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 ( 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.

Monday, 8 December 2014


When one thinks of a map depicting London, generally the image that appears is that of the map designed by Henry (Harry) Beck (1902 – 1974).


 It has become a design icon despite the fact that it eschews topography (other than the River Thames) and focuses on the simplified depiction of the topology of the Underground rail network. Beck’s map, designed in 1931, and first made available to London commuters in 1933, has become the image of the geography of London and, generally, the mental map that defines how London ‘works’.

Station names have become synonymous with the above-ground landscape and the network is such that most of London’s landmarks can be readily located through the map.  Navigating between them is a simple process and while the city above is a socio-economic and cultural soup, the simplicity of the map brings a sense of order, structure and sensibility. It is a perfect counterpoint to the chaos at street level.

In cartographic terms, Beck’s map works and marries form with function perfectly. It retains the status of ‘the’ map of London and manages to simplify the network, be harmonious, coherent, balanced and all with minimal topographic distortion. The symbols are clear and well crafted; the composition and layout, though somewhat challenged by network changes since 1933, remains useful; and the design has remained relatively unchanged over the last 80 years which creates stability in appearance and breeds confidence in its use.

However, in our recently published paper, William Cartwright and I assert that Beck’s map is over-used in myriad ways beyond the reason for its invention. The effect of such abuse has perhaps been to dilute its own place in cartographic history.

There have been many official iterations that have not always successfully married Beck’s design ideas with network changes; other metro maps have often tried to imitate but with mediocre success; and the map is perpetually used as a template for mimics and alternatives.

The map has become a model for parody which we assert is bad for the map and bad for cartography. We've even created an ironic tube map of tube maps that acts as a monument to all of the maps we've found - over 220 of them. It's called End of the Line and you can view the full web map here or explore an embedded version below.

You can view the published paper here (charges apply if you're not a subscriber to the Journal)

Or, you can download the FREE pre-print version of the paper here

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The cartography of Luminocity 3D

I've just had a good look at Luminocity 3D by Duncan Smith of CASA, Bartlett UCL. I'm impressed.

Web mapping is beginning to show signs of getting beyond the infantile and maturing from its pubescent phase and this example shows what can be achieved when you consider the entire user experience.

The maps are clean and well produced and there are plenty of them to support the inquiring mind, each accessible from a sensible tabbed box in the upper right. There's a permanent legend in the bottom right with not only a clear illustration of the chosen classification and shading schemes but a short description to assist interpretation. Nice to see data attribution and sources cited too. The title panel is sensible and although containing all the usual share and contact buttons is relatively unobtrusive. The graph in the bottom left is a masterstroke - it's linked to the map so we get a good scattergraph overview of the data distribution. Hovers provide the data summary and clicking a component in the graph orients the map appropriately. I really like the use of subtle graphical cues such as a slight animation to show an active element, or the emerging horizontal or vertical lines to anchor your eyes to the x or y axis. Likewise, hover controls on the map also deliver data summaries and the addition of a graphical yellow glow also gives focus. The ability to switch labels on and off easily also gives both unencumbered and contextual view of the map.

I also like the use of data re-apportionment into a consistent regularly tesselated grid which overcomes the problems of trying to use different geographies. It also makes moving between maps easier and supports visual comparisons more readily.

All that said, I'm going to get picky (because that's the purpose of the blog). I found myself frustrated by some of the cartographic choices.

Firstly, while diverging colour schemes tend to make a map look more interesting (more colours) it doesn't fit the data in a cognitive sense. Most of the datasets would benefit from a single hue progression or similar. Most of the variables are mapped with some arbitrary break defined where one colour morphs into another yet the importance of that critical middle value is never established. Is it important? The use of a diverging colour scheme suggests so but it is unlikely.

In fact, perusing through the maps shows an inconsistency in the graphical treatment. Most are diverging, some are single hue, others are multi-spectral (agh!).

Second, while the use of a regular grid is great the use of 3D on most of the maps is distracting. It's effectively a plan oblique representation of the hexagonal grid using a second variable to map population or employment density. Fine in principle and allows the map to remain planimetric (thus preserving scale across the map) but where you see large numbers of tall prisms it inevitably obscures a lot of detail behind. Prism maps have always suffered this limitation and I can understand that mapping the second variable gives us an important additional piece of information but it's questionable whether the cost of occlusion warrants it. The answer would be to include an ability to view the map from multiple orientations either through a rotate tool or just giving us, say, four of the cardinal compass directions. At least that way the map reader can see what's behind a block of prisms through map interaction.

Finally, the map works on multiple devices and some of the overlying boxes can be minimized - but not all. This does create a cramped feel on some devices and it would be nice for there to be more control over the position and visibility of these.

Like I said, I'm being picky but I'd like to see the cartography match the levels of the overall app, particularly in the use of colour.