Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

Ghost Critique

September 13th, 2016

This week I saw one amazingly bad map that was being heralded as a good map in the media. It prompted the following subtweet:

I’m not going to link to the bad map that I’m talking about even though I know it would be instructive to do so because this post does not constitute a positive review of the map. However, I do think I can use it as a platform for discussing the general errors that were made. Here were the two big ones:

  • Too many things on the map. There were circles of varying size and color, isolines describing another variable, polygons with regular shading and polygons with crosshatch fills, labels, lines of varying pattern and icons.
  • It was a static map that you could zoom in and out of but one of the zoom buttons changed its icon suddenly after a couple of zooms.

When you have to put that many things on one map you also have to spend a few weeks at a minimum getting their symbology, layer order, and palette correct. I’m guessing that’s where this map went wrong.

The map’s central premise, data gathering effort, and analytical effort were all solid, which I am sure are the details that merited the media attention, but it failed in the final graphical display. The map makers should have spent more time on the cartography, much much more time. A hundred hours more time! There is no doubt in my mind that the map’s audience is significantly stifled as a result.

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City Maps: recent debate and details on its making!

May 23rd, 2016

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Note 8/3/2016: Not long after writing this post I came to my senses and revised the coloring book. “Ha ha,” you say. “After all the defensiveness in this post you actually revised the book!” And you are right to laugh, but let me explain.

As is typical in cartography and perhaps all subjective media, the criticisms thrown at the book were highlighting a deficiency but not quite hitting on the exact problems. In this case, after an immense amount of thought and hang-wringing, I realized that the real problem was with the linework. And so I fixed that linework to the best of my ability and released a revised book interior in July 2016. The details on that revision are here.
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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 14,000 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:

No1InMeditation

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.

Accuracy

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).

 

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Doing Good. Cartography Edition.

May 24th, 2014

You can’t get uphill by walking downhill.

Do good cartography.

If you’ve done bad cartography in the past, made some mistakes, used low-resolution datasets at high zooms, forgotten to change the font from Arial to something more engaging, employed a pastel fruit color scheme, put a north arrow on an Albers Equal Area map, provided too small of a gutter when tiling and some labels got cut off, failed to normalize the choropleth, or used solid lines for disputed territories, take heed:

Cartography Philosophy

April 2nd, 2014

 

On my mind today were two little nuggets from Inc Magazine’s April 2014 issue that got me thinking.

Keeping Those Mapping Skills Fresh

The first is a question, or actually, part of a question that goes like this, “Which customers can’t participate in our market because they lack skills?” It struck me as both a very obvious question to ask yourself as a business owner and a completely novel concept. It should be obvious to ask this question but it just isn’t asked very often.

I wouldn’t normally even write about this question on a blog about cartography except for one thing: it’s a question that hits home to traditional cartographers. Do we lack a skill that’s necessary for making maps in the modern era? If I’m adept at finding data, analyzing data, using a GIS program, and perhaps even in manipulating the GIS output in a graphics software, shouldn’t that be enough? Why should I invest my time learning new tools, which are heavily focused on web design, that are being developed? Because if you don’t, you won’t be able to participate in the new cartographic market, that’s why.

Safe or Stifling?

Another bit in the magazine espoused the ideals of providing a safe environment for exchanging ideas within your workgroup. Two articles describe how to produce this “safe environment” and, surprise surprise, they contradict one another. One of the articles talks about never knocking down the ideas of others. Another article talks about making it so people know they won’t be taken to task for what they say. If you have a culture of never questioning ideas then you have a culture where nobody knows if something’s actually good or if your peers are simply putting on a polite facade. If nobody’s ever taken to task then things could get ugly.

And what does all that have to do with cartography? It poses the possibility that there are multiple ways to allow critical feedback on a map design, an analysis, data inputs, and the like. As a profession, we are in desperate need of critical feedback. Some of that happens in social media today, such as on twitter. (If you want to know how people really feel about that map, post it on twitter but have a thick skin.) What seems to the designer like a fabulous idea–renaming every U.S. state for a beer brand let’s say–might be met with derision from the crowd.

Some say that criticism kills innovation. If you have too many people telling you that beer map is terrible then you might never come up with another map idea in your life. But if we never allow criticism in the workplace then we risk putting out a bunch of beer maps. Is there a way to win here?

Getting Along: The Objective and the Subjective in Mapping

December 10th, 2013

In my morning reading I came across the following argument: people in fields where there isn’t a lot of debate about what the “right answer” is (e.g., math, chemistry) are nicer to one another than those in fields that are 100% subjective (e.g., art, architecture, music). In the fields that are 100% subjective, the only way to make your mark is to have an outsized ego, so the argument went, because a holier-than-thou stance on critique is the only way to get people behind your opinions. Loud and obnoxious wins in these fields. The corollary is that subjective fields of study are more competitive and less collegial than non-subjective fields of study.

Since our formula for map making is somewhere along the lines of

A Good Map = 0.5x + 0.5y, where

x = subjective items (aesthetic, feel, fashion, staleness, communicative ability, interpretation of data etc.)

y = objective items (projection accuracy, data precision and accuracy, spelling, normalization, etc.)

It stands to follow that we cartographers are justified in being 50% rude and 50% friendly to each other.*

Thinking back to some of my first attempts at public map making, here’s how this would break down. The subjective map critique would have been something like: I know Kitsap County is an awkward shape to map, but maybe you could do something different to make it more interesting. Tan for the land and light blue for the water, wow, how original! The roads look like the tentacles of an octopus. Those are some ugly suckers.

The objective critique would have gone more like this: The road shield images didn’t go through and the map has big red Xs where they should be. The color saturation on the water fades at the end of the map because the ink was starting to run out.**

Broadening the discussion from my sophomoric disasters to more general concepts, we have:

The Subjective Map Critique: Is the map a mess? In other words, are there so many extraneous details such as ridiculously thick feature boundaries, too many leader lines, a legend as long as an essay? Are there  harshly clashing colors, misleading colors, or out-of-fashion colors? Is there not enough information? Is the map boring? Is it confusing?

The Objective Map Critique: Are the color connotations correct for the audience? In western countries, for example, red is used most often to mean “bad” or “a lot.” Don’t use red to demarcate areas where the habitat for a fluffy-cute animal that everyone wants to save is located. Do the interactive components, if any, actually work? Do they include the information promised? For example, a recent digital map I viewed confusingly had social media links under the headline “legend.” Is the spelling correct? Is the projection reasonable? Was normalization of thematic data that has a strong population component included and described? And so on.

When critically reviewing your own work and that of others, you must think in both the objective terms and the subjective terms. Indeed, judging criteria for map contests is often broken out into these two categories, even if they aren’t expressly labeled as such. Often, the criteria include one or two elements of objective ratings and 3-4 elements of subjective ratings. Why the subjective gets more weight in these contests is an interesting question. We assume that the subjective is where the major differences are going to be when judging cream-of-the-crop maps. When judging run-of-the-mill*** maps, however, these should be given equal weighting.

 

*Joke

**A short list because I’m a scientist, of course there wasn’t anything else objectively wrong…

***These idioms “run the gamut” from farm to factory.

Criticism, Deep Thoughts

October 23rd, 2013

Today’s cartography book writing faux pas:

I was supposed to type, “You know that map you just made? It needs some help. Be prepared to hear this and be prepared not to take it personally.”

But my mind wandered and I wound up typing, “You know that map you just made? It needs some help. Be prepared to hear this and be prepared not to take it seriously.”

Now there’s a freeing thought!

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration