Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Artists make the best maps

October 5th, 2016

When artists do cartography they get it right more often than when GIS people/developers/analysts do cartography.

We say, “but artists don’t know the cartography rules.” Then we are astounded time and again when artists create map masterpieces nonetheless.

The eye for design that artists have seems to be of utmost importance if a great map is desired. This skill CAN be learned!

To learn to be an artist, to have that designer’s eye, you must be immersing yourself in art! You must be experiencing art and practicing art. How many of us do this?

There are still many GIS people/developers/analysts who have made map masterpieces, yes. I have a hunch that those in this group who have been successful have some kind of art background, art knowledge, and/or great appreciation for art of all kinds.

Color Critique Will Always Be There For You

June 23rd, 2016

A client warned me the other day: “I like the color schemes but just so you know these bosses have a way of changing colors, it’s the way we work around here.”

I said, “Right, that’s completely expected but thank you for the heads-up because it means that I will take a few minutes of extra time at our next demo to explain that these colors come from a previously published paper on the subject. That way if they do decide that the palette should be changed, they’ll be aware that it will be different from the published standard.”

I added, “Having been in the cartography business for 17 years, I’ve learned that debate over color is part of the career. Sometimes even for the better.”


Set designer: “Let’s make Beaker’s hair a little more orangish.”


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.

Plan to Attend FOSS4GNA 2016

March 22nd, 2016

Ever since the very successful FOSS4G conference in Denver 2011, the conference and its North American counterpart the FOSS4GNA conference, have been the go-to conferences for anyone involved in or interested in Free and Open Source Software with a Geospatial bent. My understanding is that the 2011 conference consisted of a veritable who’s-who of FOSS4G developers and power users. Despite the auspiciousness of the attendees the information exchange level was high.

I went to my first FOSS4GNA last year and can attest to the fact that the information exchange level is still high while also being inclusive of those who are new to FOSS4G with plenty of intro sessions for newbies. Of course we’re all newbies at one or more aspects of FOSS4G as it’s impossible to know all of the great things coming out of this community at an expert level. So this is the conference to delve deeply into your software of choice, dabble in libraries or packages that are entirely new to you, and swap great ideas for new possibilities with fellow attendees.

This year’s FOSS4GNA is in Raleigh, May 2-5. I plan to give a cheesy talk where I interweave bits of the Tony Robbins best-seller Awaken the Giant Within with a live demo of QGIS. Hope to see you there!

This slide may or may not be going into my FOSS4GNA 2016 talk.

This slide may or may not be going into my FOSS4GNA 2016 talk.

How I Got My Start in GIS, Sloppy Joes, and Tree Hugging

February 22nd, 2016


With this post I’m jumping in on the “how I got my start in GIS” meme. (Thanks to Bill Dollins for starting this.)

For me it was really pretty straightforward. Here’s how it played out:

My adviser sophomore or junior year at Cornell was a man who, shall we say, had a bit of a relaxed personality. This was a guy who organized stunts for his environment seminar such as getting some guy to run across the stage yelling, “tree huggers!” while brandishing a chainsaw. My adviser would nonchalantly continue to lecture to the 300 or so students in the class while this was going on.

He was generally unflappable. However, there was one time when two men streaked naked across the stage during a lecture. Apparently this was not a professor-planned stunt because he abruptly discontinued the lecture for the day. The students were stunned first by the streakers and second by what my adviser said in response. “And that is all,” he said. Or maybe he just said, “Class dismissed.” I don’t remember the exact words but they were perfunctory and unprecedented. This was 30 minutes before the formal end of class. At first we were not really sure if the whole thing was a joke or not but when my adviser left the stage and didn’t come back we eventually filed out of the hall and had an early lunch.

So it was that guy who told me I should take a class in GIS. He said it was going to be all the rage for natural resources managers someday, which was what I was aspiring to be. I took the class, got a gentlewomanly grade of B and that was that. It was taught by Steve DeGloria, a nice man whom I kept in touch with for a while after college. He was probably the first (and not the last) to warn me against trying to start a consulting business. :)

My junior year I applied for a work-study position at the NY State Water Resources Institute, which was conveniently located on the Cornell campus. The position was primarily supposed to be a graphic design job using Pagemaker on their office mac. In the interview I pretty much told them I knew Pagemaker and got the job, at which point I immediately hit the mac lab and spent an entire weekend learning not only how to use Pagemaker but also how to use a mac.

Happily I didn’t completely fail at my first Pagemaker tasks so I was still working there when some GIS work needed to be done. One of the managers asked me to do it since I was the only one around with any kind of GIS experience. I continued to do most of the GIS work from then on out, which expanded as we realized the capabilities. One of my main memories of this time period was that ArcInfo was practically impossible to use if you didn’t know what keywords to search for in the ArcInfo listserv archives. Let’s just say I spent a lot of my time searching for answers using the wrong questions.

During this time something occurred which I call the File Cabinet Incident. A fellow intern was in a rush to tell me something exciting and in the process crashed straight into the filing cabinet in my office. It was awesome.

Another memory from that time was the major snowstorm that occurred the day of a workshop that I was supposed to give in SUNY Binghamton, an hour’s drive away. The professor I was supposed to ride with made me drive since I was from Colorado. This apparently  made me a good snowstorm driver by default.

Lucky for him he guessed right as I did spend my teens doing things like scraping snow off the windshield of my 1850s era, red velvet seats, Mercury Marquis with a long stick. While simultaneously driving slowly down the road to get home from high school tennis practice. Yes, tennis practice during a snowstorm, you read that right. It’s all about having the right gloves.

I also won’t ever forget the map that I made to go on the front of the Susquehanna watershed report that the Institute produced. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that great, but it was a major accomplishment to make a map with digital data. This was due to the special combination of my not having very user friendly software and my being 20 years old.

I gave my first big conference talk as part of that internship too. It was to the 1998 NY GIS Conference on the topic of “Source Water Assessment and GIS.” The most vivid thing about that talk that I can remember is that I inexplicably ordered a sloppy joe sandwich to eat right before my talk. And I was wearing a white dress shirt. Sheesh, interns! (And thanks for all that you did for me, NYSWRI! :) )

Announcing GIS Appreciation Day 2016

February 5th, 2016

edited 3/3/2016 to add:
Wednesday, March 1, 2017 will be the next GIS Appreciation Day. Thanks for participating everyone!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016 will be our first GIS Appreciation Day!

It will be a day to post your fantastic map finds, funny GIS memes, and just about anything that you can think of. Just be sure to use the hashtag #GISAppreciationDay with your social media posting! I’ll be participating on twitter but I assume it can be extended to Instagram and Facebook or wherever you’d like.

It was inspired by the very successful (seriously) Squirrel Appreciation Day that happened back in January. For example:


Here is the history behind the making of GIS Appreciation Day:

So let’s all celebrate GIS Appreciation Day on March 2, 2016 by posting at least one GIS fact, one great map, one photo of your colleagues or whatever you come up with. I’m looking forward to this!

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration