Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

foundational education vs pinnacle education

August 20th, 2015

In education there’s a debate over whether a student should start with foundational knowledge and build from there or whether they should start at a place (i.e., framework) that’s further along so that they can reach even higher at an earlier age than those who have to, for example, spend time memorizing addition and subtraction problems when they could have just relied on a calculator. (Apparently this is something they do in Sweden?)

Recently we in GIS land have brought up the question of whether a 12 week course that promises to teach you to be a data scientist is snake oil or not. Given: an advanced statistics degree is a huge accomplishment and we need some people who know those fundamentals.

The question is, though, what if we taught the tools (but not the theory, thus saving people time) to people who are experts in other disciplines? I think there’s definitely a place for modularized education like this. And providing this 12 week option–if the quality of the teaching is good–could enable more and better advances.

It’s kind of like saying: “we shouldn’t enable people without expertise in cartography or GIS analysis to make maps by providing shortened educational opportunities.” Well guess what? We didn’t provide shortened educational opportunities and still our entire profession has been up-ended over the past 10 years by people who have had virtually no expertise in GIS analysis or cartography.

The gut tells us that too much territoriality never leads to new thinking. If the 12 week course turns out to be a disappointment due to poor teaching that’s certainly something to complain about. But to complain about the spirit of the course? Perhaps that’s sour grapes.


Too Much New Software, Too Many New Libraries, Even for the Nerds

July 28th, 2015


I’ve been learning d3 and it’s been a fantastic learning experience. It’s a low-level javascript library for making interactive visualizations–including maps–inside SVGs for nifty client-side rendering effects of datasets that can be updated easily with new data. Incidentally, Scott Murray’s book Interactive Data Visualization for the Web is a fantastic first resource full of the most important bits to know and written in an accessible style.

So that’s been great, yes. But even the nerdiest among us have their limits to how much of their day, their week, or even their year, they can jam with brand-new material. And that leads me to my thesis, which is that when you are designing a new product or a new library or a new software, keep in mind that it isn’t just your computer laypersons who have to leap a mental hurdle to even begin working with your product, it’s also people who have just simply saturated their number of “new things” that they can handle that week or that month, even if they are supremely computer-savvy individuals who would really have very little trouble with your product.

In product design teams, the engineers and managers all have a tendency to think about the lowest common denominator when designing, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. But the computer scientists among us hit their limits from time to time too. So you’re not just in the business of making things simple for the newbies, your making your product easy to adopt by everyone.

My forays into d3 came at a time when I was granted a few hours of paid time to work on it, and that helped. It also came at a time when I was ready to really dive into something new. Don’t count on that being the case for all your users.

As usual I’ve reached the end of my little thesis statement with a feeling that it could be argued in the opposite direction as well (the downside of being analytical). So if you’d like to argue the opposite please go for it. And keep in mind the goal here: giving the best advice for teams building brand-new products as well as individuals who are building brand-new tools and libraries.



More Mark Twain, on His Paris Map

July 17th, 2015

I previously wrote about Mark Twain’s Paris Map but I don’t believe I had come across this particular account of it in his autobiography at the time. I’ve been re-reading the autobiography lately and when I read the bit shown below I figured I should pass it along. It sets up the reasons why he made the map–in a fit of creativity resulting from the somberness of having just taken care of two people who ultimately died–and also goes into what he (imagines?) the map’s effects were on those who saw it.




It seems as though Twain forgot to mention in this part of his autobiography the fact that the map had been printed in reverse. Elsewhere he says:

By an unimportant oversight I have engraved the map so that it reads wrong end first, except to left-handed people.




Tweeting at #gistribe today

July 15th, 2015

Edited to add: Hey if you missed out on all the color-theory, cartography tips, map examples, and mapions (map + minion) then head over to @wildlifegisgirl’s storify to see all the tweets for the #gistribe chat in one place! I was honored to be asked to be a featured guest for the chat and had a lot of fun. Thanks everyone!


The #gistribe people asked me to speak on cartography today at 12:00 PT. These typically run about one hour. Follow along with us on twitter and be sure to ask a few questions and post some of your favorite map techniques.

for all newcomers

June 14th, 2015

I don’t care how many mistakes a cartographer makes. I care about what those mistakes might lead up to if the person keeps trying and experimenting: perhaps a world-view changing map that makes a huge difference to human welfare, to the environment, to science, or to happiness in general!

To be protectionist about ones’ profession when one is at the top is to cover up fears. Fears that professional truisms that you once held dear will be upended. Fears that naive mistakes will ruin the world (or worse-that naiveté will result in creative advances that you yourself didn’t discover!). Or any myriad other fears.

To be protectionist of the principles of your profession, to denigrate those who make mistakes, and to ignore creative enhancements just because they haven’t yet made it into an approved text or some such accepted measure of correctness is to declare that you believe there is no improvement to be made to the current accepted state of knowledge.

Naysayers live it up for a short while, if they’ve made it far enough. But they don’t stay there long if they don’t make room for the up and comers. Up and comers don’t have to look like them, act like them, or make their contributions in the same way. Don’t let the naysayers get you down. You have the potential to change any of a number of things in the cartography profession that need shaking-up.

Could you imagine someone who is truly a genius, someone like Richard Feynman perhaps, getting angry that a scientist misunderstood or misused a principle? He could have held an attitude of admonishment for those who knew less than himself. But instead he thought hard about how to teach better.

And if you make mistakes along the way? Roger Schank says, “we need to reason logically from evidence we gather, carefully consider the conditions under which our experiment has been conducted, and decide when and how we might run the experiment again with better results.”

But please, don’t stop experimenting.

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration