Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration

OpenGeo List

August 29th, 2013

Thanks OpenGeo for including me on the list of top 25 influencers in geo! A great group to be a part of. I can’t wait to see your next list on the top 25 emerging influencers.

Check out who else made the list here:

The Top 100 Geospatial Influencers

It’s interesting that Amanda got placed #1 and myself #2. Amanda was the person who initially got me started on twitter, helping me to figure out who to follow. I remember the conversation took place as we sat in the back of the room during a conference. I think it was the Washington URISA conference, probably 2009, in Seattle or Bellevue. Never underestimate the value of a good conference!

The Ultimate Cheat Sheet For Doing Cartography

August 25th, 2013

This question and answer post is in the style of this TechCrunch post. As in that post, I also caveat that you could disagree with some of these, and maybe all of these. Let us know your additional advice in the comments.

1) Should I build the map first, then get feedback or get feedback and then build the map?
Both. Get feedback on the idea, build the map, then get more feedback.

2) How do I deflect color criticism?
First figure out if your palette is ugly or not. If it’s ugly, change it. If it’s not, don’t change it. Some color critique is spot-on and other color critique—approximately 90% of it—is idiotic. So what if your map is candy colored? It’s snobbish to think that candy makes for a garish color scheme. After all, those M&M colors were chosen for a reason—people like them.

3) When should I invest in map making software?
Only when you’ve exhausted your free options.

4) Should I give back to open source software projects that I use?
Yes.

5) What’s the best to give back to open source software projects: money or time?
Both. Or buy their auxiliary services.

6) Should I worry about the anti PowerPoint contingent if I give a talk at a geo-event?
No. We who rail against bullet points are snobs. You should share your wisdom with us anyway. Just try to be high-level, witty, and throw in some pictures of cats.

7) Are geo-events worth going to?
Only if you’re going to talk to people. If you have nothing geo-worthy to say, study up on some major geo achievements in the industry to discuss.

8) Are cartography journals important to read?
Not when you’re a beginner. If you’re a beginner and read one of these you’ll start to get worried about the kerning in your city label font rather than the size of your north arrow (hint: it’s too big).

9) Does my map need to be unique?
It only needs one unique facet to become a sensation. For example, a typical map of the level of consumption of a product can go viral if the product in question is beer.

10) Should I copy other maps?
Yes. Especially while learning. As you go about the process of copying you’ll wind up changing things and in the end it will be unique enough to call your own.

11) How much accuracy do I need to maintain?
As much accuracy to make the map worthwhile.

12) Do I need to provide a disclaimer on the map?
Yes, but nobody will read it and you’ll probably get in trouble anyway.

13) Should I use comic sans?
Yes if general derision has never stopped you.

14) I do scientific mapping. Does this mean I am irrelevant?
Scientific maps are not getting their full due right now. Right now it’s mostly beer maps. Make your map as compelling as beer and then it’ll get noticed. If we show exactly where each of the last remaining polar bears died, wouldn’t that get noticed and get people to act?

15) How much will people pay for maps?
It depends. If the map will scrape data from huge databases, analyze it, and allow for interactive exploration of said data, A LOT. If the map will go in a book, very little (someone is making a killing on book sales but it’s probably the printer and/or digital distributor, not you.) As far as salaries go, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that cartographers earn an average of $53,000 per year, with the 90th percentile earning over $90,000 per year.

16) Should I make my map into an app?
Yes! Get that experience. Now.

17) Will I be able to make that map app at work in my day job?
No, so you will spend your evenings and weekends building it and it will be worth it.

18) Is color important?
Everyone judges a book by its cover and everyone judges a map first by its color. Take the time to get it right. Copy mood palettes from somewhere else: young & edgy, old & wise, or weird and wonderful.

19) How big should the North arrow be?
Wrong question! It should be “do I need a North arrow?”

20) Does my digital map need an interactive measuring tool?
Only if, say, the user will want to see how close their house is to a fire.

21) Is it important to meet the needs of every map user?
Yes, but not all at the same time. (Hint: make many apps or many sites.)

22) How will people use my map?
Not usually in the way you intend them to. Which is a good thing, because it means you aren’t just disseminating an answer, you’re giving them a tool to get their own answers.

23) What do butt, round, and square refer to?
Line cap types. Or maybe cuts of meat.

24) When should I use the web Mercator projection?
Never. Unless you’re making a digital map, then almost always. (It’s pretty much your only choice.)

25) How easy is it to make a map?
It depends on what kind of map. If you’re displaying a global level statistic with a simple background, you can build your map in many different software packages from traditional GIS to illustrator, to R. If you’re making a town map with 15 background datasets, you want to use a sophisticated GIS or opensource stack and it will take much more effort.

26) What about just the design part of making a map, how long does that take?
Seconds to years.

27) I didn’t know map making was a profession.
I make maps and some people even pay me for it.

28) What’s the best way to make instant money in mapping?
Find an entertainment item that has a lot of fans. Maybe the musical Book of Mormon. Make a map about it and sell it to those fans.

29) What’s the best way to make an impact with mapping?
There are so many ways to make an impact with mapping that it’s ridiculous to try and list them here. If there’s a cause that you’re passionate about, you’ll find something you can map to help that cause. Cartographers make a difference. In fact, we should start a conference with that theme.

30) What do cartographers need to be aware of professionally?
You need to know that what you map can and does affect people. Your map can even affect people badly if you use poor judgement. Know about cartographic ethics (of which there is scant but some information on) and realize that you can incur liability. Most importantly always try to present facts and clearly understand any and all repercussions that a map may cause.

31) Are all map makers snobs?
No, most map makers are normal, nice people. Except me.*

32) When should I print out my E sized masterpiece?
DueDate – 10(Print time * revision time)

33) What does it take to make a map beautiful?
Contrary to popular belief, a beautiful map is not born, but made. It is not some extra-human feat but a very earthly medley of effort and experience that makes that map beautiful.

34) Why should anyone care if a map is beautiful?
An aesthetically pleasing map is a map that people will notice and then learn something from. If you aren’t into making it look good, don’t try at all.

35) Is accuracy important?
In light of the answer for #34 you’d think not. But in reality, yes, accuracy is pretty much the only important thing. But what exactly is accuracy? Ask yourself if your map is showcasing a phenomenon of popular opinion or a phenomenon of fact. Something that agrees with popular opinion may get passed around a lot but ultimately falters whereas something that presents a new fact may very well be a bellwether of importance.

36) I’m not a designer and I’ve never been good at art, what chance do I have?
If your default design strategies are less than stellar, don’t underestimate the impact a quick search on similar datasets or map types can have.

37) How many logos are too many for a map layout?
One. Those logos were designed independently and as such have almost no likelihood of meshing well with the map design.

38) Does a digital map need a title?
A title on a digital map is a great way to ensure that the map is interpreted correctly. Most map users don’t read the fine print, but you can at least expect them to read a short title. Make those few words count. It doesn’t have to be placed at the top, either. It can be put to the side or at the bottom.

39) Does a digital map need a legend?
A lot of users won’t read the legend. They want to know what’s going on in the map immediately. Depending on the subject matter, however, a legend might be necessary nonetheless. Bonus points if you can think of ways to incorporate legend details without needing one (e.g., mouseovers, labels, short video clips with hints a la Angry Birds).

40) How should I create a balanced map?
The rules of thumb are: to provide a medium level of information, not too much, not too little; to ensure an even and coherent color palette; to create counterpoints to dense data areas; and to provide adequate and appropriate labeling. Think Zen.

41) Do I have to pay for a good typeface?
No, there are a few good free typefaces out there. But, most great typefaces that have lots of styles and weights (bold, italic, bold italic, smallcap, light, medium, etc.) and support non-latin alphabets are for a fee. Purchase a typeface family, you’ll be happy you did.

42) What do I need to know about color contrast?
You need to know that it’s not just the colors but the amount of those colors area-wise on the map and the interplay between them and the other colors that make up the totality of the color aesthetic. Choose a color palette, by all means, but then realize that you’ll have to experiment with applying the colors to different features to achieve the look and feel you’re going after.

43) What do I need to know about white?
White space is good. That’s when we’re talking about blank space in the map (and it doesn’t have to be white). The actual color white may not look good on digital devices. Try for a slightly off-white instead.

44) How do I make legible labels?
Labels should definitely be legible, but not so much that they take over spot 1 on the visual hierarchy. Yes, they should blend in yet still be legible which is difficult but not impossible to achieve. Using small halos with the halo being the same color as the background color helps. Making the font color gray instead of black and tweaking the opacity also helps.

45) I really love this digital map I’m looking at, how do you think they made it?
Any complex digital map was probably the result of a thousand iterations (most of which were not recorded—keeping documentation of versions is something we need to do better with in our industry). It no doubt has a complex behind-the-scenes structure that non-cartographers wouldn’t guess at, such as rendering a road three times for the inner, outer, and centerline symbology, for example.

46) Cartography is dead.
No it isn’t. It was going nowhere fast 10-20 years ago but now it’s evolving at a very fast pace, catalyzed by opensource digital mapping tools.

47) What’s the most important skill for a cartographer to have?
As per the above answer, the most important skill is to be able to continuously learn.

48) How can I best contribute to the field of cartography?
Invent a new and useful spatial data visualization technique.

49) If I become a cartographer will I be able to feed my family?
I don’t know but if you specialize in certain kinds of mapping you’ll at least be able to eat the leftover inventory.

50) Why do you write about cartography?
It’s really rather selfish. I teach cartography in order to learn it.

* :)

Zoom Level Design, A First Attempt at What to Teach

August 22nd, 2013

So I’m going to do some writing on zoom-level design techniques or tactics for digital, interactive, mapping on devices. I figure this is one of the biggest issues we face as cartographers of digital map products so it merits quite a bit of in-depth instructional material. However, that kind of material hasn’t really been written up in a systematic way that I know of yet. We’ve got some guidance on it over at Mapbox (Styling for zoom levels) but not much else.

These are some of the topics that I think should be covered, but I am sure there are more:

  • How to create and use a zoom field in your data. This would be a tutorial on, for example, showing only the larger cities at larger zoom levels and adding in smaller cities as the user zooms in. To do this you have to specify both the zoom level that the user has clicked on as well as specify what data to grab using the zoom field. So let’s say you have a zoom field in the data called “zoomlevel”, you’d have code that looks something like

    [zoom<8][zoomlevel=1] {styling for cities with zoomlevel of 1}

    [zoom>=8][zoomlevel=2]{styling for cities with zoomlevel of 2}

  •  

  • How to incrementally change the styling based on the zoom level. So your line styling for road widths might increase by .5 at each  zoom level, for instance. Along with this is the idea of best practices. If you are using the same width for all road lines at zooms 3 through 5 you could just denote it in one line of code such as

    [zoom>=3][zoom<=5] { styling }

    This has the benefit of simplifying and lessening the length of your code. But it might be better to separate it out into different lines so that you can go back in and tweak the styling more easily (I prefer it this way as long as it doesn’t get too long):

    [zoom=3] { styling }

    [zoom=4] { styling }

    [zoom=5] { styling }

 

  • I think there should be some tips on how to test as well. For example, I’ve found that testing figure-ground separators (land/water halos) at zooms 3 and 4 is easiest when looking at small islands, because then you can really see if you are completely obscuring the land or not with your halo. Other testing tips* might include making sure you pan around to find where the seams are in the tiles to ascertain whether or not labels are being cut off, and what to do if that occurs.

 

  • Including a nice table on how zoom levels relate to map scale would be handy for the reader too.

 

  • Guidelines on which common map features might be best to show at which zoom levels. Maybe this would also be a table that shows, for example, that local roads should show up at zooms 12 and higher. Of course, these would just be guidelines for those who need to construct quick maps, not standards to adhere to at all costs.

This is just a start. Please, if you have anything to add that will help those who are just beginning to create digital maps, things that you wish you had known from the get-go, let us know in the comments!

* Could be a whole chapter of itself. Especially if you open the can of worms called “unit testing for maps”. Which is sorely needed. Anyone having information on techniques for that or links for us please share.

New Map Roundup

August 14th, 2013

  Significant Climate Events via @NOAA @NOAANCDC

 

  Ethnical Dot Map of the American People via @adenas and rvanews and University of Virginia

 

  Biggest Chain Restaurants by State via @LaughingSquid

 

  Fictional Map for “The Companions: The Sundering”. Map by Mike Schley, book by R. A. Salvatore.

 

  “The History Of…” most common word in Wikipedia via @GISbuzz by Martin Elmer

 

  Dymaxion Map of Global Forest Densities in Wood, by Woodcut Maps via @clearmapping and dezeen.

Reductionism and the New Map

August 7th, 2013

A quick little argument about reductionism vs. wholism:

In the book Whole, which has absolutely nothing to do with mapping, the author asserts that much is wrong with the current reductionist way of doing science. That is, that reducing, for example, the intricate workings of an entire human body into a single enzyme reaction sequence and then claiming that you understand what’s going on is absurd, and that, while we need such studies, we also need systems-level researchers who can put the pieces together. Now, I’m just summarizing many chapters into a single sentence so there’s bound to be criticisms and things that I’m not addressing here. So read the book if you want all that information. What I’m interested in alarming people with  telling people in this post is just exploring a way in which it reminded me of a current “debate” in mapping, even though it basically presents the opposing viewpoint from mine.*

This debate would be that of The New Map vs. The Old Map. Now, debate is in quotes mostly because there aren’t many people vigorously defending either of these styles and most cartographers are receptive to both styles. But there are a few who are really not crazy about The New Map. And that’s what I’m going to talk about.

The New Map is a type of mapping that leans toward popular subjects and, dare we say it, reductionism. The map subject might be anything from a current event (e.g., New York City bike sharing) to a current health issue (e.g., obesity mapping) to dots of people’s locations (e.g., England dot map). The reductionist aspect is exemplified by simplistic maps of a single variable. While the subjects may be quite complex (beer maps excepted), the map winds up being simplistic.

If you’re on social media and interact with at least one mapper, you’re seeing maps that fit this category every day. Some, however, gripe at their simplicity and worry about this populist attitude toward maps and where it might lead the unaware astray. Before I go off on a tangent about how most things we were initially afraid of turned out to be an overall good for society, I’ll admit that not all trends are wonderful and enlightening. However…

What’s wrong with The New Map? That they don’t give enough information? As long as they are correct, as long as the cartographer is thoughtful, mindful, and presenting information ethically and accurately, what is not to love? It’s not the dumbing down of information, it’s the creative dissemination of data. For the most part, mappers are plesaantly surprised by The New Maps that we see. I, for one, enjoy their novelty of subject matter, novelty of information design, and novelty of their under-the-hood programming.

Yes, some New Maps are artsy, widely disseminated (popular), and more single-focused than the ones I’m used to creating as a scientist. That doesn’t mean I have to automatically attack their integrity. What do you think about The New Map?

 

*When it comes to mapping, not nutrition.

Cartographer's Toolkit

Map Making Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration