Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

City Maps: recent debate and details on its making!

May 23rd, 2016


A few constructive criticisms have surfaced regarding the coloring book City Maps: A coloring book for adults that I released less than two months ago. I’m going to address those criticisms in this post.

In the less than two months of its existence, it has done phenomenally well as far as I’m concerned, with more than 2,000 copies sold and write-ups in The Atlantic’s City Lab, GIS Lounge, GIS User, Curbed and more to come in the months ahead. Furthermore, it went a bit viral over on Facebook following the City Lab article for at least a week to the tune of 14,00 shares (say what?!).

For this book to have sold 2,000 copies around the world in less than 2 months is amazing and is what I’m focusing on in terms of whether I consider it a success or not (I unequivocally do). Check this awesomeness out:


And at one point it was near Harry Potter in sales! Ok, for just a few days, but heck yeah for coloring books!


However despite very strong sales, the book just recently got some very intriguing criticism from a few people that I’d like to address.

We’ll disregard a couple of the critical reviews that were just outright scammy and focus on the few that had specific issues with the book.

As far as the honest comments were concerned, one said the maps appeared to be copied and pasted in the span of 30 minutes, one indicated that they thought the maps weren’t accurate, and another discussed some feature size, labeling, and dangles issues.

Map Making Procedure

Starting with the comment on procedure, which purported to be from an urban planner. I’m not really sure how a person would copy and paste map data as this person thinks, but I can assure you if that were possible then a book like this would have been created long ago. I’d like to take a moment to describe the exact procedure for creating the map pages, since I think it is instructive for those who read this blog for tips on map-making as well as addresses this criticism specifically.

The book was created in a highly focused manner over an extremely intense span of about 80 hours plus revision time after that. During those 80 hours, OpenStreetMap extracts for all the major metropolitan areas of the world were downloaded. My familiarity with OpenStreetMap data helped in this regard because I knew how to obtain it, in what format (I used osm2pgsql data for this) I wanted it, and what the fields and tags mean as well as how to query for the right mix of data such as primary roads over residential or querying out urban area polygons so that they didn’t appear, and so on.

All this data was imported into separate QGIS projects where suitable locations were chosen with the following criteria: (1) good density of information (OSM data is not always complete in some locations) (2) a place that made sense to color either from a famous-landmark perspective OR from an interesting-shapes perspective. These locations were researched to determine a place name (the beginning of the book caveats that place names are subjective nevertheless as locals may have different names, but these names are adequate for the layperson to look up the location on online mapping platforms if they are interested in what a particular shape represents, for example). They were also researched to ensure that they were adequately representing the area and depicting something interesting and, hopefully, non controversial.

A local projection for each location was researched and applied to each project. The data were massaged so that a good mixture of spaces to color and lines representing real-world locations came though. This was not always easy to get exactly right and I think that in some places it may not be what people would expect and could be better. Each image was exported at 600 dpi for inclusion in the final book.

The final portion of the procedure was book layout. I was aided in the fact that I’ve published before and know the ins and outs of layout. So, because this book was very simple layout-wise, I was able to do this in the easiest manner possible, using a pre-formatted template in Word that was designed specifically for my two destributors: Ingram (everyone but Amazon’s supplier) and CreateSpace (Amazon’s supplier). Cover files, which include front, spine, and back, I created in Inkscape to the exact specifications for each printer (they are different for each) and created for the width appropriate for the paper thickness and the number of pages so that the spine fits almost exactly. Due to printer error-margins the spine has a bit of error-space as well.

I already have accounts with my two major suppliers – Ingram requires quite a few signed documents that I was thankful to have already taken care of years ago – so the process for handing over the interior and cover files was straightforward for me. A new person to this process has a much harder time so this definitely saved me a lot of time. After that it is a matter of waiting for proofs and revising those proofs until I was happy. For example, initially the width  of some of the line features was not adequate on the presses. I increased the weights for some, decreased the weights for others, and just in general evened things out if there were large discrepancies between feature width on the same page for many of the pages. Though it must be noted that I did leave some variations in line-widths to comport with what you see in existing adult coloring books where there are some thick and some thin lines to create a visual variety.

With that I think I’ve adequately addressed procedure and perhaps shown that it would have been absolutely impossible to “copy and paste” a book like this together. Next up is the accuracy issue.


A critic said that the maps lack accuracy. Let me speak to that as best I can as I don’t have any more information regarding what exactly they found lacking in this regard.

The copyright page lays out, perhaps too succinctly, the necessary disclaimers regarding the mapped data. The copyright page, in retrospect, may not have been the best place for this information as it may easily be overlooked. I squeezed all the text information onto that page in order to reduce page count so that I could maximize the coloring pages while keeping the cost quite low – at $9.99 US.

The copyright page points out the following:

Information printed in the front matter.

Information printed in the front matter.

That information states very clearly that the map data is from OpenStreetMap, indeed that what we are talking about is “data” and is as accurate as the chosen dataset. In my professional opinion, the OpenStreetMap data is reasonably accurate in the locations that were chosen for a coloring book. The aim for the book was to include at least one map from all of the top 10 largest metropolitan areas of the world, though in the end I did have to leave out Osaka due to a lack of a proper density of data for coloring. All the other metropolitan areas of the world are included, plus a smattering of other interesting locations such as Boston, Vancouver, and Venice. Ensuring that all the most populous metro areas were included was a way of making sure that I covered the globe, so to speak. There are other “great cities” books which focus on only those cities that Western  cultures are familiar with traveling to and from and I wanted to be more representative of the real world.

That’s why, if you are from the U.S., you might be surprised to see that a coloring page for a portion of Manila is included, for example, as this might be a place that isn’t high on your “to visit” or “have visited” or “have studied” list of cities. But it is one of the largest metro areas in the world. Also, I had at least one book buyer who was from Manila and who was happy with this inclusion.

In terms of accuracy, I first wondered if perhaps the critic might be too used to seeing Google Maps, which uses the Mercator projection. The maps included in the City Maps coloring book are each projected to a local coordinate system that is appropriate for the location, not Mercator, which is notorious for its inaccuracies with regard to shape and area and is used in webmapping systems primarily because it became the default projection for them after the first webmapping platforms employed it as an easier mathematical solution to their map tiling needs.

Let’s take a look at this in detail. The very first map in the book,The Palace Museum in Beijing, China (also known as The Forbidden City), is shown here in thumbnail form:

Thumbnail version of the first coloring page.

Thumbnail version of the first coloring page. Beijing – The Palace Museum

A close-up of the southeast corner of this map is shown below:

Southwest corner of the coloring page



This map is in the projection Beijing 1954 / Gauss-Kruger zone 20, also known as EPSG: 21420. The Mercator equivalent of the same location on Google Maps appears like this:

Mercator Aerial

Mercator Aerial

In this particular location and scale I don’t see too much difference between the projections and I see that the mapped data from OSM appears to be fairly accurate, though of course not every single feature is mapped.

In the coloring page close-up we see a few issues with overlapping lines at the southern portion of the page. This is definitely an issue that may be cleaned up in a future edition. It’s an artifact of OSM data wherein many people may map different cultural tags for the same location. One person may have mapped just the general location of The Palace Museum with an outline, for example, while another OSM contributor may have mapped the individual stalls. Many many of these artifacts were cleaned during the production of the book via teasing out the individual “tags” (in OSM parlance a tag is how you describe what the mapped location is) such that things like urban areas or shipping lanes, for example, weren’t included. They tend to confuse the map reader, who doesn’t expect to see lines in the water even though they do signify real things. I do think that further cleaning of this sort is warranted and I hope to ameliorate this in the future. Does it preclude your use of the book for coloring? That’s for you to decide.

Now let’s take a look at Manila since I’ve mentioned it already. That particular location was difficult because the OSM data for it wasn’t as detailed as in other locales. So this map is at a smaller scale and includes line features only where “water” = ‘river’ (not road lines) and all polygon features. The interstices of the polygons reveal the road network at this scale. A thumbnail version of the page is shown here:

Manila - Port Area

Manila – Port Area

The southeast corner of this map looks like this:

Manila Port Area southeast corner

Manila Port Area southeast corner


This map is in the PRS92 / Philippines zone 3 projection, also known as EPSG: 3123.

And here’s the aerial of the area (Mercator projection, from Google Maps):

Manila-aerial Port Area

Manila Port Area, Aerial


Here’s the Google Map of the same location:

Manila Google Maps-Port Area

Manila Port Area Google Maps


I think that the projection differences at these scales may not be enough to cause someone to say that the maps are “inaccurate” so perhaps my thesis on this being the issue is incorrect.

At any rate there are certainly some differences between OSM data and other mapped data, and that may be where we come into conflict with what people might deem to be “accurate” vs. “non.” When we do compare the maps shown above, though, we see a close-enough association, in my mind, for the colorer.

A NOTE ABOUT AUDIENCE I’m bolding the word colorer because this is where I want to talk a little bit about the audience for the book: the colorer. I’m forever talking about “know your audience” when it comes to creating a cartographic product. We must ask ourselves what our audience is expecting, how they need it to be presented for maximum informational absorption, and what we can bring to the map that adds to the audience’s experience and knowledge-base in a positive and efficient manner.

After hounding this in to countless people–most recently up in Manitoba where I gave several talks/workshops to the municipal government and planning association–I’m ashamed to say I may have misjudged the audience for this book given some of the feedback I have received! I believe that the primary audience is the mindfulness adult colorer and I still believe that. What I failed to grasp was just how many people would become a secondary audience for this book: those who are map nerds/cartographic enthusiasts who will  be sticklers for accuracy at the expense of coloring quality. For this secondary audience I should have made very clear, in a special section at the beginning of the book, exactly how the book was made, what the potential pitfalls are, and my reasoning behind not including labels, choosing the locations, constraints, and so on.

Small spaces, labels, and dangles

One criticism was actually with regard to the primary audience: those who want clear spaces to color. This critique focused on the fact that in some of the maps there are some spaces that are too small to color. In particular I point to an example from the Bidhannagar map:

Small locations on the Bidhannagar page, actual size.

Small locations on the Bidhannagar page, actual size, Asia South Lambert Conformal Conic, EPSG: 102030.


Bidhannagar Google Maps

Bidhannagar Google Maps, Mercator projection

When you compare the two maps, you can see in the coloring book page that there are fewer roads. This is because I only included polygons on this map. In this case I felt the polygons adequately represented major roads in their interstices, just as with the Manila coloring page, and also that including roads in this location would have caused a huge density issue (way too many small spaces to color). A few of the smallest polygons shown in that snippet at the above-right, are indeed too small to color. A closer look at the data reveals that these particular polygons are all tagged as water. A filter to get rid of polygons smaller than a particular size would have been in order here.

This was a compromise on my part having to do with the amount of time I had available to me and it may have been a poor decision. I do know that at least one person has shown me her colored version of this page and she simply colored right over these smaller boxes. The lines show through the color and seem to still look okay to me. I know from reading hundreds of coloring book criticisms that there are colorers who don’t mind small spaces, some who abhor them, and some who criticize if the spaces are too large (i.e., more like a child’s coloring book). It seems very difficult to get it just right on this score and I hoped that the compromises I made here were good enough. That said, it may be something to take a closer look at in a second edition if I do one.

Labeling of the maps is something that has come up a few times from a few cartographers I know. The maps in this coloring book are not labeled and this was a purposeful decision, again, with respect to the audience primarily being concerned with coloring. I didn’t include labels since those really get in the way of the coloring experience. I’m inclined to disregard this particular notion because for this primary audience of the adult colorer, I think that labeling would not be good.

Line dangles are definitely an issue in some of the maps. They were very difficult to get around considering the scale of the maps, the data, and the fact that many of the maps feature extra-wide road casing in order to make the roads colorable. These road casings do stick out into water locations on some pages. In another edition these definitely need to be cleaned up manually in Inkscape. I’ve wavered over whether to pull the book from the market to fix this particular issue, but I am convinced that the ROI on this is not enough to make this worthwhile. If there comes a time when I want to completely update, add new maps, and so on, then I will address this. In the meantime, I think that for the price, quantity of maps to color, and the interesting places to explore (I know many who have looked up the maps to discover more about a place), this book is more than worth the price. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed coloring most of the pages myself despite a few line dangles on some of the pages. I could fix them but considering my already too-booked schedule of consulting and speaking I just didn’t find that it would be worth it for the small increase in satisfaction that it would give to the sticklers. I’m thinking I may slightly edit the book’s description on the Amazon page to ensure that nobody incorrectly buys it thinking that it is a detailed road atlas or anything remotely similar.

City Maps constitutes a mash-up of two popular genres: adult coloring and cartography. This concept had never really been put forth in book format, in our recent past, before*. As such I believe these few critiques stem from the fact that it is a unique and interesting type of book and this kind of unique product will always bring with it a healthly amount of skepticism from those who may have expected something a little different. The hundreds of privately and publicly posted expressions of enthusiasm, support, and positive critiques has helped greatly to outweigh these issues addressed here but no good cartographer should create a product without a thorough look-back and lessons learned for the future as I’ve done here.**


*Apparently someone created a city maps coloring book 400 years ago?

**I propose that cartographers in production work incorporate some sort of “code review” and “retrospective” process (terms borrowed from software engineering).



Fruitful and intense week in Manitoba

May 20th, 2016
With a couple of hours free last night I was finally able to see the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

With a couple of hours free last night I was finally able to see the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

An all-day cartography workshop, a half-day workshop, and a 1-hour talk were on the agenda for me this week in both Winnipeg, Manitoba and Brandon, Manitoba. It was a jam-packed schedule considering the long drive to Brandon and back, but absolutely worth it for me and, I hope, for those in attendance at the cartography events.

Thank you to the Manitoba GIS User Group (MGUG) for hosting me for dinner Tuesday evening. Good conversation, good food. Thank you to the Manitoba Municipal Government for hosting the super constructive all-day workshop in Winnipeg, and the Manitoba Planning Conference and attendees for a fruitful half-day workshop and another talk the next day (attended by perhaps 150 people).

As often happens, there was a mixture of people in my workshops and talk, from absolute beginners to seasoned GIS and cartography technicians who make maps day in and day out. For an added interesting twist, my workshop and talk in Brandon also included a fair amount of municipal leaders who aren’t map makers but who commission maps, review the maps that their departments put out, and who generally are involved in the decision making.

While it can be difficult to tailor material for all these audiences I am hoping it was friendly enough for the beginners, and informational enough for the power technicians, while simultaneously giving the policy makers a good overview of the challenges we face and the user-oriented outcomes that we aim for.

The focus throughout was on planning maps. The main challenge is adequately presenting the sometimes dense zoning and planning development categories on small pieces of paper that go in the official by-law documentation. They’ve moved away from large fold-out maps due to their unwieldy size causing them to get separated from the original document, lost, or ripped. We discussed atlasing as a possible solution though there was some dislike of splitting up towns over multliple pieces of paper when they look better centered on a single page.

Color choices are always difficult because color is potentially the best way to depict the zoning and development plan categories, but in certain locations there can be a large amount of, for example, residential categories, that all need a slightly different yet related hue. And of course what then comes up is how can these be adequately represented in a pleasing way not only for normally sighted individuals but those with color deficiencies as well.

I brought up the usual tools for color deficiency such as vischeck and colorbrewer palettes but forgot to mention that Cartographer’s Toolkit also has deuteranopia simulations. Another method that I mentioned was running off the map on a black and white copier or printer to see if the shades are still distinguishable.

I mentioned that I’m not a fan of the most common zoning map style, which to my eyes appear as large blobs of color in tentacle-laden seas.

Examples of typical zoning maps with highway tentacles.

Examples of typical zoning maps with highway tentacles.

The highway lines are often left on the page to give a broader location context but there’s just a quality about them that appears off. I believe it is due to the low density of information. A few highways are not enough if you’re after spatial context. A better thing to do would be to increase the density outside the main focus area by also including faded parcel lines, an elevation surface, an ortho photo, or some other dataset(s) that provide a spatial continuity between the foreground information (i.e., zoning or development plan designations) and the background information (e.g., outside the town or city depicted).

An example of a map with visual continuity between the foreground and the background.

An example of a map with visual continuity between the foreground and the background.

In one of the workshops we used sets of GISCI contest maps from the 2014 and 2015 map contests to gain an understanding of the wide variety of methods people employ when making maps. We looked at them specifically from a typography and symbology point of view to determine what worked and didn’t work. Not only was it good to get up out of the chairs and walk around to look at the maps, it was also good to find out that there was a real variety of personal likes and dislikes among the workshop participants. There was no clear favorite when it came to typography or symbology, though there was some consensus on certain practices they’d like to avoid (e.g., too much text, circle symbology that gets hidden when points overlap, background photos that overwhelm the page, and so on.)

In all, I found that the cartographic technicians have great respect for those who will be reading and using their maps and they are keen to make sure that they’re doing everything they can to make that happen. At the same time, the policy makers were cognizant of the great deal of time that a cartographer needs to make all the little details come together in a coherent way.

Thank you to everyone who attended the workshops and the talk. I hope you learned a few new things . I’m grateful for the opportunity to dialog about these particularly important types of maps and I learned a lot of new things along the way as well.

Raleigh Convention Center Coffee Shop Map

May 4th, 2016

I’ve had a few requests for the pdf of the Raleigh convention center coffee shop map, otherwise known as the COFFEE4GNA map, that I created during yesterday’s QGIS demo talk at FOSS4GNA 2016 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Here it is!

Raleigh Convention Center, Coffee Nearby (PDF download)




New Contest to Win A Copy of City Maps

April 27th, 2016

******UPDATE: Both books have been won.******

I’m doing a new contest this week to give away two copies of City Maps: A Coloring Book for Adults!

Last week’s contest was a trial, and I apparently set the odds too low (1 in 100) and nobody won. So this time the odds are set at 1 in 10 and there are two books to give away. That means you have a really good shot to win one! All you have to do is click the link and then click the bouncing box icon to see if you’ve won.

As per last time I am only publicizing this on the blog for now. If there are no winners by the end of the business day I might publicize it on twitter too. The contest runs for 24 hours.

Please click the link below to enter the contest. Also please consider reviewing the book on Amazon (positive or negative) because every single review helps me out enormously.


Thoughts on UI For Webmaps

April 26th, 2016

Webmap design is a lot different from static map design. Yet, writing a book about webmap design is difficult since the tech is changing so rapidly. (There is a book, called Web Cartography, that is worth having but I still don’t think it goes into everything we want to know.) Indeed, there are a lot of unknowns surrounding the idea of what good UI for webmaps even is.

Some people are using google analytics types of software to analyze how people are using their webmaps (e.g., maptiks) but I don’t see a lot of A/B testing out there, which is probably the ideal way to harness the power of webmap analytics results.

Certainly we can still make some guesses at what works. For example, we can guess that tools and functions that have been on webmaps for at least a certain amount of time, say 5 years, are well ingrained into the public’s knowledge base and probably don’t need a lot of explanation on your map. Zooming in/out, panning, and even the ubiquitous (and not often needed) measure tool are all pretty familiar concepts to most webmap users so they need only be indicated with the usual plus/minus/ruler buttons. Brand-new tools for navigating the map, such as oblique tilts, probably will slow your user down until web GL is more common. These tools may require user education, perhaps in the form of a pop-up info box on first use.

Let’s talk about disclaimers. These could really benefit from testing. Typically, an organization will require a long-winded disclaimer to be presented to the web user before they have even seen the webmap. I’d really like to know how many users leave the site without clicking “agree.” Furthermore, I’d really like to see if clicking “agree” really does hold the organization free from liability in court, or if not having a disclaimer could allow prosecution of the organization for some users’ misuse of the data. My guess is that a reasonable judge would allow neither of these but I’m no lawyer.

What if we A/B tested disclaimers specifically? One site shows the user the disclaimer on the page, and the user has to click “agree” before the webmap will load. Another site shows the disclaimer on top of the webmap such that a faded view of the webmap is visible so that the user gets a glimpse of the webmap. Lots of guesswork here, but the hypothesis would be that the B test would result in more users.

Now let’s take a look at the freshymap. I believe that their use of these three small buttons on the top of the map make it easier for first-time users to pay attention to the main attraction–the map–before they get bogged down in the details–the layers. This one small button can be discovered at some later date, when the user is already familiar with the site.


Contrast that with this Puget Sound Watershed Characterization Project map (that’s a mouthful). Once you get past the disclaimer, which by the way happens to mention a two volume rules guide!, and then figure out how to actually get into the webmap (I’ll let you brave souls go figure that out yourselves), you find yourself on a webmap.

I think you’ll see right away that there are a remarkable amount of superfluous details on what is, essentially, trying to be a cataloging of their data holdings. In other words, it is trying to be all things to all people. We don’t need share, print and find location buttons at the very top of the page. We also don’t need the words “interactive map” at the top of the visual hierarchy (aka top-left) because we already get that it is an interactive map. In fact, that’s something that goes under the category of “user is used to this–we’ve had interactive maps for more than 5 years now,” and there is simply no need to explicitly use up good page real estate in telling them what they already know. The layer transparency slider also being at top-left? Nope, probably not needed, or at least not there.


It’s not a bad webmap at all. It’s actually very interesting once you really take the time to explore it. I do like the basemap switcher on the right (not shown on the above screenshot), which seems much easier to deal with since it has little pictures rather than words (though Timoney states that basemaps switchers are used very little of the time, in one rare case of actual user testing.) I’d just like to see more testing of these things. In a way, it’s a grand place to be in because there’s a lot of room for people to really be creative and come up with some amazing new ways to present webmaps to users that have a lot of potential to really shake things up.

Even the little things can be improved, like the titles we use on webmap legends. For example, I spotted the title, “Explore & Compare” on a legend title today and thought that they were a good choice of words, a call to action for the user, if you will. Again, only some testing would prove if my instincts are correct on that.

Amazonia map hat tip @stamen

Amazonia map hat tip @stamen

Until we get some more expert guidance on this, the best we can do is to keep our eyes peeled for the ways in which people are making webmaps easier to use and try to incorporate the best UI features in our own designs. We can also push back against our bosses or our fellow scientists when they ask for everything but the kitchen sink in one single webmap. Perhaps a series of webmaps for each intended purpose could be proposed instead. Good luck with that.



Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration