Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Don’t Oversimplify

September 23rd, 2014

There’s been a lot of talk about simplicity in the GIS world lately and so it seems like a good time to remember not to let the pendulum swing too much to the side of oversimplification. Read up on this in Don Norman’s Simplicity Is Not the Answer.

In the meantime I thought it prudent to add another poster in this blog’s series of motivational posters (other “gems” are found here and here) Plus, I happened to be testing out QGIS’s Simplify Geometries tool today.


Book Selling

September 16th, 2014

Last week I was asking around* about how to publicize Cartographer’s Toolkit more. The reason this came up was that I finally sat down and calculated total sales since publication for Cartographer’s Toolkit vs. total sales for GIS Cartography. Now, there are a few important differences between the books:

Cartographer’s Toolkit

  • published in paperback in 2012, published in electronic (pdf) form in 2011
  • not available on kindle due to kindle publishing not being good enough for such a graphic-intense book (there are about 30 individual graphics on some pages)
  • Aimed at providing an easy-to-flip-through experience for experienced cartographers seeking fresh typeface, color palette, and map design ideas
  • self-published and therefore self-marketed
  • marketed via messages on twitter (many), cartotalk (1), a small email group I belong to, and a few other small outlets. Also featured in GIS User and a few international cartography publications.
  • mentioned and reviewed on several blogs
  • almost 3 times cheaper than GIS Cartography

GIS Cartography

  • 1st edition published in 2009, 2nd edition published in 2014
  • available on kindle
  • provides a comprehensive textbook for undergrads, graduates, improving and experienced professionals
  • published by CRC Press
  • present at many conference venues via CRC Press
  • marketed to professors via CRC Press

Cartographer’s Toolkit is being under-marketed as shown by the fact that total sales have been at about 1/2 those of GIS Cartography. Even though GIS Cartography has been out much longer, it is also much more expensive. This makes me believe that Cartographer’s Toolkit has the potential to reach a much wider audience. All this is to say that I’m tossing around ideas to get the word out about the book more. I got some great advice via twitter, so I’ll start to implement some of those ideas in the future (including emailing groups that have people who may not read twitter). One of the nicest things about asking on twitter was all the positive feedback I got on the book from those who have actually used it in their own cartographic endeavors.

Brian Bancroft said, “Cartographer’s Toolkit has been a boon to me. Some of my private sample maps even scored me a job as a field cartographer in the resource center in a faraway province. I will have a lot more spare time on airplanes to do reading as a result [to read GIS Cartography]. Thanks again for doing what you do. You do it well.”

When, in other ages, have authors been able to get such direct and quick feedback from their readers? I think that’s part of the reason that books are still being created at a fierce pace these days: the interactive component with readership.

Onward to marketing. A writer’s job is never done.


*Asking around = asking on twitter

Friday Roundup

September 12th, 2014

The Tableau Conference 2014 (#DATA14) was held this week, featuring some outstanding speakers: Hans Rosling, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Michael Lewis, to name a few. Alberto Cairo, @albertocairo, also gave a talk but contributed a tremendous amount by live tweeting for those of us who couldn’t be there in person. In particular, his tweeted pictures of Rosling holding a giant arrow pointer, with an actual arrow at the end, were both amusing and informative. It’s nice to learn facts about the world while also learning how best to chart and display data.

That assertion applies equally well to a very common problem we have in both paper and digital mapping, one that has been with us for decades: the boss or client who wants 10 data layers on a single map when it would be best to separate the layers into individual maps.

The FOSS4G (Free and Open Source Software for Geospatial) conference is still going on, finishing with a code sprint on Saturday and Sunday. You can view the live stream of the talks for the rest of today and the recordings will be available sometime in the near future according to @foss4g.

Ian Schneider, who has been at Boundless a lot longer than I have, gave a great introduction to MapStory. I liked his talk because it focused on how four power-users of MapStory use the product. This makes it personal, interesting, and at the same time introduces us to the concepts behind the site. It’s a good presentation technique.

Our colleague, Benjamin Trigona-Harany, gave the QGIS for Analysts workshop for the first time at FOSS4G. I had a very small part in producing the workshop materials and it was a lot of fun to put together. To try and come up with a “typical” GIS analysis workflow while using interesting data that would yield interesting results and show off the capabilities of QGIS was a much harder thing to do than I had realized! But in the end we settled on showing off the processing capabilities of QGIS (it has an interface that allows you to link multiple processes together and run it like a program, similar to other products) via a Wyoming antelope habitat analysis. Essentially, we figured out what types of habitat the antelope favored based on their ranges overlayed with raster data like elevation and landuse.

URISA’s GIS-Pro Annual Conference finished up yesterday. The tweets revealed that there was a good mixture of professionals at the conference and a good turnout. I wish I hadn’t missed NOAA’s talk on sea level rise and coastal flooding. Now that would have made a very interesting QGIS analysis too. I’m very impressed that part of the conference program included a half-day community project involving property condition field data collection. Hey, that would have been another good case study for a QGIS analysis workshop. One’s work is never done.

Has Cartography Advanced Enough?

September 8th, 2014

Reading about Plato’s thoughts on irrational numbers, I came across this, “Plato was profoundly interested in the subject…he says the general ignorance on this subject is disgraceful…” (Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy).

About 10 years ago I would have said, or rather I did say, much the same thing about cartography. But reflecting on this tonight I have to say that tremendous progress has occurred in all aspects of cartography: software, design, general geography skills,  and ubiquity of mapping products spanning all kinds of important subjects. (The possible exception to this is geo analytical theory, which was already advanced a decade ago, though arguably not practiced enough.)

Now the question is do we continue to teach, learn, and discover the art and science of cartography or are we done here?*


*I’m not done. It’s just a rhetorical question. :)

GIS Maps in the Wild

August 15th, 2014

For the most part, GIS map apps are inflicted on the public without user testing. User experience with the map app is also not studied after the fact, as a general rule. These things, which have the potential to affect thousands of people, are essentially designed and deployed in a black-hole environment where the best one can hope for is to get a few bits of feedback from colleagues on twitter or from a desk-mate who might simply state, “that’s cool.”

A stellar-mass black hole in orbit with a companion star located about 6,000 light years from Earth.

This is why I was excited to see the mention of a map application on a totally non-map related forum the other day and even more excited to see that there were a lot of responses regarding not only the content of the map but also regarding the usability of the map. What follows is a list I’ve made of what those responses consisted of, inasmuch as they provide instructive commentary for cartographers to apply to our mapping applications in general.

Our Case Study:

The map app

The forum discussion (non-mappers)


STATE THE DATA ORIGINS The mapping application has a 5 sentence paragraph defining how the mapped variable was calculated. This paragraph was also quoted in the original forum post. Even though the paragraph explained that the data was from a “Survey of Consumer Finances,” most people seemed to assume that the data was purely census data, based on the fact that census blocks were used as the geographic unit of display. A forum poster pointed out the source of the data later on in the discussion as people wondered how the census data was used to calculate net worth (it wasn’t.) Lesson: be clear about where the data comes from; people do want to know so don’t bury the information in a long paragraph.

SCRUTINIZE EVERY WORD The instruction to “click on the block” to see details about census data for that block was interpreted by at least one reader as “block” as in a 3d square object. Some readers were therefore not familiar with the census block concept. The lesson is that every word should be examined for alternate meanings, geographic differences, and level of reader knowledge about the subject. You don’t have to dumb it down to kindergarten reading level, but you do have to be cognizant of not using industry-specific terms for a general-public map.

ANTICIPATE AREAL UNIT SKEPTICISM Geographic units will be questioned by smart people. In this case, some people were unfamiliar with census block geography and wondered if the block polygons were always square, leading them to immediately wonder if there was a spatial bias. Of course geographers know there is always some kind of bias with spatial units. (They imply that things are more similar within than without as if there were hard edges between two adjacent units when in reality most data such as soils or census data is continuously distributed, is just one example of the problems inherent in geographic units.) But non-geographers don’t know about the modifiable areal unit problem. I think that there isn’t much a geo map app can do to acknowledge this bias other than with wordy disclaimers, but it remains a point to consider mentioning when you present the map in person.

CLICK-FOR-DATA NOT ALWAYS OBVIOUS A few people seemed to not realize that you could get at detailed information about the blocks by clicking on them. To describe how to do it one responder simply explained, “it shows up when you click on the colors.” The obvious to you is not always obvious to others. When explaining how to do something on a map app, you can make the wording quite simple, as was done here.

MAPS ARE FOR PONDERING Starting a conversation with the map and getting people to think about the data is a good end in itself. In this case there was a good discussion about whether the data reflected the net worth of renters or owners and how people with multiple homes were represented.

THEY ALWAYS WANT MORE DATA People will always want more specificity with data. In our example people were eager to know more specifically what the net worth was in places where it was listed as “$500,001,” which was actually just the top of the data range. While there may be very few census blocks with net worths higher than $500,000, finding those few census blocks (the extreme outliers) might be the most interesting thing about the map. The way in which a choropleth is broken down is therefore extremely important to think through thoroughly. For example, for this data and this use case, where outliers are important, the quantile method of class breaks is especially problematic.

ZOOM LEVEL AGGREGATION IS GOOD Several users noted their appreciation for zoom level based geographic aggregation. For example, census tract boundaries are shown at lower zooms while smaller census block boundaries are shown at higher zooms.

ETHICS MUST BE CONSIDERED The notion of data being scary when it isn’t aggregated–when it’s available at a household level, for example–was brought up. All map makers need to be aware of ethical practices. Map app philosophy, however, needs a Socrates for the profession, and until the time when we have an overriding philosophy we have to make conclusions on ethical practices on a case by case basis.

DISCLAIMER FOR THIS LIST Lastly, while reading through the forum comments about the map, be mindful that the majority of people who used the map might have had zero trouble using it, zero trouble mentally thinking through and overcoming geographic unit bias, and zero trouble with data privacy concerns. To adequately understand the spread of user reactions we’d have to do a real study. Thus the disclaimer: empirical data is instructive but use it with caution.


Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration