Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

When Infographics Go Bad

May 30th, 2013

A certain scholarly technology magazine, which shall remain unnamed, in its current issue, contains a startlingly confusing and downright irresponsible infographic involving floating map pieces coupled with statistics. Now, I’m not your typical overly picky academic-type when it comes to infographics, but this one just blows the mind.

As always, critiques are meant for the betterment of mapping—or in this case infographicking—and aren’t intended as personal attacks. With that in mind, I created this infographic so that it resembles the one in the magazine, but is not exactly the same. All names have been changed to protect the innocent, etc. etc.

So the infographic looks something like what you are looking at above. Here are the problems:

(1) Each state is stretched or shrunk to fit into the grid. Area is not only not preserved, it isn’t even close! Kentucky appears smaller than Connecticut.

(2) The statistics would likely make more sense with respect to where these states are in their context—the U.S.—rather than floating in space.

(3) There isn’t actually a reason to show the states. The infographic could have done just as well to show the percentages next to the state names without the associated geometries.

Those are the three major problems with the infographic. It’s a small list, but each point is pretty important and obvious.

The major lesson here: don’t inject maps into infographics without any reason whatsoever.

A Short Story About Cartographer Wasps

May 28th, 2013

This past weekend I came across a reference to a short story titled “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” by E. Lily Yu, in the anthology Unnatural Creatures edited by Neil Gaiman. “Naturally” this was something I had to check out and I am so glad I did. It’s a fabulous short story that manages to evoke fantastical imagery and Steinbeck-style powerful, omniscient dialog into a 10 to 20 minute read with themes ranging from politics to war strategy to environmental ethics, and of course, to the power of mapping.

The story spans multiple generations of bees and wasps. The wasps are academically more advanced than the bees, with whom they need to share resources, but also more aggressive. Their academic prowess is most notable in the cartographic arena, enabling them to pick up and move under adverse conditions due to their detailed mapping abilities, while the bees are more limited (but, crucially, not completely without the ability to learn and change).

I’m not going to write any more about the story, as it is short enough for you to pick it up and read it yourself. However, I can say that I am more than pleased to see a reference to “beautiful cartography” in the story. And the great thing is that the phrase “beautiful cartography” is used in its fullest, least trite, sense: beautiful means not only aesthetic, but also elucidatory and abundantly detailed. These are indeed the qualities that I’m always pushing us all to strive for in our maps.

Type Tips

May 22nd, 2013

******************************************************************************************************************************
Note: From time to time old posts will be resurfaced on the blog. This one is from Sept. 2010.
******************************************************************************************************************************



If you are using small caps for your labels (which we should do more of, they look good!), use true-drawn small caps. What this means is to avoid using the “small caps” font changer in your software. (In ArcGIS this is found in the Properties dialog, Change Symbol, Properties, Formatted Text, Text Case.) In the following example, the first Hello There is written in 20 pt Fontin Sans Small Caps and the second Hello There is written in 20 pt Fontin Sans Regular with the Small Case option.

If you are creating a lot of labels in a small amount of space, use light or medium weight condensed typefaces. They are built specifically for small spaces in that the white space in each letter is less apt to disappear and the descenders will be shorter. Furthermore, serif condensed is okay for small type, but once you get to about 8 pt or smaller it’s best to use sans serif condensed.

The following example is taken to the extreme. You can barely read the 3rd Hello There, written in a sans serif condensed font at 7 pt. However, you certainly can’t read the 2nd Hello There, written in a serif condensed font at 7 pt.

Bold text is difficult to read at small sizes because it tends to fill in the white spaces* in the letters.

While many of us simply italicize labels for water features such as rivers, oceans, and lakes, don’t forget that you can use a typeface that specifically has oblique and reverse oblique lettering for these labels.

*A.k.a. “counters”

Learning Digital Cartography

May 15th, 2013

A reader recently asked what he needs to know to be a digital cartographer. It’s a potentially complicated answer because there are a lot of emerging technologies in this space. What I might recommend now could be superseded by something else as soon as 6 months from now. Given that, I wouldn’t hard-code (so to speak) the advice that follows. Instead, keep your learning flexible and explore all paths that it leads you down. For now, here are some tools/technologies you can familiarize yourself with as you seek to become a digital cartographer extraordinaire.

Note that I’m not getting into a myriad of datasources and haven’t even touched on the design portion of cartography, which in no way diminishes the importance of those. Also note this is just one pathway of many possibilities.

The list is particularly heavy on OpenSreetMap but the associated tools are good to know regardless. A combination of these tools could be used in a classroom exercise. In no particular order:

*There is some controversy surrounding these tutorials. However, I’ve still found them to be useful. If you have alternative tutorial suggestions please post them in the comments.

Giveaway! New Book: Programming ArcGIS 10.1 with Python Cookbook

May 13th, 2013

I can hear everyone’s sighs of relief: more programming help has arrived for newbie programmers in the geo professions! The new book is titled Programming ArcGIS 10.1 with Python Cookbook, by Eric Pimpler, published in February 2013. I’m thrilled to announce that we get to giveaway three free e-copies of the book to the first three commenters on this post!

The 304 page book teaches you how to create geoprocessing scripts with ArcPy, automate map production and printing, create map books, develop custom geoprocessing tools that can be shared with others, customize the ArcGIS desktop interface with Python add-ons, and more. It’s even been reviewed by our well-known colleagues Alissa Bickar, Ann Stark, and Tripp Corbin.

According to the promo material, the book has:

Over 75 recipes to help you automate geoprocessing tasks, create solutions, and solve problems for ArcGIS with Python.

  • Learn how to create geoprocessing scripts with ArcPy
  • Customize and modify ArcGIS with Python
  • Create time-saving tools and scripts for ArcGIS



We’ve been talking a lot lately about the need for more programming skills in the geo professions*, and this book might just be your ticket to gaining some of that much-needed knowledge. I like that it starts out with a very gentle introduction to Python for ArcGIS for those who’ve never done any programming before. In fact, the whole book is excellent for the beginner audience. Thankfully, the book is also well-edited, which is something I can’t say for some other recent programming books. It’s not that I’m against a few typos here and there, it’s when a book has typos in every paragraph that readability plummets. We don’t have that problem here.

Don’t forget to leave a comment if you’d like to win one of the free e-books. But if you don’t win, just buy it. It’s a fairly inexpensive way to begin your Python training at only $22.94 for the e-book and $44.99 for the print package (includes print book, e-book, and PacktLib access).

*Programming Proficiency Required
What You Need To Know To Be A Cartographer In 2012
Mapping Secrets from the New York Times Graphics Department: Their AAG Talk

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration