Saturday, 8 December 2012

The Mystery of the Grey Line

Some debate at the office this week after a mysterious light grey line appeared on Google Maps from the Salton Sea to Monterey Bay that ran right over Redlands. Nothing better than a mapping curiosity to divert attention from work. So what is it?

Here are a selection of the theories on the mile wide feature:

  • mis-aligned administrative boundary...but there aren't any that shape or position nearby
  • San Andreas fault...but it only matches part of the fault's position and why would it be symbolised like this?
  • a little known boundary accidentally symbolised too large
  • a planned new high-speed public transport rail link (huh? in California...c'mon!)
  • a newly found subduction zone
  • a pipeline (well, it does disappear under the San Bernardino mountains)
  • a planned pipeline
  • an irrigation ditch
  • new river to drain what's left of the Salton Sea
  • a spatial reality distortion zone that just happens to fall across Redlands (think about it...)

The answer, thanks to a friendly Google man in the know: probably a rendering bug. Simple. Back to work...fixing our own rendering bugs ;-)

Bomb Sight Map of the Blitz

The Bomb Sight project recently went live, presenting the London WWII bomb census between 7.10.1940 and 6.6.1941. It's a terrific effort (kudos to the team), cataloging anti-invasions sites, bomb types and adding an overlay of the bomb maps themselves.  The map is the result of a year's worth of work which hints at the effort needed to build an interactive web map with good quality's not a trivial task! Just a few words on the cartography...

Given the sheer magnitude of the number of bombs at scales smaller than about 1:72k the map descends into an inevitable push-pin madness.  Now I can understand the point of this is perhaps to create a stunning visual impact of the sheer scale of bombing (and the word Blitz has never been more appropriately illustrated) but there are more useful ways to present the data.  Binning into geometric shapes (hexagons, squares) would create a summary overlay.  Some form of interpolated surface might also summarize the data better at these smaller scales. The scales could, of course, be constrained to avoid the map being able to zoom out too far. I'm in two minds over's probably the only example of data which isn't fundamentally destroyed by the amorphous blob of overlapping symbols simply because of the subject matter. Certainly, the scale of the Blitz is illustrated with a frighting clarity even though, technically, clarity is not usually supported by push-pin overload.

Bomb sight map at 1:577k

At 1:72k even though there isn't interactivity it's fascinating to see the patterns of bombing runs (clearly seen in the screen grab below).  It might be nice to code the symbols somehow to indicate they were part of a single run (perhaps a thin line to join related dots)....possibly at scales 1:36k and larger.

Bomb sight map at 1:72k

Zooming in further, the contrast between the subtle basemap and symbols is well crafted. When you zoom to the largest scales (1:4k) the symbols change from generic geometric shapes to pictorial designs and multiple bombs at a single site are presented as numerical markers that literally explode into component parts when clicked to reveal individual sites.  At 1:4k the map now allows interaction with each symbol containing a popup with basic details and a link to much more detailed information. The map works really well at these scales but I'd like to have seen interactivity developed at smaller scales. Given people's propensity to move away from web sites rapidly, it would be useful to incorporate interaction earlier to avoid them leaving the site before the good stuff....I found myself clicking around at smaller scales to prompt some form of interaction which is only rewarded once you have reached 1:4k.

Bomb sight map at 1:4k

There's some useful filters in terms of layers you can switch on or off and you can isolate the first night of the Blitz with a nice bar graph. The ability to search by neighbourhood, view other statistics and ancillary information, images etc is a great way to support alternative forms of inquiry and further mining of the information. The cartography could have supported the interaction further though. The popups could present the date as well as the place.  The data clearly has a temporal component so it shouldn't have been too difficult to provide a time slider allowing users to cycle through by date, or even play an animated version. The Android app version adds in functionality to use the phone's location to zoom to the local area and an augmented reality mode that supports the overlay of bomb details as you wander round. Neat!

Overall a really great example of how a web map can be used as a portal to archive material and how the map is part of the overall presentation which works well when you have a rich dataset. In my opinion, some tweaking of the cartography would help...not to make it 'pretty' but to summarize the data better at certain scales and make the map more effective across scales rather than only at larger scales. The point here is really to emphasise that a multiscale web map is really a series of individual maps that has to function at each scale. The bomb sight map works brilliantly at some, but less so at others which impacts on the consistency of the user experience across scales. Building a multiscale web map requires careful planning of each scale along with a clear idea of the transition of data representation, symbol design and interactivity across scales. There aren't many that get the balance right but this web map is certainly one of the better examples.

Monday, 26 November 2012

LGA National Map of Shared Services cartojunk

This one from @StevenFeldman who is seemingly learning that pushpin maps are not actually that good.  It's taken me a while to persuade him that applying some design KnowHow (to add to his KnowWhere) is a really important part of the data dissemination and communication process and this example from the Local Government Authority web site is a perfect example.

I'm not going to go on and on but here's the thing...when you click on this map some really useful information appears but:
poor symbols that don't differentiate
poor reference backdrop that just adds visual clutter
overlapping symbols at small scales that just creates visual noise

The map needs far more nuanced design to enable it to operate as a multiscale information product.  Some form of aggregation at small scale that then proper symbol design to differentiate meaning between different classes. Maps like this are lazy.  Yes, good maps take time to create but this sort of map does a disservice to the information behind it. Who will stay to interrogate this map? Answer...very few...they're off to another web site.

The Economist ponders map types

The Economist recently asked for reader opinions on the types of map used to portray the data it uses. It focused on the choice between cartograms, choropleths and proportional symbol maps.  I added comments which are reprinted below but you should read the original article here first.

Poor mapping gives the wrong message. Most are unaware of map theory so mistakes go unnoticed; misinformation is propagated. That said, asking readers their opinion is like a doctor asking a patient what medicine they prefer. The doctor has the conferred expertise to make a sound judgment.  The same is true here so my comments are based on my professional experience to add to the mix.

Population equalized area cartograms are impactful but difficult to decipher because of massive distortions.  We’re atuned to see our world in a particular way (normally through the hideously distorted Mercator lens) so when familiar shapes are further modified we struggle.  Numerous alternatives use circles, squares, hexagons and non-contiguous areas which gives choice.  I like cartograms but am used to them, know how to construct them and don’t have difficulty in deciphering the content.  They work best for global datasets where continents can be seen.  For headline grabbing infographics then a cartogram is hard to beat but one way of giving readers visual comfort is to add a second, smaller map using a more conventional method for comparison.

Cartograms rescale geography to account for differences in size of areas used to report data values.  If a conventional map type is used that maintains geography, this difference often isn’t accounted for and the map is worthless. The classic example is the choropleth that maps totals. Consider the number of medals that Team GB won at London 2012.  Greater London has a population of 8278251 with 10 medal winners (0.12 medals per 100,000 people). Cardiff has 346100 people and 4 medal winners (1.16 medals per 100,000 people).  A map of totals shows Greater London as visually dominant and Cardiff much less so when the reverse is true. Normalized results allow proper per capita comparisons across the map that account for underlying populations.  The classification scheme used is also vital as it can dramatically alter appearance. There are many choices (natural breaks, equal interval, quantile, standard deviation etc.) and each dataset requires exploration to avoid imbuing false patterns.  Choropleths are bland but they do their job. Make good use of other design principles to combine functionality with a useful aesthetic.  Your colours are poor. Green for non-export markets confuses and neutral grey would be a better choice.  You use light peach, through orange/pink to a heavily saturated red last seen during the cold war on propagandist maps! It’s visual noise. Adding Catalonia in burgundy makes it seem part of the choropleth spectrum yet isn’t. Good colours go a long way to making the map work. Legends are important to see the classification scheme but the map should be able to tell the headline story without one. All choropleths suffer from dominant large areas so where possible use an equal area projection; and inset maps for those parts of the map that contain small geographic areas.

Your proportional symbols are too similar, leading to the impression that exports are similar.  Greater variation in symbol size would help.  Transparency deals with overlaps but won’t always work where large data values occur in smallest areas. Colours could be improved and a neutral background would help with contrast. Humans aren’t good at estimating differences between areas.  How many people can accurately tell if one circle is double the size of another? There are ways to adjust for our underestimation but which introduces further complexity.

You might consider dot density, dasymetric  or, for this subject a flow map would suit.  Flow lines from Catalonia to neighbouring countries could be scaled by width to indicate proportions.  My rudimentary reworking of Minard’s flow map of British Coal Exports shows how flow can be represented. If you’re presenting maps online then consider hover and click events to reveal data values or additional information. This pairs back the map to essential graphics while allowing people to delve into the content interactively.

So the answer isn’t straightforward.  Consider each dataset independently of preconceived ideas about map type.  Think about the story you want to tell to inform your choice.  Once chosen, the next trick is to design it to work effectively and marry form and function meaningfully.  This isn’t easy and is the main reason why so many poor maps are made. Sometimes a table or a graph is much more useful.  Sometimes you might combine graphs with the map or combine map types. The map should be informed by a decisions that bring together useful graphic components in a well-thought out composition. There’s no substitute for looking at how others tackle thematic cartography. Learn what works, understand what doesn’t and your maps will evolve into purposeful products regardless of map type.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Choropleth copyrighted

Proving that it's not only Apple and Samsung that have the monopoly on patenting (and counter-patenting), Microsoft just bagged a beauty they are calling the variable formatting of cells.  This covers the "variable formatting for cells in computer spreadsheets, tables, and other documents, such as using the spectrum from a first color to a second color to represent the values in or associated with each cell". Now you can call it what you want but to me and many others this sounds remarkably like a technique that map-makers have been using for decades. We call it a choropleth (not to be confused with a chloropleth). Baron Pierre Charles Dupin is widely recognised as creating the first of its type and the term itself was introduced by geographer John Wright in 1938. Slashdot has some fun comments on the topic.

Let's not forget it wasn't long ago that Apple themselves filed for a patent for "schematic maps". Soon all map types will be taken and there will be nothing left for us mere mortals to draw.

Before anyone bothers, please note I have filed for the concepts and practical creation of "crap maps", "shit maps", "sub-par maps" and "chloropleths" (preferably those made with totals and using random colours). That means you're not allowed to make one unless you ask me or pay me...that seems the best way to improve mapping don't you think? :-)

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Cartomyopia II: Second sight

My blog post last week entitled Cartomyopia got quite an interesting reaction from a wide range of people.  Generally, I received very positive feedback with a good number of people relating well to the general argument I was trying to articulate.  I did manage to irk Tom MacWright (@tmcw) of MapBox though. We had a brief Twitter exchange and Tom then wrote up some of his own thoughts over at github.

Blogs are consumed by all sorts of different people for whatever reasons they might be vaguely interested.  I do not know Tom either personally or professionally.  I know a little of his work and those of his colleagues and they are making a really valuable contribution to the world of mapping.  Likewise, Tom doesn't know me (made clear in his comments).  Here's where it gets potentially sticky...Tom clearly disagreed with a number of points I made but based on false presumptions in many instances. That's's his prerogative....though the point of this sequel is to just throw a little light on my background and try and offer some additional context based on the points he rasied.

Academic vs hacking
If I understand, I'm badged as an academic. Tom has a hacking mindset.  The former is perceived to think of cartography via books and papers and then apply theory to make a map. The latter has a go, iterates and makes a map that way.  It's too simplistic a view.  I first hacked a map together using GIMMS in the late 1980s. I've coded my fair share of maps using a range of different languages (GIMMS, AML, Avenue, ArcObjects, Processing). I have run a successful cartographic consultancy as well as worked for a number of non-profit organisations. I've also used just about every commercial and open source GIS, cartographic and illustrative software that's been around since the early 90s.  So yes, I understand the academic mindset...but the assumption I don't understand or appreciate the hacking mindset is a little wide of the mark. I agree, it is not how I have spent the majority of my career to date but there seems to be some sort of impression about what an academic is and's so often wide of the mark.

To my mind the world is big enough to accommodate all sorts of map-makers.  I am not prejudiced about the approach people take and certainly not based on their technology of choice. Cartomyopia can afflict anyone of whatever technical persuasion/cultural mindset, job, career or educational background.  Many map-makers now come from a computer science background.  Great! Actually, we need to ensure that cartography thrives as new technologies emerge.  I actually find that by working together the best of both approaches serves to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.  One of my former University colleagues (James O'Brien) and I put together a project in 2007 that took a couple of years to iterate.  I brought the cartographic know-how, James brought Javascript skills.  We worked well and the project wouldn't have come to fruition without the combination of our skill-sets. I've worked successfully with many others in this way to create collaborative products.

Anyone can make a map
Yes...they can; but this doesn't make me angry.  I see it as a challenge and an opportunity which was the whole thrust of the blog.  My comment "I don't know what it is about maps but for some reason everyone thinks they can make one." in the original blog is not meant to be taken out of context.  I was referring to the idea that many (most?) people think their maps work when actually, they might not. Yes, they can make one but do they have the understanding to know if it actually works or is fit for purpose? I own a nice set of cooking pans. I can throw together a meal but I'm not a chef. If I want to make something a little more nuanced then I'll consult someone who knows the recipe, a book, a web site, my mum(!) to inform my cooking.  In my experience cartography is often eschewed by amateur map-makers probably because they don't even know it exists.  When they find out (or are shown)...they generally find it useful and the light gets switched on.  Their map-making becomes all the more informed because of it.  This doesn't have to be academically driven...many of the great cartographic works were made by non-cartographers which is both hugely ironic but also serves as a reminder that cartographers don't own map-making.  All they can claim is they have had a form of training that gives them insight and a knowledge base on which to call upon to inform their work. Most of my favorite maps are by non-cartographers. So are the majority of maps made these days.  I just advocate that those with a little cartographic knowledge might be able to both offer help and also do so without being condescending to improve maps in general terms.

Software cost and accessibility
I've seen this debate on both sides.  In University we had an embarrassment of riches and access to all sorts of software and data at reduced cost. Students often found themselves at a loss on graduation when they realised they no longer had access to the 'expensive' software and 'free' data.  But there are alternatives and a ridiculous amount of choice.  Cost is no longer a barrier to making a good map.  We're not so much seeing a democratisation of mapping but a democratisation of both the tools and data to allow people to make the maps...these drivers have supported one another.  Commercial software has a place. So does free.  People will (mostly) make their own choices as to what they need, want, can afford etc to support their own endeavors.  Technology comes in all shapes and sizes.  I've used most of it to a greater or lesser extent over the last 20 odd years. I have my preferences...and even those preferences come with irritating limitations but hey, we each choose our sword of choice and make the best of it.  My choice might not be to everyone's taste but there are plenty of alternatives to suit every taste and pocket.

Form and function are unconnected
No, they are intrinsically connected but my impression over the last couple of years has been that form is overtaking function. Too few are imbuing their maps with good data preparation and analysis and choosing a suitable mapping technique to communicate effectively.  I'm not being a grouche...merely observing a trend.  Do we want a world of picto-bite mapping or a world of well constructed maps? I don't have a problem with popular or short-lived maps (I did a load for the Olympics...all worthless now but they went well for a couple of weeks) but I would like to see the search for the next cool 'looking' map at least matched by the next cool 'constructed' map. NYT are doing a great job of getting the balance right...and that's all I'm advocating...finding a balance between form and function so that one supports the other.  If you check out some of my previous work and look at the back-story to some maps I've made they are deliberately playful in how they balance form with function...particularly one whose function was to win a competition and whose form was designed with that (and the viewers in that arena) in mind. Sod the was a blatant attempt to fool the viewing public and get votes (it worked). Form and function ARE connected.  Evidence suggests that some map-makers need to work harder to get the balance right because too many maps overplay form. Carl Steinitz offered a memorable quote at a seminar I attended a couple of years ago: "too many data visualisations these days go round and round and up and down without saying very much and, worse, they're often accompanied by music". He states very eloquently where I stand on this. Form is great (and I like aesthetics and beauty in cartography as much as anyone)...but when it's matched by a well conceived and connected function that's when a map really works.

No lasting purpose
Maybe Tom and I do disagree fundamentally here.  So many maps these days are made without longevity in mind.  Maybe that's a function of the fact they can be more easily made using a computer than a scribing pen (yes, I did used to make maps that way).  I don't see this as bad per se, but I think it lulls people into a false sense of the map's value.  The investment of time it used to take to make a map was far longer in most cases so my feeling is that people spent longer thinking about detail and finessing the map.  Even MapBox's tagline includes the phrase 'publish in minutes' (and so do most other suppliers of map-making software or solutions I agree). Speed is vital but so is taking the time to think and work out the map.  Even in my own degree course I recall spending an 11 week programming class building a single choropleth map. There were something like 800 lines of code that defined every single mark on the map. I had to think about every single mark, line, piece of text and so on. Now, I could make that same map in minutes (and probably make it go round and round and up and down accompanied by music) but would I be able to make a good map if I hadn't had a background that forced me to think carefully about each mark on the map? I'm not so sure. The map-making process is now compressed and made easy by many different map-making products and tools and yes, to some extent maps are being churned out at such a rate I feel that the overall quality is being diluted.  Tom makes a great analogy to music and here's another...I see a lot of maps made by the latest kid who just won a reality tv show and think they're suddenly the next John Lennon.  3 minute wonders, over-hyped and without any sort of lasting career. The Beatles? Elvis? etc etc...lasting careers built on hard graft. There are always some terrific one-hit wonders (musically and in map-form) but do we want the map version of Billboard to be full of one-hit derivative numbers by talent contest winners? Again...balance is the key else culturally our mapping will become as sterile as reality tv and all those look-a-like contestants.

Complaining vs doing
The blog was a call to 'doing' and a call to taking a constructive rather than destructive approach to offering opinion and advice.  I've been 'doing' pretty much most of my career.  My personal blog is not the place I 'do'. For that you want to see my other work, my editorial stuff, my maps, my ICA Commission stuff, my seminars, my papers, my professional blogs my...everything else that I contribute to the community that provokes thought and comment and shares advice, expertise and such like. Interesting that Tom raised Colorbrewer as something that Axis maps have done for humanity.  The irony here is that it was an academic project initially (Cindy Brewer and Mark Harrower). And in a beautiful twist, it was first published in the Journal I edit...The Cartographic Journal in 2003 for which it won a prestigious award as the best paper in that year. Sure, Mark re-programmed it and Axis now develop and host it (via his initial involvement) but it was an academic project that provided a great practical tool for map-makers.  Here then...academia underpinning practical cartography and sharing precisely the sort of work that helps people make better maps.  Commenting on someone's mindset and skillset on the back of reading a blog or two without reading their cv is not a good basis on which to characterise their wider contribution.

Free help
And here's the crunch...Tom seemed to work up to the punchline that he feels there is no help and that cartographers are not willing to avail themselves of time or assistance.  I said in the original blog that many that I knew are only too pleased to be asked advice and to offer help.  It's often not asked for or wanted which is where the disconnect might stem from but...I've been offering free help for years. I'd be more than happy to look over people's work and offer what advice I might have. I've done that personally and in various capacities, professionally.  I Chair an ICA Commission on Map Design and our un-paid remit is to support better mapping in the wider community. The same goes for all of the other ICA Commissions and I am quite sure if you have a question, anyone on the committees of these Commissions would be delighted to help. I am a member of a range of professional societies, most of which offer free (or nearly free!) advice.  The British Cartographic Society has a range of seminars and school workshops for instance as well as a small book which retails at less than $10. NACIS has it's own very successful online forum in CartoTalk and its journal Cartographic Perspectives is open access (read: free!). The Society of Cartographers also hosts a free discussion list (CARTO-SoC) for both members and non-members. I wrote a brief blog entry not so long ago with a few ideas for assessing the quality of your own map (or at least avoiding major goofs) and in my day job I put together a sort of QC/QA checklist to evaluate your maps. These are just a few of the independent ones...there are vendor specific places to seek advice. My employer has a range of web-based help for those that choose to make their maps that way.  There are plenty of repositories of examples and comment from other vendors as well...many of which are free to access.  Ultimately, help is often available if only people ask.  I'm quite sure those that base their livelihood on their advice will charge but there are many many others who won't charge. Want some advice? Here's my number...( Call me maybe?

And finally...
This so-called division between old-skool cartographers and the new breed of map-makers has simply got to stop. This isn't the first time I've said so. Each has a really important role in the future of map-making and each needs to appreciate the approach and the value that the other brings. Building bridges and bringing people together is needed. Collaboration is the key. I don't care whether someone uses the latest open source package or some hideously expensive piece of proprietary software or whether they're creating a web map or a paper map, it's the final map product that interests me.  It should be well formed, functional and designed to communicate. Technology moves rapidly and changes all the time...and maps can be built with a clear focus at the outset or as an organic process of experimental iteration.  I'm one of those who is not afraid of technological change.  I've had to deal with it throughout my career as one mapping platform has overtaken another.  I've lost count of the number of different ways I've employed to make a simple map and the number of different platforms I've used to teach cartography...some easier than others, each with their infuriating compromises. Change is good. New map-makers are good. Holding on to out-moded views and not rolling with the punches is no good for anyone...but it doesn't mean we should disregard that vast body of cartographic work that can be used to make better maps. Academic cartography or hacking? Two worthwhile components in the wider world of cartography (there are, of course others as well!).

Monday, 8 October 2012

Environment Agency Live Flood Warning Map

I was asked for some thoughts on the UK Environment Agency's Live Flood Warning Map designed by Shoothill so here goes...

Upon loading the map I must admit to feeling a sense of trepidation.  It's really not the most pleasing of sights as you get Bing satellite imagery combined with a baffling array of place names at various sizes.  Too much! And slapped on top are some rather odd looking marker symbols....but at least they are designed to be seen across the dark basemap and all that detail.

Navigating the map is straightforward.  The usual zoom and pan tools are available. The flood alert legend in the bottom left corner shows the status of current alerts and you can open a more detailed description which allows you to zoom to the areas directly. You can also easily set the alerts to filter what the map should show thus giving you a customised view of specific flood issues rather than have them all display. The colours generally work well and the traffic light approach provides a good link to our perceptual order of 'danger'.  I get an immediate sense of low level alerts and severe alerts simply through sensible use of colours.  the marker symbols are a little over-complicated in my opinion.  They seem to combine a point marker as well as a warning triangle.  I wonder if the triangle would suffice since the point markers are only locating general areas anyway?  They are clickable, giving access to further details...but the mouse pointer doesn't alter as you roll over them which doesn't distinguish them as offering any other content. It would help users to be able to know that the marker symbols are access controls to further information.

As you zoom, map content scales nicely and you get to see actual flood risk surfaces appear.  Personally, I'd like some further information on how these are calculated; and they aren't clickable so I don't get a sense of the scale of the potential threat other than visually.  Is this important? Well it's a flood risk zone and it seems sensible to use this as a gateway to details about the risk rather than have them listed only by the more generally located marker symbol.

There are options to switch between Bing imagery, Ordnance Survey raster data or a Bing road map and at different scales this becomes useful to ensure you can see the flood risk zones clearly.  Of course, none of these are perfect solutions because the basemaps are not primarily designed to act as the underlay for operational layers like flood risk zones...but that's a perennial problem when mashing up polygonized operational overlays on top of general reference/purpose basemaps. A nice touch is the ability to apply some transparency to the flood risk zone layer...and also to invoke an 'emphasis layer' which adds a dark grey transparent wash across the map, effectively darkening the background and allowing emphasis to be given to the flood risk zones and markers.  This is a novel way of countering over-cluttered basemaps in the event that you don't have access to a nice, clean de-cluttered basemap.

The search works well and I managed to locate a range of places easily using either place names or postcodes and you can sign up to receive alerts via other mechanisms.

Overall, a pretty good effort and a good example of a well constructed web map. It's not over-complicated and its use is fairly intuitive.  I guess the only real question is the accuracy of the flood risk surface itself...when you dig into the help it's clear that the risk zones are a little spurious.  Flood mapping is notoriously difficult and the map admits this.  It states that the zones do not include information on flood depth, speed or volume of flow or groundwater, runoff and other sources. it's what then? It's a predicted surface of areas of risk based on what?  Well that's not made clear and that's where maps like this fall over.  On the face of it, it gives access to what many would view as a detailed and accurate map of flood risk.  But it's only as detailed and accurate as the input data which is partial at best.  The danger here is the map, while generally well presented, implies a level of accuracy that might not be valid.  Not many (I would think) would read the help file to explore the details of how the risk surface was or wasn't constructed...they're going to go straight to their home location and see a great big orange or red polygon splattered over their house.  Notwithstanding that the map explains that it shouldn't be used to infer any risk to individual properties, this is the natural inference.

Implied accuracy is something that web maps in general need to wrestle with.  People view maps as accurate (they always have).  They rarely question them, they rarely ask the right questions about data efficacy, the mapping technique and how it was applied, or whether the map's form and function have been in any way subjectively manipulated.  Since we look at web maps rapidly and want rapid information retrieval there is a need for the map to somehow qualify what it's showing so that on the one hand the potential risk is communicated to the public but without causing panic or hysteria through implied accuracy.  One way this might be achieved is to create graded flood risk surfaces.  At the moment it's a binary surface...the zone is either there or it isn't...and it's graded as Flood alert, Flood warning or Severe Flood warning. Why not code this in the map itself as a layer with different internal zones...and why not calculate some measure of how 'believable' the alert might be.  For instance, not all areas have the same probability of flooding despite being in the same alert zone.  This is more complicated but this is also where data science needs to meet web mapping to provide more accurate frameworks.

Owen raises an interesting issue with regard to the complexity of the data as it is, what it shows and how more complex data might lead to a confusing map.  I agree to an extent. Making complex data easy to understand is tricky BUT to my mind this map is an example of less is less.  @mapperz tweeted the following this morning which characterises the problem very well:

So a map made for public consumption can be simple so that the public either don't need to think too hard or get bogged down with detail?  Whereas if the map was made for 'GIS statistical analysis' (whatever that is) then we by definition require something altogether more complex because either we can handle complexity or we demand the detail to do more with it.  I disagree here...and this is my beef with far too many maps (and web maps in particular)...they over-simplify and justify the approach is to satisfy a general public with low levels of understanding and cognitive capabilities.  They don't want to create confusion so the answer is to create a very vague map using data that generalises.  Actually the reverse is's an art to take something with a complex structure and deal with it in a sophisticated manner to communicate the complexity clearly and without ambiguity.  Just creating a simple version and claiming people don't want to do GIS analysis is a bit of a cop-out.  Using the argument that the map was made for public consumption shouldn't absolve the map-maker of dealing with complexity in a sophisticated manner.

Thursday, 4 October 2012


I had a nice email discussion today about a map.  I'll save the blushes of the person(s) who made it but it was a little (ahem!) sub-par. Thing is, it won't be long before it's touted by marketeers as being the next greatest thing....then it struck me. The world is suffering from a hideous new affliction...cartomyopia.

I've been pondering for quite some time now how we can encourage people to make better maps.  As an ex-University lecturer I could do this in class and students would enter the workforce able to make their analysis look good on a map and communicate properly.  I'm very proud of a good number of my former students whose work makes me smile in the right way.  I'm also proud to have been involved in the British Cartographic Society's Better Mapping workshops as far back as 2006. But what about those that never received any formal training or go to a workshop? What about those who can't be bothered reading a few pages from a book or a web site that shows them some useful tips? What about those who are just plain too arrogant to receive constructive criticism?  Well, these people, my friends, are cartomyopic.  They suffer from the short-sighted delusion that their carto work works...that it is beyond reproach and that no amount of advice or critical comment could possibly improve it.  They suffer from a lack of awareness that cartography (and cartographers) might have something to offer to help them make their work better.

I don't know what it is about maps but for some reason everyone thinks they can make one. Why is it when faced with the need to do some statistical analysis most will run a mile, not even engage in the process and try and find someone else to do the work...but when it comes to the map, sure, pass me the crayola and I'll whip one up for ya!  It's partly because software makes it easier than ever and for those interested in making a map it's easy to see how it might be viewed in a similar light to writing a letter using Word or creating a photo album using Flickr. Cartography has gone mainstream....well, map-making has at the very least.  Those who hang on to the notion that there remains a cartographic "profession" might want to take a reality check.  They (we?) are now merely cartographic advisers.  The minority. We might think we make better maps (and the proof often supports that argument) but there's only one way that map-making is headed...more mainstream.

Andy Woodruff recently wrote a good blog over at Axis Maps on the problem of aesthetics in cartography and I think he touched on some useful points.  If we go back 10 years, software provided the functionality to make a map. You pretty much had to make your fingers bleed to extract a decent map but the functions of the map were what drove the software's capabilities (class ranges, simple symbolisation, basic layouts).  They weren't beautiful but they were at least functional.  Those that needed to read them did so.  Now...everyone wants to make a pretty map because as Woodruff states..."eye candy sells". Form is now overtaking function and our new breed of cartomyopic map-makers want a pretty map, made quickly, consumed in seconds by a large audience and then tossed in the bin because it's a transient object with a short shelf-life.  The map is not meant to last. It matters only for a single event, sometimes in real-time and rarely meant to be lasting and the software now supports the ability to apply pretty effects to free data.  This is picto-bite map-making (bit like sound-bite but in pictorial form) where the search for the viral map that captures attention is more important than creating a well constructed, purposeful product. Maps made by consumers for consumers, designed to be glanced at, have some sort of instant interest but no lasting purpose or appeal.  Is this wrong? Well on one hand I'd say no...instantly appealing maps of events with a short life-span are fine (all those Olympics maps were only useful for a couple of weeks) but why should this mean they have to suffer from poor construction and function?

Woodruff again: "Cartographic expertise is, in essence, knowing the right way to represent geographic phenomena and data for analytical or various other purposes, and understanding of all stages of the mapping process, not simply knowing how to swoop in at the end and make a map pretty. Sure, we can make every map delicious by wrapping it in metaphorical (or real?) bacon, but it won’t be good for you."

This is cartomyopia...the short-sighted view that making a map look pretty will serve its purpose and not appreciating that it's fundamentally bad for you.  So the big question is not how do we make people make better maps, it's how do we arrest this modern carto-plague and make cartomyopic people who already think they know how to make maps... make better maps.  These people hate criticism and get most indignant if the error of their ways is pointed out; they hate being embarrassed by having mistakes pointed out...maybe that suggests deep down they do actually know? Working with them is the answer but here's the next big problem...they so rarely seek help or advice from a cartographer (possibly because they know it'll create more work) so the first time you get to see the work is often when it's published having gone through a marketing department that usually suffers from the even more chronic form of cartomyopia (application of modifications to make it even worse).  This inevitably leads to criticism, apoplectic observations by cartonerds like me and the cycle of annoyance and the plethora of cartofails continues.

So what's the prescription for cartomyopia?  Well the first step is to get them to a meeting where they can admit, in a friendly and non-threatening way that they are a cartomyopic. No one will laugh. No-one will belittle them for their admission. Quite the opposite...most cartographers I know are crying out to help and provide the medication.  We want to encourage better mapping and not just to make maps pretty. We want to help people see through their cartomyopia and learn that telling a good story with maps is not just about making any map-type object look good for an unassuming, uninitiated audience...its about making it work so they get the right message efficiently. In this sense, addressing the output is the wrong way to go about it.  We need to address the process.  We need to be seen as valuable at the outset of a project where maps are going to be made to encourage from within. We need to get marketing departments to value our opinions because ultimately a good map will 'sell' more. We need to be taken seriously for our expertise but in order for that to happen we need to overcome the scurge of cartomyopia.

By the way...don't think I'm for one minute suggesting all cartographers are immune to bouts of cartomyopia.  In its acute form we can all comes in short bursts and usually ends with a close friend or colleague pointing out something so mind-numbingly obvious that we'd overlooked. Happens to me all the time...but what I try and do before unleashing a map on the world is address the issue before it gets out. That's all I'm encouraging others to do....manage their own cartomyopia and use the ready and willing support network of cartographers to do so.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Apple maps (in the loosest sense of the word)

The new Apple iOS6 release has led to a wave of map related hysteria.  There's a terrific Tumblr that's doing a great job of compiling some fantastic carto-gaffes in the new Apple maps app.  My current favorite...

BBC News gives Apple's maps a pretty rough ride as do any number of others including Apple Insider and Gizmodo. It's all very amusing and, one suspects, Google are having a pleasant day at the office having been dropped on iOS6 in favour of Apple's own map app.  But what are we actually seeing?

We're seeing a company renowned for highly polished product pushing out a poor map and that in itself is feeding the sneering hordes.  Sub-standard product would make Steve Jobs turn in his grave but it proves one thing...making a solid, accurate, searchable, well designed and useable online map (and one that works well on a mobile device) is no easy game.  You can't do it quickly and if you don't know what you're doing you're going to make the sort of errors that we're seeing.  Let's not forget though, Google's own initial efforts were ridiculed and they had their own carto-gaffes in the early days...poorly matched satellite imagery, administrative boundaries in the wrong place, labels poorly positioned...not to mention the awful colours, layout and the fact that most of the known world was missing initially.

The problem for Apple is they need to react quickly to get their map app up to speed.  Google have had 7 years of development.  They have learnt a lot in that time, not least that cartography is not easy.  Apple's initial offering seems to suggest they've poured their map data into a really agricultural and restrictive set of styles.  They've done precious little error checking and none of that manual grunt work required to iron out the problems so we're seeing all manner of missing or incorrectly located POIs, weak navigation and search, terrible satellite even worse hybrid satellite/map effort and more.  It'll be interesting to see how they improve on their map app over the coming months and years but of course...everyone else has a huge head start and will be working on their own products.

Quite simply, Apple dropped the ball on this one and didn't appreciate the difficulty of making a good map that people can use. With maps and location being absolutely central to how we use mobile devices this is potentially a really big deal. I suspect many will simply not upgrade to iOS6 or will just overcome the mild inconvenience of launching a web browser to hit a better map....or they may just wait until Google publish their own Google iO6 map app in the Apple store which will just make Apple's job even harder.

Me? I use Android...

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Zen and the art of cartography

For those that asked and for those that may be vaguely interested, here is my 'Zen and the art of cartography' presentation. I gave this at the British Cartographic Society in June 2012 (UK) and then an updated version at GeoCart 2012 in August (New Zealand). You can view the images below or if you want the accompanying notes, click through to view on Slideshare itself (and select the notes tab below the slides). To be'll make very little sense without the notes unless you just like pretty pictures!


What would Harry have thought of it all?

Today sees yet another bastardization of H. C. Beck's London Underground map. report on a new tube map showing Olympic medal winners.

Rarely a day goes by these days without someone or other taking their own dataset, failing to have a single ounce of their own imagination and slapping it on one of the most famous maps in the world. The data often have no connectivity, no relationship with transport or journey planning and absolutely no need to be displayed as a schematic diagram. But hey, if you want to get people interested...imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism right?

Now even TfL have got in on the act with an "if you can't beat them, join them" attitude for this latest version is an 'official product', available as a limited edition through their online shop. As those who know me will already know...I am an avid fan of Beck's map. I am also a fan of some of the original uses of it as a vehicle for other, re-engineered purposes (e.g. The Great Bear, 1992) but the time has come to say enough is enough. It's also the last straw and I am hereby announcing a forthcoming paper penned by myself and William Cartwright on this very issue...

PS...did I buy it? yes of course...I'm a map addict. Dammit.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Getting steamed up over heat maps

Seen Amazon's Election Heat Map 2012? Here's a screen grab to whet your appetite...

Notice anything strange?  (@briantimoney did, which is where I picked this one up). It's a Heat Map.  A what? I said a 'heat map'.  What the blue blazes is a 'heat map'? I'll tell you what it's a made up name to make a map seem more edgy, more sensationalist, What you're looking at is a sexed up choropleth map. A perfectly good mapping technique, given a new name by Amazon because I guess the term choropleth seemed a little outmoded.  Why not go the whole hog and call it a heat-o-graphic? Actually, why not just give the map a decent title like 'Election reading preferences 2012'.  tell it how it is.  Call a spade a spade and we get it.  Instead, we have to wade through a nonsensical title and then a subtitle "What are American's Reading".

It's along the same lines as 'hot spot map'...that's a map that shows clusters of something. The word cluster being a perfectly good descriptor and, also, having the benefit of being a shorter single word yet hot spot is somehow preferred.  Does it make the map more plausible, more understandable or merely more sensationalist?

Now that the point of this blog has been vented, let's dig a little deeper and see if we can't find some other interesting perspectives...

The map itself shows the distribution of 'political book' purchases from Amazon in the last 30 days, where the books have been categorised as red (Republican Party), blue (Democratic Party) or neutral according to their political reading. Each state's colour is assigned based on the percentage comparison of the top 250 selling blue books compared to the the equivalent red books.  States with a higher percentage of one type over another are coloured in darker shades.

So what does the map show?  It clearly shows a strong leaning towards Republican favoured reading material (oddly for Brits this is a source of constant confusion...Republicans are right-leaning Conservatives, which we designate using blue in the UK!!!). There's a few problems with this.  Books are rarely so overtly Red or Blue so making such a divisive classification adds unfathomable bias into the map.  Does it show a Republican wave taking the US by storm?  Does it show that Republicans tend to read political books more? Does it show that Democrats are buying Republican reading material to figure out what alternative policies and views might be out there? Or maybe it shows that publishers are more likely to either publish right-leaning books or, perhaps, market them more effectively to an audience more willing to consume them? What is clear is that the map does not in any way reflect possible voting patterns, yet by using the same approach as we commonly see on choropleths, sorry, heat maps, of election results we cannot help but make that association.

As a way of seeing what's selling in spatial terms it's quite useful. You can click on each state and see what the top selling political books of each persuasion are.  Here's California's selection which although showing 51% leaning to the red, it's worth noting that California is an avowed Democratic State proving that those who read might not be those who vote:

Now wait just a minute...The Price of Inequality on the left and both The Amateur and Killing Lincoln on the right are each listed twice. That means they are counted twice...that means the assumption has been made that different formats of the book indicate a single independent purchase.  What if people buy multiple editions of the same book? That could easily mean the map shows that Republicans for some reason tend to buy multiple editions of the same book more than Democrats. So we also potentially have double-counting in the data to contend with.

So it's not actually an election map at all, let alone a heat map. In fact, it doesn't even go to the extent of showing us whether 'other' books are far outweighing political reading material which would be interesting in its own right. What we actually have then is a choropleth map showing spurious sales data in its crudest form.  To be fair to Amazon, they don't try and hide what the map shows or how it has been represented. I guess they just decided that a choropleth of sales data isn't a particularly sexy map to get people interested in...

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Does it matter if the map is wrong?

Dear @BBC_Magazine,
Today you had a nice little article online asking 'Olympic Counties: Does it matter where medal-winners come from?'. You even begin with the phrase 'A geographical breakdown of Team GB's Olympic success reveals some areas with more prizes than others'. It's a pleasant enough commentary on social and spatial identity and belonging and the way in which towns and cities across the UK are claiming association with Olympic medalists....and you point out in a very British way the error of most of this with facts about the real place where Andy Murray was born or how Yorkshire is in fact not a single place etc etc.

The trouble go and spoil all that 'my county is more important than yours' with a map that fails in truly Olympian fashion:

Ollie O'Brien (@oobr) was astute enough to take a screen grad (thanks to him for passing it on to me) and pointed out the first wave of mistakes on Twitter (Aberdeen not being in Aberdeenshire; Plymouth not having a medal, Edinburgh in the wrong place etc).

The map seemed to be very rapidly 'fixed' with a series of iterations during the day.  On the one hand I applaud the BBC for taking note of Ollie's constructive criticism and making corrections rather than ignoring them. On the've missed a belter of an error. Here is the map as it was still being shown by the following day...

You've gone and done it again...mapped raw numbers using a choropleth (BBC is developing a habit of doing this).

Mapping totals in this way is completely spurious.  You've got to adjust for the different sized areas and populations (normalise). Yes, London is a big city and Greater London has a population of 8278251 and 10 medal winners.  That's 0.12 medals per 100,000 people. Cardiff has a population of 346100 and 4 medal winnesr.  That equates to 1.16 medals per 100,000 people.  So the population of Greater London is nearly 24 times larger than's therefore perfectly reasonable to expect (all other things being equal) that more medalists will hail from the Greater London area despite Cardiff actually doing far better in relative terms.  The point about the map is that to compare one area's medal haul to another requires you to modify the raw counts precisely to allow readers to compare them on a per capita basis.  As it stands your map presents a meaningless distribution.

Other than that glaring error... nice colours. Check. Clear labels. Check.  All going well so far but wait...this is an article about assigning medal counts to place of birth and yet you assign medals to the Cities of Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Cardiff and others to large counties and that's after citing work from Dr Garner of Aston university whose work makes clear that people's loyalties are much more localised (estates, areas and, at most, a town or city). You've used a nicely inconsistent mix of English county boundaries, Scottish council Areas, Welsh unitary authorities and Northern Irish council areas.  What happened to English unitary authorities? In fact what happened to was shown as a unitary authority on version one without a medal, then it magically disappeared in version 2. Maybe a proportional symbol map centred on cities would have been a better approach to at least be consistent? While we're talking about consistency, are you labeling counties or cities? You label London yet shown the Greater London boundary.

So I re-did the map.  The map below shows the per-capita distribution on the left and whaddya know...actually London didn't do so well in relative terms.  I also fixed the issues with the boundaries so there is at least consistency.  And if you still insist on mapping totals, the version on the right maps the raw medal totals as a proportional symbol map.

So, BBC, you wrote an article about the importance of place and identity yet failed monumentally in using that most geographical of tools...a map, to illustrate the facts. In so doing you destroy any faith the reader has in your report and for those who don't recognise the errors, you perpetuate misconceptions through erroneous cartography.

Does it matter if the map is wrong?  Well, yes, particularly in an article about geography, place, spatial identity and where the basis of the discussion is about comparisons between places.

PS...Before someone cries foul that I didn't include Northern Ireland or the Isle of Man, Channel Islands or any of the 9 foreign countries that Team GB medalists hail from...I know...I'm sorry...I just didn't have the time or data to go to those lengths and all this blog was supposed to do was make a general point rather than build a perfect replacement.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Mapping NBC Olympic Opening Ceremony coverage

There has been plenty of constenation about the coverage of the Olympics that US broadcaster NBC is subjecting US subscribers to. Given I now reside in the US I have seen first hand the abomination. It is truly the most excrutiating experience ever.  Delayed broadcasts, more ads than athletes, inane commentary and yes (though to be at least partly expected) an almost entire focus on US athletes.  I wouldn't mind the last of these because it is a US broadcaster after all but I'd have hoped for at least some coverage of other nations and sports that don't have a US medal hope.  Anyway, this is a blog about mapping so...

A couple of weeks ago I presented a range of simple thematic web maps I'd built for the 2012 Esri User Conference on medal hauls and competitor counts.  The purpose was really to demonstrate how to design and construct them using ArcGIS so if you're interested you can take a look here (and let me know what you think!).

I was also developing a map of the NBC opening ceremony coverage but Andrew Shears beat me to it (here) as part of a terrific critique of NBC's coverage.  The map he built shows the amount of air time given to each country during the Parade of Nations at the opening ceremony.  NBC's heavy editing seemed to present a somewhat unbalanced viewing experience and I too was keen to map the air time data.  Every country was subjected to some comment about their political status, struggles, crises, war and religious 'difference'.  Some of the commentary was not just ignorant but bordered on bigotry with commentators poking fun at country names, customs and such like (often mispronounced).

I show my version of Andrew's map below, illustrating those countries that received more 'air time' in darker shades using the same classification scheme as he did.  Andrew called his map 'NBC's Geographic Imagination' and as it stands it serves the purpose of illustrating how the US perceives the rest of the world.

So no surprises eh? Team USA and the host nation (Great Britain) get huge air time followed by Australia, China and then the rest of the world.  But just a moment...while I entirely concur that many nations were short-changed (particularly those eschewed in favour of ad breaks or those immediately after Team USA that were largely overlooked), looking at the total air time doesn't really tell the whole story.  While it is true that NBC controlled their delayed coverage and made editorial decisions about the time each nation was on air ('edited for an American audience' we are told), surely the number of competitors plays a key part in this metric?  Simply put, a nation with hundreds of athletes takes far longer to enter the stadium than a smaller one with only a handful.  This, then, is a great example of how mapping totals on a choropleth doesn't always reveal the story (though it does reveal a story).  Before I present an alternative, I re-classified the total air time into quantiles...

It's the same as the first map but just re-classified in terms of the categories each nation falls into.  Now, take a look at the following map...

This is a map of the total air time for each nation, normalised by taking account of the number of competitors to give air time per athlete.   It's classified using quantiles so it is immediately comparable (in visual terms) to the previous map. And what a different picture!

The map can now be viewed as a level playing field (pun intended) and on this basis, one could argue that NBC were actually rather generous to many nations in comparison to coverage of Team USA and the other well represented teams. Certainly, many African nations did well.  As you might expect, the main competitors in terms of the all important medal table (China, Russia) didn't do so well and competitors in certain disciplines (Australia in swimming for instance) also received less coverage.  So while there was a clear bias in some elements of NBCs editing, the map of total air time doesn't really tell the whole story.

That said, viewing the ceremony did leave one with a sense of foreboding as our brains aren't that good at working out relative proportions on the fly.  In that sense at least, NBC didn't do very much to counter the various accusations of bias and poor editorial judgement.

Finally, is a map the best way to look at this relationship? Take a look at the following scattergraph (which excludes Team USA and Great Britain as their large teams and large air time are significant outliers). Number of athletes is on the y (vertical axis) and seconds of air time on the x (horizontal) axis.

So we have a reasonable spread and there is some sense of a positive correlation (albeit a weak one) that shows the proportion of air time broadly equates to the number of athletes where a nation has over 100 athletes.  But look below that 100 athlete line...there are dozens of nations receiving a lot of air time with relatively few athletes. So in this sense the scatter graph at least supports the notion that a map normalised by competitors at least tells a more realistic story.

Just another example of how maps can mislead the innocent.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Prior art for hexagons

Further to my previous post on the use of hexagons in mapping and 'who did it first', a colleague reminded me that in fact God has done it before. I give you the Giant's Causeway as prior art:

Not only is this a fine example of the hexagonal genre but's a prism map as well. Real world 3D hexagonal prisms! Great work! We need more examples of mapping cues from the real world so maybe this will be the start of a new thread in my blog. Next up...let's take a look at some of the fine work by Slartibartfast who as most readers will recall was a designer of planets and whom won a richly deserved award for his Norwegian coastline. Let's hear it for Slarti...the man behind bezier curves.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

When is an award not an award?

Tonight I am embarrassed to be at the British Cartographic Society Symposium in Basingstoke.  Each year there are a number of awards conferred on those who submit their professional work for judgement by their peers.  I have submitted work on numerous occasions and been fortunate to have received two awards in the past.  It's been a source of great pride.  This year, my colleague Damien Demaj and I submitted a map to the John C Bartholomew small scale thematic mapping category.  I believe something like 6 other individuals or organisations did likewise (though that is unverified).  Unfortunately, for some reason or another, BCS, with the support of Collins Bartholomew and the Bartholomews family did not bring themselves to make a decision on a winner in the category they sponsor.  The category wasn't even mentioned and no explanation or thanks to those who entered offered. This is both insulting and unprofessional.

It is not the winning that matters.  In many ways it's irrelevant...but for a sponsor to absolve themselves of the responsibility to decide who, amongst a single crop of entries, is the best in a given year is lame.  As Editor of The Cartographic Journal it is my job to ensure the Editorial Board select a winning paper from each issue.  This requires people to read and re-read; to compare and contrast; to look for uniqueness, innovation and high quality work.  It takes time. Our baseline is that we compare papers to those published within the year.  So we select a winner. What we do not do is say we found them lacking compared to last year; or find some other excuse for not making the award. Neither do we hide behind silence.

In my view this has seriously devalued the award and, more generally, the awards.  Why have awards if the judges cannot make a decision?

Let me be absolutely clear...the fact I entered is immaterial.  I neither need nor seek praise in this way but I support the awards by entering.  What I hope to do here is stick up for all those who did enter and note the dissatisfaction.  I am not alone and I have heard comments from many delegates that feel it is a ludicrous situation.

The outcome? Hopefully BCS will address their entire approach to their awards; be more transparent; and reserve the right to take sponsor's judgments as merely advisory.  Awards have to be made, particularly as there is so much encouragement to enter and so much hype to make them be seen as prestigious. People take a huge risk entering their work and have a right to expect a resolution.

I won't be bothering again. I wasted my time, effort and $280 in postage. For that, I expected one of the entries to win. Instead, I congratulate all those who entered and took the risk. I particularly congratulate the winners of those who were awarded in other categories.  I am sorry that, for some, it was an entirely pointless effort in the John C Bartholomew category this year. Of course I'll be accused of sour grapes but to me it's about making a stand to get it right in the future.  This cannot happen again. One last thought...there was a £500 prize for the winner of the John C Bartholomew category.  It would be nice if they donated it to the London Mapping Festival's charity (MapAction) given it wasn't awarded.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Room for everyone

Last week I crossed off a work-related blog that I'd been meaning to write for a while. It demonstrated how to recreate data binning for point datasets using hexagons in ArcGIS. It's not a new technique but the fact that I told people how to do it in a particular environment has caused some discomfort given the tweets I've had fired at me today.

It doesn't take very long to do a quick search online to find examples of the use of hexagons in cartography.  Sherif Amer used them for investigating service planning and Danny Dorling used them as a form of cartogram in a range of studies including his analysis of poverty, wealth and place in Britain 1968-2005. Dorling's own work on area cartograms is well known and gives the basis for hexagonal tesselations of space though Waldo Tobler, of course, proposed hexagons as a transformation useful for districting in 1973. Nicholas Lewin-Koh provides a good overview of the technique whose purpose is simply to tesselate space into an aesthetically pleasing grid of polygons of equal size in which to represent some other dataset as a spatial histogram.  It's become a reasonably popular technique. Zach Johnston did a good job illustrating the technique at and provided code to allow others to replicate should they wish. There is also a really nice blog by Nate Smith at on their efforts with this technique that describes the technique for QGIS and Tilemill.

Now here's the thing...I don't subscribe to the view that a concept or a technique is the unique preserve of one person or one approach.  I like what others have done.  I also like that you can do it in ArcGIS but until now no-one had explained the relatively simple process.  My job is to provide people with help to enable them to make good maps. How they go about it and what they prefer to use is their choice but by giving people options it supports better cartography more generally.  I have no association with the technique (other than knowing Professor Dorling and having met Professor Tobler); no more than any other established cartographic technique I employ or I use. The blog I wrote doesn't imply ownership. It's not a paleo/neo fact, those who have read my Editorials in The Cartographic Journal over the last 6 years will know where I stand on that distinction.

There's room for us all...whether we largely use proprietary software or open source or whether we come from a computer science background or a cartographic background.  We all have space to learn from each other and being united in showing people how to make better maps is really what makes me tick.

Geo-journalism silly season

I'm on a brief trip back to the UK and with the current weather being, shall we say, inclement the British press is full speed ahead reporting the latest weather related news.  Syria? Spanish bailout? Prime Minister leaving his 8yr old kid at the pub?  No...there's simply nothing more newsworthy in the UK than the weather.  Or is there?  Well it's certainly silly season when it comes to the hysteria surrounding Google and Apple's invasive, morally abhorrent attempts to make maps.

While The Times has been using satellite imagery and weather charts to illustrate their reporting of the weather in Friday's edition (below), The Daily Mail and The Telegraph have been sticking the boot into Apple and their new mapping products.

Now wait just a minute...

How many of these so-called journalists actually know anything about mapping? Do they understand how maps are made and that the basis of any form of map is data acquisition? The maps they use every day to tell their stories are based on the same sort of survey techniques we've been using for decades. Aerial photography and satellite derived data are not new but like every technology driven industry, techniques improve, companies innovate and we all end up with new stuff.

And what about those nice shiny consumer devices they use every day to get from A to B, to set up business lunches, to meet their latest whistle-blower, to eavesdrop on the innocent? Those devices use geo in many of their applications. Journalists use geo in much of what they do and I'd hazard a guess that geo is critical to their jobs. The irony in their scaremongering reports of mapping companies gathering data from which they can make maps and other useful information products is astonishing.  The trouble is, cartography has always been something the general public seems blissfully unaware of...maps just exist right? So when these lazy journalists, fresh out of a graduate trainee programme (like Mr Collins, the Telegraph Science correspondent who I suspect couldn't tell his latitude from his longitude), start spouting their ill-informed b*llshit about geo it's worrying.  Worrying because the even more ill-informed public lap this sort of drivel up.  Apparently, Mr Collin's job is to "keep track of the latest developments and research across all areas of science and present them to the reader in a clear and interesting way". It says nothing in there about jibbering nonsense. I don't mean to pick on this guy in particular...but really, either report things properly and based on facts or stick to reporting the weather. Seriously.

Glad I got that off my chest, now then...has it stopped raining?

Friday, 4 May 2012

Some stuff from my other blogs

I tend to use my Cartonerd blog as a personal space to vent...usually on maps that have left me speechless due to their poor design or some other lazy, immature or blatantly ridiculous way of trying to communicate in map form.  If you know me, you'll also know that this is one side of what I do.  In my day job, I make and write about maps and generally promote good quality map design so here's a couple of links to some stuff from the blogs I contribute to elsewhere.

My colleague (Damien Demaj) and I put together a quick checklist/cheat sheet/help document that we recently shared that is designed to give people a really brief guide to thinking about your map in design terms.  It's self explanatory but we've had a lot of people find it useful in reflecting on their own mapping.  Check out Using a mapmaking checklist for map design via Esri's Mapping Center blog

Damien and I also recently collaborated on a couple of papers in The Cartographic Journal and as Chair of the International Cartographic Association's Commission on Map Design I was able to modify one of the papers to publish it on the blog.  We completed a survey of cartographers to allow us to compile a list of great maps that inspire and show off cartographic techniques.  These are available for viewing in the Map Examples section.

Social/Professional media

Over the last 4 or 5 years social media space has become quite a large part of my life.  I embraced Twitter early on and make (too much) use of it.  I have a Facebook account but don't use it.  I don't check-in, but i do blog in various guises.  I have always read feeds of various blogs.  Is all of this a waste of time?  Undoubtedly some is but then again, who hasn't been in a job where you've come out of meetings feeling your brain is about to implode due to the banality and waste of an hour of your life you're never going to regain? It happens regularly.  With careful filtering social media gives you a really great window into the wider professional world; and a platform to rather than thinking of it a social media, I prefer to think of it as professional media.

I like map blogs, design blogs, infographics blogs...they give me a space in which I see what is going on, to inspire me and help the creative juices flow....they can also be an antidote, a refreshing break to remind you that there are people out there who share your own values and approaches.  They keep you focused on what you enjoy when you're struggling to work out why some people simply don't get it.

One of my favorite blogs is Nathan Yau's Flowing Data. This blog entry is simply a round-a-bout way of encouraging people to go visit his site if you haven't already. It's a shameless plug...but then again, I was pleasantly surprised to see my Cartonerd blog appear on a list he recently published on Data and Visualization blogs worth following so I'm biased. More seriously...go to that page, take a look. There's lots of really great links to useful content out there in Professional media space.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

A tale of two cartography journals

Over the past few months I’ve experienced both the best and the worst of being involved with two cartography journals so here’s a story and some advice for those thinking of getting involved on the Editorial side of things.

As most readers will know, I am the current Editor of The Cartographic Journal, the official journal of the British Cartographic Society. I have been Editor since 2006 and overseen more than a quarter of the issues published since 1964 (largely due to increased frequency of publication). It has been an immense privilege to edit the premier international journal on cartography and one that I continue to enjoy as we head into the BCS and Journal’s 50th Anniversary year in 2013. It takes considerable time but it is a team effort and I rely heavily on my Assistant Editor, Regional Editors, Special Issue Editors, the Editorial Board, the terrific team at Maney Publications and also Reviewers who do vital work in ensuring both the quality and timeliness of the publication. I am really no more than the person who steers the ship and I hope I steer it on a straight course and by rightfully acknowledging those that do the majority of the work. People have nothing but positive comments about the journal and kind words for those us who do the work to get it published. It still requires Editorials to be written, papers to push through the review process, comments to return (sensitively!) to authors, proofs to correct and all so that the journal is published broadly on time, four times a year. We’ve had great success with the Journal in recent years but it is built on the foundations of those that went before us; those that founded the journal and previous Editors whose company I am honoured to join. The Impact Factor (and other measures of so-called academic visibility and credibility) has steadily risen, subscriptions have increased and there are a larger number of international authors submitting work for consideration. It is a premier print and online journal that has always followed a subscription model with the costs of publication recovered through personal and library subscriptions. It’s a terrific publication to work on and every issue brings with it new conversations, interesting articles and an opportunity to prepare something of interest to the cartographic community. In short, I thoroughly enjoy being Editor. It brings me into contact with some amazing people across the world and I get the opportunity of a sneak peek at unpublished work before it hits the shelves which is often enlightening. Some things do occasionally slip through and I was a little horrified to see 3D, 2 segment pie charts in the latest issue, brought to my attention by a colleague on the Editorial Board. I hold my hands up…I missed them; the author should have been advised to re-draft them in a more appropriate form. The Cartographic Journal is a scholarly publication and publishes original research and, occasionally, articles that explore techniques, patterns of work or opinion pieces on change (for instance). What it doesn’t do is publish maps. It cannot publish maps and was never designed to do so. Sometimes people find that odd, but this means that if you’re looking at publishing a paper (or a map), you have to learn what the journal is designed to offer; what will it accept; and what will it reject simply because it maintains uniqueness by being specific.

Let’s contrast this with another of my roles. Nearly 10 years ago Dr Mike Smith joined Kingston University as a young Lecturer and soon thereafter we began discussing an idea he had for a journal dedicated to publishing maps rather than scholarly articles. It was designed more for practitioners or for scholars whose end result was a map of somewhere or some phenomena. Nothing like it existed (largely because of the costs of publishing maps) and he asked me to help him develop the journal. I was glad to, having some experience of publishing and, crucially, having experience of academic and commercial cartography which Mike did not possess. It was his idea and a good one. I was a co-founder and the first Map Editor (at least that’s what it said on the Business Card). I was also one of three Trustees which were required to gain charitable status under the UK’s Charity Commission. I helped devise the map review process for the journal and I also advised Mike on who he might contact to become a member of the map review team and Editorial Board. The open access approach was innovative, requiring authors to pay a small fee to help the journal cover costs of web hosting and such like and the map was then published online as a PDF which could be read and downloaded for free by subscribers. Mike has done a great job over the subsequent years of taking the journal from strength to strength, particularly as he has very little background in cartography. This amusingly led to a number of heated debates in the early days over maps which he would want to accept but which, frankly, were terrible in cartographic terms. Thankfully over the years, the natural evolution of the journal has led to improvements in the type and quality of the work submitted and I was proud to have played a small part in getting it established and promoting it. As JoM grew, so did the team and others took on map review responsibilities but I remained a Map Editor and Trustee and the financial aspects of the running of the journal required my counter-signature.

I left Kingston University about 1 year ago but my ongoing involvement in JoM was never discussed. It therefore came as a surprise (as it did to all those on the Editorial Board) to learn late in 2011 of the acquisition by Taylor and Francis. I had not been involved in any way in discussions and Mike hadn't informed me of the possibility let alone the actuality. I have subsequently asked him countless times for the details of the acquisition, asked Taylor and Francis themselves and (on the occasions when I've actually received a reply) been told in no uncertain terms that he is the sole 'owner' of the publication and that details are confidential. Now this is where things get murky. Who ‘owns’ a Journal? Clearly it was Mike’s original idea but it requires a team to get things going and maintain it. In the case of JoM, Mike needed my experience and professional contacts to get his idea off the ground. Do I or any of the early Editors have any claim of ‘ownership’? Does Kingston University have any claim by association? On a personal level, at some point, Mike clearly decided that I was no longer associated with the journal in any of the capacities mentioned above and he never thought to either involve me or inform me. It also transpires other members of the Editorial Board were unaware of the fundamental change to the journal’s operation until after the fact. But what a shift it is for JoM going from open access to behind the Taylor and Francis paywall.

JoM remains more than a one-man show but both Mike and Taylor and Francis have been clear in emails to me that that is the basis for the acquisition and that no-one else has a right to be made aware of the details. I am not suggesting the change in the publication model is necessarily detrimental; but that the process has been conducted without due consideration or the involvement of those who have an interest. It’s certainly an interesting move given the changes in publication more generally as the world is increasingly moving towards web-based patterns of map publication using open source data. There’s something quite uncomfortable about the current Editor doing a deal to move an open access journal behind a paywall without consulting people properly…and then writing a blog entry months later extolling the virtues of open access publications. Hmm…

So what’s the moral here? Well…whether you take the reigns of an established international journal of repute, or you develop a new one from scratch, it brings with it tremendous responsibilities. The Cartographic Journal is not mine. I am merely a custodian. JoM, on the other hand, seems to have developed into one man’s private estate to do with as he wishes. As Editor of The Cartographic Journal I have to report to the Publications Committee of BCS and I serve them as Editor. That exacts some control and reporting mechanism that assures BCS of what I am doing and why. I have considerable freedom to edit the journal but I simply front a team who are made aware of administrative and other circumstances as they arise. JoM appears not to run in this fashion and the lack of communication by the Editor-in-Chief is worrying for its longeivity.. No-one should be able to erase history or bring in sweeping changes without due diligence or wider discussion. Ultimately then, there are no rules. We all do the job of Editor in our own style but that style should be governed by more than one person. How many people really understand when they submit a paper to a journal how different styles might impact their chances of publication? How does editorial style impact on impartiality and, ultimately, on the quality of a journal? I’d like to think The Cartographic Journal maintains some sort of standing and reputation. JoM has been trying to build a reputation but recent circumstances can only dampen that progress.. I hope that the style I adopt for The Cartographic Journal is inclusive. JoM is clearly exclusive. With that, I am still the current Editor of The Cartographic Journal but I am now only a former co-founder, Map Editor, Trustee and Associate Editor of Journal of Maps…many of those roles are no longer acknowledged as reality.

What have I learnt? Respect for colleagues is vital in a professional relationship. Behaving with principles, dignity and openness brings rewards and mutual respect. Having a respect for the publication, its history and values is important in establishing its position and maintaining it going forward. Treating people properly is of the utmost importance. Act with courtesy, collegiality and professionalism and your authors, Editorial Board colleagues and peers will see you as someone doing a half decent job. You gain authority and standing not just by what you know and what domain knowledge and experience you can bring to the table, but in how you deal with people. Without solid values and a respectful ethic, you may as well not bother getting involved behind the scenes in a journal. You don’t get paid but it brings great rewards in terms of meeting new people and working alongside those who you share a profession with. Some of these people become close friends and trusted colleagues. On the other hand…choose your friends wisely. You never know when they’re going to use you to benefit themselves, screw you over in the process, erase history and then hide behind lies! Yes, it hurts…but you learn an awful lot about people in the process.

Why this blog entry? Well, what other recourse does one have when faced with completely unprofessional behavior and utter silence? Sure I can take legal action, I can write to Kingston University and I can write to the Editorial Board (which I have done) but, ultimately, it comes down to how people are, how they conduct themselves and whether, deep down, they actually care. It’s disappointing when you find out what people are really like. If this simply illuminates what goes on behind the scenes of a journal at least readers might reflect on who they are dealing with. If you don’t like how people are behaving then go seek another place to publish. It’s a competitive market out there and putting JoM behind a paywall has just placed it in a whole new realm. I’ve asked for papers I have had published in JoM to be officially retracted. I feel extremely strongly about how things are being handled with that particular journal. I wish Mike good luck with JoM going forward. I’ll focus on The Cartographic Journal instead. Life is too short to get overly concerned about how others want to run their professional lives.