Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

New book, talk, etc.

October 2nd, 2015

A couple of news announcements and more:

  • I will have a new book out early next year, co-authored with the QGIS whiz Anita Graser, titled QGIS Map Design. It focuses on teaching QGIS map design through recipes on how to create beginner, advanced, and expert level maps. And we’re not just talking regular, run-of-the-mill map designs: these are modern maps made with modern techniques.
  • I’ll be giving a keynote on Cartography in the Modern World at MGUG next week, along with what appears to be quite a great line-up of speakers. I’m looking forward to it!
  • I still haven’t written up a review of The Map Thief, a book I read months ago and intended to review. It’s a fantastic book for those wanting to learn more about historic maps as the stories told about how some of these old exploration maps came to be are the most intriguing parts of the book. I didn’t find the main story (about the map thief himself) to be quite as interesting, but that’s probably due to my nerdiness concerning the maps and their history out-competing the main story line. I believe this book makes a good addition to the cartographer’s library.
  • This Spain tourist map was tweeted this week and deserves a look from anyone concerned with creating amazing webmap designs / information graphics.

    BBVA Tourism


How to Win a Map Contest

September 25th, 2015


I’ve just sat down to organize my thoughts on what it takes to win a map contest. Some of these points are rather dour in that they don’t really serve the cartography world all that well. Designing a map to win a contest and designing a great map are not always the same thing. Some of these points are fairly congruent with cartographic best-practices, however. See if you can spot which is which. :) And feel free to let me know what I’ve missed.

  • The color scheme needs to be something that everyone is familiar with and comfortable with, ergo: white or gray background with a few modest colors, dark gray or black background with a few bright colors, or a multitude of colors, but all muted. The option not to choose: cacophonies of bright colors.
  • The content needs to be immediately understandable yet not so watered-down that the judge will feel like an intellectual light-weight for choosing your map. This is all about psychology. The judge has his or her reputation to uphold and doesn’t want to look silly putting a blue ribbon on a map that on the surface looks too simple. While I feel that posters with massive amounts of text are off-putting and undermine the purpose of a poster, these text-heavy posters may actually win contests more than map-heavy posters. See this analogous situation with regard to soccer penalty kicking in this excerpt from “Think Like a Freak.” (For the record, I’m not a fan of that book as several of the examples are very poorly argued, however, they nail it with the soccer goal example.)
  • Plaster drop-shadows on all the margin elements.
  • Drop a big picture into the background if it’s a world map. Something with a visual consistency throughout and meaningful to the subject like sand behind a World Deserts map.
  • Make the map about a subject that the judges are likely to feel is underserved. You know how we get a jolt of happiness when we give to others? Maybe that’s what your judge is looking for when he/she judges your Stop on Red map. This map may not win an award for style–typically blue isn’t used for land–but like I say, it may win because it is a non-controversial but hitherto unmapped cause. Voting for this will make a judge feel like nobody can argue with their choice.
  • Use an easily recognizable location like a U.S. state or a country. These seem to win more often than large-scale maps.
  • Incorporate graphic design elements like fade-outs or color-blending.
  • Neatly align all margin elements either strictly to columns or evenly spaced around the map element.
  • Place all text immediately on top of the page. Don’t use a text-block background color. Especially don’t use a garishly-clashing text-block background color.
  • Only subtly differentiate between adjacent features. Maps with thick black lines for county borders, for example, don’t win. They also tend to not look good. It might be nice to indicate where county borders are in a state-level map of course, but usually they aren’t the purpose of the map and only serve to undermine the visual weight of the other elements. Therefore, they should be indicated with, for example, a slightly more saturated color than the main background.

And sometimes you still won’t win. But that’s because judges are idiots.

One of the GISCI contest winners from 2014, credit Jonah Adkins:


A Cartographer’s Gifkit

September 18th, 2015
  1. When the colors, typography, labels, and features harmonize perfectly on each page in the map atlas you just created.
  2. When one small change in the cartography causes a cascade of unintended consequences.
  3. Your reaction when someone in a frog suit tells you to make that color a little more peachy.
  4. When your first d3.js interactive map actually works.
  5. When someone tries to reign in your cartographic profligacy but you badass onward.


Huge Increase in Sharability by Combining Git and QGIS

August 31st, 2015

After tweeting today about the Unmitigated Amazingness that is a QGIS + Git workflow, someone suggested that I write a blog about my experiences in this regard. Unfortunately today is a deadline day for a portion of what will become my next book* so I can’t put a lot of time into a full-blown explanation of how this workflow will CHANGE your life. But I can give you a taste.

To that end, in a nutshell, and realizing I might be leaving out some important bits of information and because I suspect there are a lot of people out there who’ve never used this workflow before in their life, I’m deliberately not using the technical Git terms pull, push, etc., just to keep it simple:

  • You begin by installing Git on your machine
  • Unless you want to use command-line Git the two choices that I’m familiar with are the following combinations: Bitbucket for your online stuff** and SourceTree to manage updating that stuff OR GitHub for your online stuff and GitHub Desktop to manage updating that stuff
  • You create a project (aka “repo”) on Bitbucket or GitHub
  • Copy it locally via SourceTree or GitHub Desktop
  • (alternatively you can create it locally and then create it in the cloud)
  • I suggest that all the geodata you’ll use goes in one folder within the repo while all the QGIS projects you create go in another, any images or other odd things that you need in your QGIS projects could go in a Misc folder
  • You do your work normally: create a QGIS project, add data, but do it all within that repo folder on your machine
  • Open SourceTree or GitHub Desktop on your machine and it’ll tell you that you made changes like that you added data and that you created a project, you can choose if you want all of that to be put in your Bitbucket or GitHub cloud. If you do want it up in the cloud, you use one of those programs to sync it up with your cloud repo
  • Your collaborators simply use their own SourceTree or GitHub programs to put that project and its data on their machine exactly as you uploaded it. If they make changes that they want you to see then they can also sync those up, then your SourceTree or GitHub alerts you about the changes

And guess what?! In this way your QGIS project and all the files it uses are easily synced with other people. You don’t have to zip anything up. You don’t have to locate all the places where you put your data because you’ve already put it all in that repo/geodata folder. There is NO repairing of data source paths on your collaborator’s end! Think of the possibilities! It is truly a wonderful thing.

Now, I really am sure that I’ve left a whole lot of info out while trying to create this simple bird’s-eye view of the process but hopefully this provides a taste of the possibilities so that you can go learn more. After using both the Bitbucket/SourceTree workflow and the GitHub/GitHub Desktop workflow I personally find the GitHub/GitHub Desktop workflow to be a bit easier. Its desktop program is a little more streamlined as it “exposes” less of the advanced capabilities.

————Edited 9/1/2015 to add: Soon after posting this a reader pointed out that James Fee and I had coincidentally written about similar topics on our blogs yesterday. His topic was spatial DATA versioning while mine was spatial PROJECT versioning. To be clear, the project-sharing that I’m talking about in this post doesn’t really involve changing data at all. In fact, what I’ve been doing is collaborating with someone else on cartography designs using QGIS, and we needed a way to see each other’s designs (i.e., QGIS projects) and tweak them and send them back and forth. So yes, while we do store spatial data in our git repos, we aren’t concerned about that data changing, just really the styling of the data within the QGIS projects themselves. Fee explains much better in his follow-up post GIS and Git. ————

*First public hint about my next book: it will be about cartography! ;)

**Highly technical here







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.


Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration