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)

http://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2014/aviation-100-years

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)


http://nyctaxi.herokuapp.com/

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

Becksploitation

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.


http://luminocity3d.org/#population_density_2011/7/52.600/-2.500


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.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Pretzel crust cartography

I saw an ad on television last night that may help the understanding of how cartographers think about good map design and construction vs what we perceive as poor map design and construction. It was for a new Pretzel Crust pizza available at Little Caesars. It's constructed with a pretzel crust as the base (poor basemap for a pizza in my opinion) and then goes on to slop on a thick yellow cheese sauce instead of a tomato based sauce (odd choice, gloopy and lacking taste), before topping it off with four more cheeses and pepperoni (solid choice for a final topping but a bit out of place on the base).

Take a look and you decide whether any of this should be allowable on a pizza. The pizza appears at about 16 seconds...by 20 seconds I'd hope you won't want one...by 26 seconds I'm hoping you're wondering what the hell they were on when they invented it. If you're thinking yum, gotta go get one now then you may as well not read any more of this post.


Want a pretzel? Have a pretzel. Want cheese dipping sauce with your nachos...go ahead (though forgive me if I don't - plastic orange goo isn't that appealing even in it's correct environs). But designing a pizza using these ingredients just doesn't work for me. If it was experimental then fine...but don't release it and ask people to pay for it. I wonder if I'm alone in this or whether sales prove otherwise?

There are clear parallels to mapping. Start with any old basemap - probably a default topographic one because you don't know what the others are for or, even better, use a satellite image because that's colourful and detailed and more must be better. Then slop some data over the top. Don't pay much attention to symbol choice or design...just dump your data across the top and smear it around. Actually, make it bright because it won't show up on the satellite basemap unless it's bright. Then if you have some point based ingredients (e.g. emoji...see previous post), position these across the top. Finish off with a smear of butter and a good dose of flavour enhancing salt and boom - you made a pretzel crust map.