to show clusters of positive p-values (red) and clusters of negative p-values (blue)...though there's no particular reason why red to blue should be used other than to reinforce the use of terms such as 'hot' and 'cold'.

In all of these maps you can clearly see the areas that represent higher data values and the areas that represent lower data values. It's easy for us because darker shades are interpreted as 'more'. We describe patterns using terms such as 'more' or 'less' rather than 'hot' or 'cold' because that helps us understand the data using language that refers to quantities., 'With diverging colour schemes we naturally interpret the data as diverging away from a central value.  Again, 'more' and 'less' is useful as is 'statistically significant cluster' if we're referring to the result of the Getis-Ord Gi* statistic. Using heat related terms adds unnecessary confusion which is further compounded by the colour schemes often used for heat mapping.

The idea of showing heat using a rainbow colour scheme is likely based on the sort of colours you get when you 'see' something through an infra-red camera like so:

This technique is specifically designed to measure heat and display hot and cold areas so the use of reds and blues makes sense as it matches the data and the phenomena being mapped. It matches our cognitive ability to process what the colour actually represents. Greens in the middle are still odd though because it doesn't really suggest a mid-heat value. Sometimes these colour schemes avoid green altogether.

While this colour scheme arguably works when we're talking of temperature, when the 'mapped' phenomena is actually hotter or colder, transposing this colour scheme for any mapped data variable causes problems in our ability to cognitively process patterns like so:

Here, Chief Clancy is looking at a beautiful rainbow. Blues for colder areas, reds for warmer and yellow and white for, well, white hot areas. The middle is glowing white hot with progressively 'cooler' colours radiating out in a beautifully smoothed gradient. Springfield is on fire and the interpolated values appear to show a lovely linear gradient reflected by the colours. Does the data Clancy is working with vary spatially according to a linear distribution away from source locations? Linear rarely happens in reality so such maps can present a distorted view of what's going on with the underlying data.

More likely, such a map presents the results of an over-generalised cluster algorithm that has been combined with the application of a linear spectral colour ramp. Given the point of this blog post, it's not a heat map either...it's just a version of some form of density analysis that results in a surface that does away with isolines altogether and compounds the problems of interpretation by using an unhelpful colour scheme. It's averaged out the analysis and complicated the symbolisation which doesn't help the user task at hand. There's even some transparency thrown in for good measure to see a little of the basemap which also adds to the visual clutter. Of course,defaults can always be changed so let's not get too bogged down in colour choices though using spectral schemes to show quantitative data is never a good idea.

Clancy needs help but unfortunately the routine use of a red and blue diverging colour schemes and spectral colour schemes on such maps has become so ingrained in popular use that's he doesn't know it's not helping him understand the map particularly well. Why should more of something be 'hotter' and less of something be blue and 'colder'? We're talking about data here...not the weather, though given the dreadful use of colour schemes on weather maps it's unsurprising we've seen them re-purposed for the sort of maps people call heat maps.

Of course, if you move your heat map slider in a different way to define a different implementation of the cluster mapping method and choose different colours you may end up with this:

Or even this...

Different sized splodges with different colours that tickle your fancy. And all from the same data. What a cornucopia of colour that means, well... very little. And once you've made your data look like something and added some random colours...you can even animate it. Doh!

The key to understanding the utility of this type of map is having a good understanding of your data in the first place and choosing an appropriate technique and colour scheme to go with your analysis. While making these type of maps simply is helpful to many, it's also really important to support them in making better maps rather than in allowing them to fall into the trap of making basic mapping errors.

So, back to the main point... if none of the above are heat maps...and the misnomer has been reinforced through the use of poorly defined colour ramps...what exactly is a heat map? Does such a thing actually exist?

Yes...but strictly speaking it's not really a map; it's a visual representation of a data matrix.

A heat map has been around in statistical analysis for a good while. It's defines a graphical approach to code a matrix of data values into a graphical representation using colours. It's designed to reveal the hierarchy of row and column structure. Rows in the matrix are ordered so that similar rows are near each other and you see cluster trees on the axes. A heat map looks like this:

The closest spatial representation of data that might reasonably have similarities to a real heat map is a tree map...and that's a cartogram which has destroyed geography for the sake of creating an ordered matrix. At a stretch I understand why raster surfaces used to represent geography might be mistaken as heat maps because they are formed from a rectangular grid of pixels. But as I've set out here, I'd contest that the use of the mapping term isopleth already differentiates it from other map types and that we don't need to borrow a term from graph theory to simply replace one that already suits the technique. Proper heat maps go further than the mis-named cartographic versions anyway because the matrix is designed to illustrate correlations between variables through linked lines and other axis annotation.

Want to read more about real heat maps? Check out this rather good paper by Leland Wilkinson and Michael Friendly who explored the history of the term and of heat maps in 2008 (and from where the above illustration was sourced). It's prior art for heat maps in their true sense.

Tempted to make a heat map? I'd suggest doing a density analysis on your point data, experiment with different bandwidths (and understand what it is you're trying to map) and symbolize the resulting surface as an isopleth map using anything other than a rainbow or spectral colour scheme. If you're using a slider and default colours...think about what the slider is doing. Use it sensibly and try and understand how it's interpolating your data and, if you can...change the bloody colours from a rainbow palette! If you can't, then maybe try a different map type altogether.

More generally, I find that the introduction of replacement terminology where perfectly good terms already exists creates a further division between what we might call professional cartography and the wider world of map-making. I'd prefer to see those worlds come together under the same umbrella and for a better understanding to emerge through the use of a standard and accurate nomenclature. We don't need to dumb down mapping or how we talk about it to encourage better mapping.

PS - with resspect and apologies to The Simpsons whose image I have used and abused in this post.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Cartography is a great word

Before you start reading, grab a coffee or, possibly, something a little stronger...this is a lengthy stream of thought that I've tried to fashion into something that makes sense. Sometimes it may wander...

We’ve all heard, seen (and possibly written) the meme’s that have heralded the death of cartography, the death of the printed map and so forth but these slow-news-month scare stories couldn’t be further from the truth. More maps are made by more people than ever before and if anyone is worrying that print mapping is dead then Mapbox might just have precipitated the second coming with their new printing capabilities. The irony.

The number of books on maps published in the last year has also rocketed and someone you know was likely spoilt for choice when choosing their 2014 Christmas gift for a map-nerd son or daughter. Plenty of delicious coffee-table books full of great maps are currently available (see Jonathan Crowe’s review to which I’d add the NACIS Atlas of Design and James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti’s superb The Information Capital as two of my recent favourites). 2015 looks set to bring more of everything to our browsers, our desktops and our bookshelves. The appetite for maps has never been greater and sure, we see a lot of cartographic crud that we have to wade through but in some senses it makes the gems even more special when you find them. Map-making and the interest in maps, then, is in rude health…but what of cartography? We rarely see mention of ‘cartography’.

Cartography is defined as the discipline dealing with the art, science and technology of making and using maps.  The International Cartographic Association (ICA) has recently been accepted as a full member of the International Council for Science (ICSU) which is the international non-governmental organization devoted to international cooperation in the advancement of science. Cartography just graduated but I find that the term and what it stands for remain a term of derision for many. My feeling is we need to re-establish cartography as modern and relevant, because it is.

There’s no doubt cartography has undergone significant change in the last decade and a number of people have claimed we’d be better off if we just forgot about ‘cartography’ as a definition or as a framework to talk about mapping. Change is nothing new in the mapping sciences because evolution has always radically alter the mechanisms of map-making from time to time. This is usually a technological change (engraving, lithography, computers, cellphones, Google…) which has a massive impact on both the design and production of maps and also the people involved in map-making. New people enter the mapping landscape which both challenges and reinvigorates but it usually goes hand-in-hand with cartographer’s moaning because it usually means they have to retrain, reinvent or let go of ageing techniques. Feeling threatened or at least a little frustrated by change is inevitable if your skills and experience are overtaken so frequently by the new kids on the block. It’s tiring to perpetually invest the energy to keep pace; and also to face the challenge of people trying to constantly rename what it is you do.

Cartography is a word that many new to map-making seem reluctant to use. Not so long ago, up stepped the self-proclaimed ‘neo-cartographers’ whose moniker describes the people and processes of making a map outside of the community of professional map-makers. That’s everyone right? I’ve written about my views of neo-cartography being a fallacy before but don’t we already have a definition that’s relevant? It’s called ‘amateurism’; and before you baulk and rip me to shreds I say that not in a derogatory sense but merely as a perfectly good differentiator. An ‘amateur’ is a person attached to a particular pursuit, study or science in a non-professional way. Amateurs may have little professional training. Many are self-taught. The negative connotations of amateurism mean that sub-par work is often easily explained but that’s also broadly true as most of the time a non-professional will not be able to produce work to the same standard as a professional. So why do we constantly need new terms to describe making and using maps when the word cartography, whether it’s as a professional or amateur pursuit, seems to fit? It’s perfectly acceptable to have professional and amateur cartographers making maps. Many of the best maps were made by amateur cartographers anyway.

New terminology tends to be sought to describe a movement that wants to be seen as different from the past. New. Fresh. Exciting. Maybe being unencumbered by the perceived shackles of formal training is what defines a neo-spirit but they’re just bringing different skills and new insight to bear to cartography which is no bad thing. The open source movement, Volunteered Geographic Information and Citizen Science have been the backbone of the rise of ‘neo’ because computer scientists and programmers need to have something to programme and geographical data (and lots of it) has coordinates which lend themselves very well to computer processing, particularly if there are other numbers attached to these coordinates. Coders saw geo as a vast untapped marketplace and jumped on the mapping bandwagon…partly because cartography and professional cartographers were too slow to grasp the mettle. There’s a lot of positive work that these ‘amateur cartographers’ (and professional computer scientists) have brought to bear and I don’t disagree that formal definitions of cartography don’t need challenging. But I do take issue with the creation of a new species called neo-cartographer (or whatever) because it seems to go hand-in-hand with decrying what’s gone before while at the same time hyphenating the label to bring a sense of stature to their own efforts. They are fledgling cartographers whether they like it or not, albeit not necessarily in the sense of what has gone before. Rather than embrace cartography they prefer to distance themselves and even become vocal in their anti-cartographic sentiment because for some reason they know best. I got into a brief twitter exchange recently because a ‘designer’ had stood up at a small conference gathering and proclaimed they were a designer and that meant they need not talk with a cartographer because they wouldn’t have anything to add that they couldn’t already better. That arrogance and derision is quite common. My retort was simple…everything is designed and cartographers design maps; so what’s the domain specialism of a generic ‘designer’? Truth is, if the designer had collaborated with a cartographer the map product would likely be far better than sum of the parts anyway. Same goes for your average coder…in fact the same goes for probably 99% of amateur cartographers.

This issue with the word cartography goes deeper. This is about people’s perceptions and misconceptions of what cartography is and what a cartographer does. Of course, the term cartography isn’t as old as map-making anyway and so the claim that it’s the defining framework for mapping can be plausibly challenged. The term cartography is modern, loaned into English from the French ‘cartographie’ in the 1840s, based on Middle Latin carta "map". While relatively new, it has nevertheless become synonymous with the definition of the art and science of making and using maps. It helps to define a discipline (and now an official science). Yet the public perception of cartography is also awash with a lack of understanding of what a cartographer does. To many, cartographers just make maps ‘pretty’. They are more concerned with finessing the aesthetics of the map than the need to make the damn thing and publish it. Maybe that perception bears fruit in some instances but it’s a gross generalization and most professional cartographers I know take a healthy approach to the graphical marriage of form and function.

And these misconceptions can get quite alarming. I recently had a conversation at Border Control at Los Angeles International airport where the Officer (wearing the obligatory hand-gun and devoid of humour) asked my occupation. I often say something nebulous that will get me through unscathed but increasingly I feel I should just say it as it is so I said ‘cartographer’ when asked my occupation (curiously, despite the fact I have never had the term ‘cartographer’ as part of any job title). Stunned silence ensued and the Officer eventually asked ‘what part of the cars do you fix?’. My British sense of humour wanted to say any number of things but the lack of humour and obligatory hand gun made me pause and simply reply that I made maps. The Officer retorted that she never knew that; so we had a brief conversation about how her map gets on her cellphone and yes, that there are places that still need mapping. After I’d been processed I wished her a pleasant day as I wandered through and pondered on the fact that her impression is probably quite common…and it’s really not that far removed from people’s knowledge and understanding of cartography in the geo and mapping industries themselves. I’m serious. The number of people I know who work in the geo industries who wouldn’t know a decent map if it reared up and bit them on the arse is staggering. Sometimes they make maps. Sometimes they market or herald maps made by others. Mostly they just carry on in their own ignorant way satisfied that their own facts are perfectly OK…and get annoyed if people point out deficiencies. I also recall reading the jacket notes of a book on cartography, published in 2009, that claimed they wrote it because no other books on cartography existed. That’s a blatant lie. Just because you didn’t look very far doesn’t make it a fact. And there’s the problem…people prefer their own facts rather than making the effort to learn those that have already been proven or written. So these negative connotations about cartography begin to blur into personal facts by people predisposed to that argument and view of identity.

So if you’re a coder, journalist or designer (or anyone new to making maps) and you make maps as part of your work…you’re involving yourself in cartography, but you likely never call yourself a cartographer because of those connotations and perceptions. If you’re going to play in the same sand-pit as other cartographers I propose it would help rekindle respect for the discipline, rather than perpetuate divisions, if you learnt a bit about what being a cartographer is really all about. I don’t propose you take a class because you’ve done that already to become an expert in your own field but appreciate that some have taken classes in cartography and that makes them experts in that field. We can’t all be experts in everything and with such crossover between job requirements these days we inevitably need to tool ourselves in ways that make us amateurs in some things while professional in others.

The sweeping technological changes and turnover of people at the forefront of cartography means change takes place almost as regularly as fashion but like fashion, most new is actually old and reinvented for a new audience who are simply arriving at their map-making using a different approach. The rise of open this and that has brought this new set of people to the light table who use spatial data as a way to flex their computing muscles or to tell their data-led stories. Modern browsers, new programming languages, SDKs, APIs, open geospatial data and the freedom of the internet created the perfect storm and there were many storm chasers just waiting to jump into the mapping milieu. I recently compared the internet to Mos Eisley spaceport from Star Wars (Episode IV) and the famous Obi-Wan quote “Mos Eisley spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.” It’s true. The internet has brought wonders but also troubled times for cartography because it has largely tried to denounce it (mostly with terrible maps it must be said). The neos got their mapping hands dirty but also made cartography a little grubby in their dismissal of much that had gone before. The mindset of many of these amateurs has sullied cartography because the quality of the result rarely matters even though there’s been some beautifully disruptive gems amongst the general mess that’s been created. But here’s the sting…the more these amateurs work with maps, the more their work matures and the less they remain amateurs – they become part of the profession through practice and experience. No one ever said you have to have qualifications to be a professional. On-the-job experience counts for a lot if you’re willing to learn, develop and develop knowledge and understanding to go along with your experience.

Because change is inevitable (and why should we stop anyone from having a go or getting involved in map-making anyway?), it’s beholden on cartographers and those geospatial experts who know something about high quality, meaningful mapping and data visualization to accept change because it’s part of the territory. It’s not particularly unique to cartography either so the idea that we get a raw deal is perhaps simply part of a stereotypical view of reality. The fact is, change happens and it happens rapidly. Becoming part of the change, being the change you want and working to ensure the fundamental basis of cartography is retained is vitally important. If we leave cartography to the amateurs we’re running the risk of leaving behind all the good stuff for short-term gain, reinvented techniques and an approach that tends to prefer butting heads with convention rather than embracing it and making good use of it.

I’m simplifying and generalizing of course (it’s what cartographers do) but the brain and skill drain is palpable in much of what we see in cartography. Academic programmes are largely gone or where they do exist they’re seen as too theoretical and not practical enough (by neos) or are too far down the buttonology road to be considered ‘proper’ courses (by academic cartographers). National Mapping Agencies have had to rapidly alter their course to take advantage of new approaches. Maps are now personalized and mostly we default to the ubiquitous offerings on our desktops or mobile devices…and we consume transient maps about this whimsical topic or that fanciful theme daily. And cartographers still moan. We’ve got to get with it as much as we want our new map-making friends to get with it. Embrace change but work to promote what cartography is, how it can be inclusive, not exclusive and what knowledge and skills one might reasonably expect a cartographer to possess as they develop from amateur to professional. That may render some people as perpetual amateurs but that shouldn’t be negative. We are all amateurs at something or other (sport, cooking, writing…).

In pondering how to encourage people to value cartography; to encourage cartographers to stand up for their profession and expertise; and show those new to map-making what cartography is about I was inspired by some parallels in the debate on User Interface design (UI) and User Experience (UX). Up until only a few years ago you’d never hear of a job title with either UI or UX in it, let alone in combination with the ultra-trendy ‘designer’ or ‘architect’ monikers. These labels have even entered the mapping domain…map designer, map architect etc (never cartographic designer or cartographic architect you’ll note). As a tangent, it’s an improvement to ‘GIS cartographer’ or someone who can make ‘GIS maps’. What is that? I digress. It’s meaningless, that’s what; and it demonstrates if you’re hiring that you don’t really know what it is you want or need. So what of the label of cartographer? It’s a perfectly good label but it carries baggage (to wit…the moaning guys hunched over draughtsman’s tables with pens). Erik Flowers’ excellent look at the differences between how User Experience wants to be seen and how it is seen (www.uxisnotui.com) has many parallels in how cartography and cartographers are viewed and how they might wish to be viewed. His thesis is, effectively, that UX is poorly understood, that people don’t really understand what it means and, consequently, they have little idea of the scope of work that a User Experience Designer might be capable of. He’s right. And one could argue that this is the problem that faces cartographers and cartography whether we’re talking about Border Control Officers or the latest neo-map-hacker. Flowers produced this fantastic sheet that explains in very simple terms how UX wants to be seen and how it is typically seen:

The point of Flowers’ list is to try and debunk what a User Experience expert is, what their skillset and expertise is and what roles they are able to fill. Some are entire jobs or careers and some are perhaps a little more transient but what he wants you to realize is that UX designers are not just people who do UI design or who think the world can be solved through UI design. He wants you to appreciate that there is much more to being a UX expert than many might immediately think.

So I made a similar list for cartography and the sort of expertise and roles cartographers are involved in.

How cartography might be seen

Before you claim that not every professional cartographer wants to be seen like this let me be clear…I agree. The list is of expertise and skills that cartographers will possess in different combinations and to different levels. Possibly not every cartographer can claim they are proficient in every part of this list (actually, I’d be wary of any that do) but it shows the breadth and depth of the cartographic profession.

And on the other hand, the following version of the same list is generally the way in which cartographers tend to be viewed: as an ill-defined, nebulous group of grumpy people who tend to just make maps and complain about everyone else’s maps, note the perception of this has also seen a subtle change from the word critique (constructive, supportive, rigorous and justified) to Police (simply critical). And yeah…it’s in Comic Sans.

How cartography is generally seen

This is an unfortunate situation but I’d challenge anyone within the cartographic community to refute that this is how many others look at us and what we do. It’s no wonder people claim all we do is colour in with computers (a phrase my old Dean of Faculty used in describing the geo, GIS and cartography courses at Kingston University…he’s risen to Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor while GIS and geo have all but closed…terrible sign of the times). But these sort of narrow-minded people never seem to really understand or want to understand what it is that a cartographer brings to the table. In fact, you’ll see this lack of understanding permeate across job adverts and specifications and even within organisations that should know better. Whose fault is this though? Well I began this by complaining that cartographers simply complain and in many respects I feel that as a community we have largely been the architects of this perception. Where once cartographers were Royal appointments they are now backroom staff and, to be frank, you’re likely to need to be a coder or something else first and foremost and an amateur cartographer second. The ability to know how to make a map is tangential to many other job requirements. It’s also the case that when you make a map many employers wouldn’t know the difference between a good and poor map anyway. Quality is low on the list of priorities for many. Speed and turnover is more useful. And so the path to the dark side is complete as apprentice becomes the master. A new order is formed that eschews the past and leads to the rise of an alternative with a new mindset. Yes, I’m using a Star Wars analogy again which even had those on the good side like Han Solo mocking the Jedi: “Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” Trouble is…actually, most people side with the Jedi in Star Wars and ultimately appreciate it. Good triumphs evil. Just like the Jedi, cartography gets bashed about a fair bit from time to time but it needs to reinvigorate, return and prevail as the way in which we set out the cartographic order in our universe.

We’re currently awash with neologisms because, frankly, if you’re a new player in the mapping landscape you want to be seen as new, avant garde. You want to make your mark and not be viewed as simply regurgitating the cruddy old stuff you think cartographer’s of yesteryear hold so dear. Neologisms such as GIS mapper, map-maker, map designer and…neo-cartographer. In fact, you’ll have to hunt hard to find any ‘modern’ map-maker wanting to use the simple term cartographer to describe what it is they do. These neologisms have become personas. They take on new meaning as they attempt to shake off the past and define a new set of skills and expertise. They also define a way to divide the past from the present but that, to my mind is simply divisive for the sake of it. Why does everything have to be seen as new? Why is there such a determination for people to want to break from the past and to differentiate themselves so markedly. There are clearly now improved ways of doing cartography that replace older ways but it’s evolutionary, not revolutionary. Does the fact I can’t code in Javascript or I prefer to make a map using a GUI rather than code up CSS make me a bad cartographer? No. It just means I do my work a different way. The International Cartographic Association’s definition of cartography covers it I think. Let’s not reinvent what it is and let’s accept amateurs as well as professionals and see them as bringing different things to the table. Let’s also try and ensure the rest of the world understands cartography and what it is to be a cartographer a little better. And that starts with the geo-professions more broadly developing a better understanding of the broad church of cartographic expertise and practice rather than constantly trying to avoid it, ignore it or reinvent what it is they do.

My point is simple (despite the lengthy essay)…whether we call it cartography or not (and we should call it cartography), cartographers have much to offer. They are rarely seen as people that have such a varied skillset as I’ve set out here but I would encourage us to shift our thinking. Being a cartographer is a fine profession. What needs to happen is to explain far better to people what we do. We need to go beyond simply saying ‘I make maps’ because that reinforces the stereotypes. We need to avoid infighting between those who prefer to print their maps and those who prefer to code. We need to accept that some make maps using GIS software and some use Illustrator and Photoshop. You know what…some people use a wide range of approaches and I have Esri software, Adobe products, QGIS and Tilemill installed on my computer. I use ArcGIS a lot (inevitably, I’m paid to…though in the past this has been by choice also). I also have Mapbox and CartoDB accounts. It’s allowed.

Beyond the different ways in which we approach the craft, we can start re-establishing cartography by encouraging people inside and out to acknowledge the expertise a cartographer can offer and see them as vital in an organizational context. ICA are making efforts to underpin this with the designation (by the United Nations Committee of Experts on Global Geospatial Information Management) of 2015-2016 as International Map Year which is formally launched at the 27th International Cartographic Conference in Rio de Janeiro in August. My good friend, current ICA President Georg Gartner has also written in a similar vein recently on The Relevance of Cartography and Challenges to Cartography. As cartographic professionals, we all need to help develop a better public image; one that encourages amateur cartographers to see themselves as such (or as working towards becoming professional) and that allows people more generally to understand how the map on their mobile phone arrived there. It’s not magic. It’s cartography. It's a great word so let's embrace it.

Postscript: I'm no longer Editor of The Cartographic Journal after a 9 year stint but if I were...this would be the first Editorial of 2015.

Postscript 2: Well done if you got to the end. I hope it's provoked some thinking.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Favourite maps from 2014

I'll get to my favourite maps from 2014 in a moment but first a few thoughts...

My impression of much of what we've seen in 2014 is that web mapping is maturing. Neo is not so neo any more. There are still plenty of ghastly mashups, nonsensical efforts and collections of '40 maps that will change your mind on something you never cared about anyway' but there's better quality too. While 2013 seemed to be the year when everyone was simply trying to out-score each other with different map styles, 2014 has seen less of that trend. Perhaps we're getting a little bored of the fact you can colour in your map a million different ways. Maybe we're moving a little away from the preoccupation with form (nice to look at) and beginning to see function reappear as a key reason for a map to be made.

The trend of mapping data from social media does, however, seem to be continuing unabated. Most commentators agree that Twitter data, for instance, is just plain dreadful with so much error, bias and uncertainty as to make it practically useless for teasing out meaningful trends. I've yet to see a well made map of Twitter data though technologically we're seeing some impressive data processing efforts to get the data on the map. It's a start but finding more nuanced ways of revealing something useful needs to be the next step.

Big data is still a buzzword but so often used inappropriately. As one of my colleagues said earlier in the year "if it fits on a portable drive it isn't big data so #$%* off". Maps are not exempt from the trend to simply map more and larger datasets and a key challenge is to re-think ways of representing millions of features on a map so as to make the map readable and to encode some message or meaning into the map. It's simply not good enough throwing a whole heap of data onto a map and expecting it to work, just because it's technically feasible to do so. Without cartography it's just a visual data dump even if you've coloured it in.

That brings me onto cartography in general. We're still seeing a marginalisation of cartography and cartographers by the avant-garde, the so-called new mapmakers. They seem, generally, to be more comfortable and less combative in the mapping space than a year or so ago (maturity again) but recognising so much of what has gone before still seems to elude many and they're still fond of reinvention. On the other hand, it's also true that cartographers still fail in reaching out and explaining their craft more widely. We are experts in our art and science and have a duty to share that with a society hungry for maps and mapping but I still see far too many who just sit back and watch from the sidelines. How many blogs do you see from real, proper cartographers? Why do we still hide good quality cartographic research in academic journals? This latter point may seem somewhat ironic given I just stepped down from editing one such journal but I've become increasingly uncomfortable with the journal as a sole means of disseminating research. If you've got something to say - say it to the people who need to know; and they're likely not the ones reading that academic journal. That said it's been pleasing to see some recent changes to how news-related blog sites report on cartographic work. There's less of the hysterical reporting of some latest greatest map (that likely isn't) and some good reporting of real cartographic work. Citylab have been doing this well recently.

2015 should see more development in the 3D space with improvements in the way in which data can be visualized more easily and responsively in web browsers. This being the case, it's incumbent on us to properly harness the potential of 3D and not simply use it for the sake of using it. In the same way that I've yet to see a real use for Torque animations (flashing lights showing where people tweet being the biggest culprit...stop press, actually this use showing Alcatraz escapee survival chances begins to use it meaningfully) it's also true that 3D is often used for no good reason. If data is truly temporal and has important characteristics that a temporal depiction can show then design to show that. If there is value in delivering the data to make some additional and purposeful use of the third-dimension then great - but there's more pitfalls to mapping both the temporal and third dimensions that need to be assessed to make the map work.

I'd also like 2015 to be a year in which cartography becomes just a little more recognised for its worth as a discipline and a profession. It seems we've been trying to get  everyone to think and work like cartographers for years but I'm not convinced this is the right approach. They're all busy trying to be professionals in their own areas. It also seems that for this to work, it would require a very rigid rules-based approach to allow people to follow to get to the end map (literally mapping by numbers). While many cartographic rules (I prefer to call them guidelines) exist to lead people down the right path, experimentation is playing a big part in modern cartography. It always has if truth be told. Some of this is in the academic space; some in the hacking space; but both modes of design and production are useful. Cartography is a profession and cartographic professionals are knowledgeable and practiced. They have a lot to offer. I firmly believe collaboration is key and I've long said that there's an important distinction between a professional and an amateur in any discipline or profession. I don't use the word amateur in a derogatory sense either - it's used to differentiate someone who is not formally trained, educated or practiced in a particular realm. We're all professionals at something and we're all amateurs at far more besides. Recognising that and collaborating with professionals from another area is likely to yield results that are greater than the sum of the parts. It might also save you time and frustration!

In a personal sense I made a frivolous map this year (the Proclaimers 500 miles nonsense) that got more hits to my blog (12,000) than virtually everything else I have ever done put together. It's possibly the worst piece of work I've ever done. It's not even a proper map. That's how frustrating and disappointing the internet can be.

So with that mini-review/rant out of the way, let me run through a few of my favourite maps from 2014. I was politely waiting for others to post their own lists but I got bored waiting so thought I'd rustle up my choices. They're an eclectic set but as I've spent the year writing a daily blog on the ICA Map Design Commission blog it's been a relatively easy process to narrow down my favourites this year.

In Flight by Kiln (click image for web map)


The idea of telling stories with maps is not new. The re-emergence of this genre through the medium of the web with the compilation of related multimedia to create a narrative has been a big story itself in 2014. This effort in The Guardian's web site remains one of the best framed I've seen. Simple idea. Good content. Not over-produced.

Barclays Cycle Hire by Ollie O'Brien

Ollie's been doing some great work with the London Bicycle hire data, particularly with some online mapping. I really like this static representation which BMJ used the map as their cover art to highlight a paper that explored the health benefits of the bikeshare scheme compared to other forms of transport. It's a simple flow map but simple often works very well and the saturated red of the routes is a clear metaphor for a blood capillary network and resonates well as cover art. Ollie even chose to exclude all other detail except for the iconic River Thames in the style of Beck's underground map.

Tokyo by Benjamin Sack

A black and white, printed map. There's still space in a list like this for a terrific perspective drawing of Tokyo that when viewed close-up shows incredible detail. No fancy web controls here...just beautiful cartography that builds off a fine legacy of illustrative bird's eye views.

Breathing City by John Cherdarchuk

A simple concept that does manage to use animation to good effect to show how New York City's population structure changes over a 24 hour period. There's a lot of data in here but it's represented with clarity and the animation brings to life the ebb and flow. the moving graph helps to contextualize the work.

One dot for every Starbucks by David Yanofsky

Mapping cities at the same scale is important to support the cognitive process of visual comparison. It's as simple as using the right projection...or using small multiples and mapping the same phenomena at the same scale. I like the way small multiples supports the process of visual comparison in this map. It helps that there are so many Starbucks outlets that the structure of each city is well defined.

NYC Taxis: A day in the life by Chris Whong (click image for web map)


A large dataset brought to life by focusing on a single entity at a time. This moving map takes you on a journey of a single New York City taxi cab. It shows a range of useful information including fares and a timeline. A lovely piece of work that works well, marries form and function and shows us what web mapping can be.

The United States: Her natural & industrial resources by Stephen Smith

Stephen based his modern version of the U.S. on a mid-century map of the United Kingdom. He did so with a keen eye and shows that modern maps don't have to constantly reinvent to be eye-catching and purposeful. He perfected a beautiful aesthetic and gave life to his data.

Skintland by The Economist

You can't beat a bit of satire in cartography and the shapes of maps gives artists a perfect canvas upon which to create something new and provocative. The Scottish vote for independence was too good an opportunity to miss and The Economist did a great job in creating this satirical map for their front cover.

The Milford Track by Roger Smith/Geographx

Pseudo-natural looking depiction supports this map's primary function for wayfinding. It's a map for walkers. The fact it's printed on rock (yes, rock!) makes it practically indestructable as well. The hill-shading and deep, rich colours gives this map a somewhat unique visual appeal but different is good in this case. Fine, detailed contour lines and expertly designed and positioned typographic elements makes it work well as well as looking great.

Canyonlands National Park by Tom Patterson

Tom Patterson's beautiful cartography once again shines in this exquisite depiction of the terrain morphology and colours of the landscape. Realistic rendering of the terrain captures not only the vertical component but also something of the horizontal structure and bedding to give an impression of rock texturing synonymous of historic, manually drawn relief and rock shading. There's a lot going on in the creation of this map but the devil is in the detail and it's the detail that makes this so easy on the eye.

London: The Information Capital by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti

Not a map...but a book of maps. This really is a stunning collection of beautiful maps about all manner of different aspects of London and its populus. Each map has been carefully crafted to make the best use of the data and to speak to the theme of the map itself. Picking out one or two maps doesn't do it justice so here's a tip - go buy it. This is modern thematic cartography at its absolute best.

This is a top ten of sorts but honourable mentions to the following which on another day I might have easily put in this list:

Plan oblique relief Europe by Jonas Buddeberg, Bernhard Jenny & Johannes Liem
Space Station Earth by Eleanor Lutz
Columbia River watershed by Jake Coolidge
Lake Wakatipu by Simon Bardsley

All of these maps have got a fuller write-up on the ICA Map Design Commission blog this year. They contain large images and links where appropriate.

That's it for 2014, unless someone publishes something fantastic in the next 15 days. I'm also looking forward to everyone else's lists. They're bound to be different which is part of the subjective beauty of cartography. I'm also likely to have missed some.