Tag Archives: cartography

Stephanie May: “If you don’t know what your map is supposed to be telling us, neither do we”

Stephanie May
Stephanie May

By day, Stephanie specializes in spatial data file formats, transformations, analysis, and geospatial product management. At other times she opines for free on thematic map styles, urbanism, and best practices in geodata. Once upon a time her maps were featured in Atlantic Cities, Gizmodo, Huffington Post, the New Yorker, and the New York Times. She has taught Web Mapping and Cartography at San Francisco State University and the City College of San Francisco’s GIS Education Center. Favorite tools include R Studio, Quantum GIS, ArcGIS, Illustrator, Python and Javascript. @mizmay on Twitter, @mapnostic on Instagram.

Stephanie was interviewed for GeoHipster by Jonah Adkins (@jonahadkins).

Q: You’re currently on the GeoTeam at Apple. What’s it like working for one of the best-known tech companies in the world, and what are you doing there?

A: Working in tech is something I really wanted to do, but it isn’t for everyone. Instead of cleaning and exploring data in small batches, choosing my map type, and tweaking my visualizations until they are just right, I work on one big reference map in the cloud, with a lot of other people. While I love the size and scope of the projects I work on now, there are things I miss about having my own personal cartography and data analysis projects that I could use to hone and practice the craft.

Q: I read an excellent article  about your San Francisco Rental Map project. What prompted you to create this project and great resource?

A: Any great data visualization takes great data and a ton of time. That map was a breakthrough for me. Tilemill was pretty new; I’d been playing with it for a while, using it to make simple slippy maps of data for the San Francisco Bay Area. I had to hack it hard to get it to render the output of my little geospatial analysis, but it did a beautiful job. People said it was useful at the time, but I’m not really convinced. Using Empirical Bayesian Kriging to model one bedroom rental prices? I’m not sure what that even tells you. I still think it’s pretty though. Ultimately what that project was really about was finally feeling like I’d broken out of my government job analyzing data and making maps for internal consumption to something that could reach a larger audience.

Q: At State of the Map 2014, you co-presented on ‘Teaching Mapping To Geographers’, specifically the disconnect between OSM and geography students. In your opinion, is the divide between GIS professionals and OSM greater, and what do you think can happen to bridge that gap?

A: I mean, I love OSM; it is an audacious experiment that worked and continues to work, but on the whole GIS professionals don’t want to digitize features and tag them with categories as an extracurricular, and I’m not entirely sure the core OSMers want them to participate otherwise. I really admire what the Red Cross and HOT OSM have been able to do to use OSM as a vehicle for citizen mapping. Those are really the folks that hold the key to bridging the gap between OSM and GIS professionals. As for geographers, I think we are more interested in OSM phenomenologically and for the data. In addition to all the great projects people are doing as part of OSM or on behalf of OSM, people ask great questions on the OSM talk-us mailing list and have really great ontological discussions about map features, and I find following those discussions fascinating.

Q: In reference to teaching geography and cartography: You’d be wildly rich if you had a nickel for every time you’ve said…

A: WGS84 is a datum, not a projection. Choropleth not chloropleth. If you don’t know what your map is supposed to be telling us, neither do we. You should have spent more time on this. I hate heatmaps.

Q: Cartographer to cartographer: Your favorite map(s)?

A: There are so many talented cartographers out there, and for anyone reading this who doesn’t know, you Jonah Adkins are a prime example. The pop art map tiles you designed recently. Woohoo! Rosemary Wardley did a similarly awesome pop art thing that I really loved, a map tile for the map “quilt” at NACIS (errata: I tagged her wrong on Twitter). In general, among my most favorites, I love colors and I love information design done beautifully and unconventionally. I admire the work Eric Fischer and Miguel Rios have each done independently to make a beautiful image from a gazillion data points. I love “Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River” (Fisk, 1944), and the Willamette River Map by Daniel Coe. I’m doing a thing with pairs here! The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map has stood out in my mind for years as something beautiful and complex with so much data behind it.  But my favorite maps of all time are antiques from the 17th and 18th Century. The old cadastral maps from France, the earliest maps of the U.S. Census, and Minard’s Port and River Tonnage map — less famous and more beautiful than his map of Napoleon’s march. Those are my favorites, I think because they convey to me a certain obsessive something that you get to only by giving yourself all the time in the world and a little freedom to play. But also, every day I am pleased and humbled by scores of maps that embody the principles of good, practical cartography: keep it simple, less is more, make it a composition by harmonizing and arranging your elements, and remember you are telling the story.

Q: The standard #GeoHipster interview question: What does the phrase mean to you, and are you a #geohipster?

A: I think #geohipster resonates for a few reasons. First, it is startling when people think you are cool just because you make maps. Most of us, me included, were not always quite so objectively cool. Second, because the geoweb is pleasingly small once you break out of GIS professionalism or whatever other standard paradigms there are, which is a great ferment for ironic inside jokes. There are so many warm, genuine, supportive people who make maps and map-making tools, and will share the best parts of themselves and what they are learning from this crazy ride we’re on right now in a world that is just starting to think about the implications of relating through location. Am I a #geohipster? Without question, yes I am, whatever that means.

Gretchen Peterson: “Cartography is fundamentally about where things are, not about the technology that displays them”

Gretchen Peterson
Gretchen Peterson

Gretchen Peterson is a cartography explorer who is constantly on the lookout for new techniques, tricks, and solutions that collectively elevate the status of maps. Peterson shares these adventures in her cartography books, blog, and twitter stream, and also, sometimes, cracks extremely funny nerd jokes. As a Data Scientist at Boundless, Peterson designs basemaps with open source technology, and recently wrote a blog series on QGIS.

Gretchen was interviewed for GeoHipster by Jonah Adkins (@jonahadkins).

Q: You’re pretty much renowned the world over for your cartography publications (Cartographer’s Toolkit, GIS Cartography: A Guide to Effective Map Design First Edition and Second Edition). Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be an author.

A: Thanks Jonah, but I’m definitely not renowned the world over. In fact, before I took a position at Boundless last year, one of my siblings was counting unemployed people in our family and included me in the tally. It was obvious that not even my own siblings knew what I was doing all day, even though at that time I was running a successful geo consultancy. That said, I do occasionally run into people who know me, which is a pretty neat thing, although it can be embarrassing when you’re recognized taking a selfie with your own book at the Esri User Conference bookstore.

My background is in natural resources. I’ve been a life-long advocate for environmental stewardship, and GIS, as a means of cataloging, understanding, and anticipating Earth’s processes, was a subject that a professor urged me to study and was the subject of my second most important internship. (The first was censusing common terns, which involved less time on a computer and more time getting pooped on.)

My first non-internship job was at a technology firm in which I was asked to not only do GIS but to also make maps of the results. This is that moment when you realize how important proper results visualization is for your own career’s sake as well as for the success of the projects that you’re working on. If an analysis points out where the county should purchase land to protect an important species, you’d better be able to map it adequately.

There was a significant dearth of practical cartography books at that time: the early 2000s. With some training in design — I was a landscape architecture major in college my first year — I decided that if no adequate books on the subject materialized in the coming decade, I’d figure out good map design principles myself and then write about it for others. And that’s exactly what happened. The first book I wrote is more of a comprehensive textbook on cartography while the second is full of practical tools like color palettes and typefaces. It turns out that both books have been embraced by college professors and career professionals alike.

Q: You recently made the jump from being a private consultant to working for Boundless as a Data Scientist. Has that been an easy transition?

A: Working at Boundless has been just as exciting as I had hoped it would be. Some of the brightest geo minds work there, and they have a sense of pride in helping do good things for the geo community. I think that in most professional positions one ultimately is happiest when making important contributions, whatever they may be, and I have plenty of opportunities for that in this position.

Q: You give regular cartography tips on your blog. If you could give only one piece of advice to someone what would that be?

A: This is not a fair question! I’ve been giving advice on my blog for close to 5 years, and there’s still so much I haven’t covered! But seriously, if I had to say only one thing it’d be to study existing maps, both old and new, and begin to compile a list of map patterns that can come in handy for future mapping projects. The patterns part of map patterns is a term I’ve borrowed from software engineering where it’s been shown to be a good idea to thoroughly understand how problems are commonly and most efficiently solved. They say that all innovation is derivative, and that extends to cartography as well.

Q: I think we got started in GIS around the same time (late nineties) — we’ve seen a lot.  What do you think is the greatest accomplishment in cartography in the last 5 years?

A: The greatest change has been the movement from cartography as a medium that only specialists could use to cartography as a medium that everyone can use. This new ease-of-use has resulted in an influx of design-oriented, rather than science-oriented mappers to join the field. As a results, the aesthetic level of all maps has increased dramatically and thereby engaged the public to such an extent that they’ve become demanding users of maps rather than blasé bystanders by virtue of the maps’ enhanced readability, interactivity, and beauty. This is all good.

Q: We had a conversation once about emotional cartography/ers and the need for affirmation (#mapaffirm). Are you an emotional cartographer, and why is affirmation in design work important?

A: Ah yes, this is an important subject, especially for those new to the profession. It’s a “haters gonna hate” kind of situation with the map critics out there. And some mappers get down about how their maps are received.

I’m not an emotional cartographer, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be sympathetic to those who are. Gordon MacKenzie, who wrote Orbiting the Giant Hairball, talks about his position at Hallmark as one of shoring up employees’ egos. If a designer came to him with an idea, he invariably responded that it was a good idea, whether or not it truly was. His reasoning was that if it wasn’t a good idea, the designer would eventually realize that and halt production. Perhaps along the way the designer, with the confidence of being backed by a design director like MacKenzie, would come up with a superior product idea.

We also have to remember that rarely does anyone appreciate creative endeavours, especially those that push boundaries, as much as they should when the object is first released. Only time can prove the utility and lastingness of a great map. Just as Mark Twain had to stand up for himself after an editor tried to suggest changes to one of Twain’s introductions, so we can too, for the maps we make today, whether or not they win awards this year or meet with critical favor at the time they are first released. (It did not end well for the editor. Twain not only refused to edit the piece, but also rescinded the piece altogether.)

So, even if you feel like you need to attend a meeting of Emotional Cartographer’s Anonymous, you must have a certain courage when it comes to publishing maps. And if a map that you made was indeed a terribly misinformed piece of drivel, then just remember what @mysadcat said, in its infinite wisdom: https://twitter.com/MYSADCAT/status/468835053863452674/photo/1.

Q: What are your desert-island, all-time-top-5-favorite maps?

A: First and foremost would be Google Maps. It’s likely the most extensively and most frequently used map, with the most factual coverage, and with the biggest team behind it, that the world has ever seen. By a long shot. It’s Lewis Carroll’s life-sized scale map concept at heart, in that it contains so much spatial information at such large scales that it comes close to being intellectually life-sized but has none of the cumbersome problems that Carroll’s 1:1 scale map would have.

“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country, and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.” –Lewis Carroll, The Complete Illustrated Works, Sylvie and Bruno Concluded

The second choice would be any thematic map that illustrates the power of zoom-level mapping, where one can discern patterns at many scales, and thus draw from it a multitude of important conclusions. Dot maps are particularly well suited for this, such as the Ethnical Dot Map by the University of Virginia Demographics Research Group.

My third choice would be the Dymaxion map of world wood-density, which is made of wood and foldable. It has all my favorite components: a cool projection, a very meta media vs. content message, and it’s tactilly interactive! The creativity that went into this is inspiring.

My fourth choice would be the North American Bird Flight Range Shifts series for the intuitive animations of ranges over time, the small-multiples aspect, and the underlying mission to better understand our natural resources through superb visualizations. Plus, the Stamen Design blog post on the subject includes a gif of an owl being bopped on the head by a much smaller bird.

And lastly, I would bring along a kusudama made from the pages of an old map book. This work of art was created especially for me by a good friend. Personal maps should always be kept close to the heart.

Kusudama made from the pages of an old map book
Kusudama made from the pages of an old map book

Q: The standard #GeoHipster interview question: What does the phrase mean to you and are you a #geohipster?

A: My guess is that a geohipster would be a person who is receptive to new techniques and new technologies inasmuch as they make a better world through geo. A geohipster would also be a person who is able to reach into the past for anything that can be adapted and put to good use in the present.

In this sense of the term geohipster I would hope that I could be included. I don’t fear new technology but I also don’t want to dwell on it to the exclusion of other ideas that could be useful, since cartography is fundamentally about where things are, not about the technology that displays them. Just as we don’t need parchment anymore for maps, so too we may not need computers in the future. As long as I’m massaging spatial information into wisdom or into tools that make wise decisions possible, I’m happy.

I do have to confess to never having GPSd my biking trips. If that’s one of the criteria, then I’m not a geohipster.

Q: What’s next for you? Any new books planned?

A: No new books are in the works at this time, but I’m looking forward to discussing cartography and QGIS at the upcoming Denver Geospatial Amateurs gathering and FOSS4GNA.

Jonah Adkins: “Engaging with other like-minded geo people via Twitter provides a great unfiltered look at what’s working and what’s not”

Jonah Adkins
Jonah Adkins

Jonah Adkins (@jonahadkins) is a Sr. Geospatial Analyst with GISi out of his home office in Newport News, Virginia. He has been in GIS since 1999 working for local governments, federal agencies, and most recently as a consultant. Jonah is a published cartographer who enjoys time with his family, maps (duh), Disney, Pro-Wrestling, has a tattoo of Esri North Arrow 51 and was told by Pharrell Williams that he looked like Freddie Mercury.

Jonah was interviewed for GeoHipster by Christina Boggs.

Q: Hey Jonah, thanks for taking the time to sit down with me! I know you from Twitter but many of us know you from your incredible Lost Map or they fall in love with It’s A Small World all over again through your cartography. What do you do for your daytime job?

A: For the last few years I’ve worked as a Sr. Geospatial Analyst for GISi. The majority of my work entails cartography, graphic design, UI/UX for applications, and traditional GIS work for many of our clients. I’ve spent a good portion of last year doing some awesome things with the Navy Shore Energy Program.

Q: Your maps are beautiful, beyond just being a method to convey information; they’re art. Do you have a background in design or some other art media?

A: Nope. I was always a doodler growing up, but never took any classes. I wouldn’t call myself a designer or anything like that, but I think I can tell when something looks “good” — at least to my tastes.

Q: I stumbled upon a great video where you presented great cartographic design elements to keep in mind. Have you thought about teaching this to other GISers? Beyond the occasional conference talk?

A: It’s a funny thing. I’ve always thought that you can’t really teach “making a pretty map.” Books and the like can give you helpful info, but I feel it’s something that’s unique to the person creating the map. Your current emotions, likes and dislikes, all that stuff is in anything you create, for the most part. Then someone told me, “yeah that’s great and all but we want you to show us how to make a pretty map”. So I had to get my thoughts on paper and decided I could at least give some pointers on guiding the creative side to a desirable output.

Q: Gretchen Peterson wrote an incredible book on cartography, have you thought about writing?

A: Never. I have Gretchen’s awesome book “Cartographer’s Toolkit,” a signed first edition!!! It’s been my starting point on several projects where I’m struggling to find my inspiration and I need something to get me started. It’s very good because it’s a tool to guide you, it’s not, to me, an instruction manual. Water doesn’t have to be blue, it’ll be ok, and I’ll be damned if you use Comic Sans as your title font!

Christina: Haha I really did spend some time selecting what font to do this interview in.

Q: You have a robust github, tell us about some of your projects you’ve got going up there…

A: I really love maps, mapping tech and all that goes with it. Basically any of my free time, and some of my not so free time, I’m usually trying out something new or working on an idea. This usually happens with one or both of my daughters watching Saved By Bell in my lap. GitHub is great, it’s collaborative and social, which is something I tend to thrive on.

Weekend Update was one of my first github projects, it’s a riff on Project Linework, a not-so-standard basemap themed after Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment.

Amazing-er Maps is a cartographer’s plea to make online maps better — not that I know better, but with all the open/free map technology out there, certainly some of these “Amazing” maps on the web could be improved.

Custom Backgrounds In AGOL – Probably one of the more popular ones, is a guide to adding another provider’s maps in ArcGIS Online projects. I’m not the first to write about it, but I think it’s safe to say that people are ready, and want control over every aspect of online maps.

Q: Speaking of your daughters, we just had the 10th anniversary of OSM. Your daughter contributed to OSM with you, how did you do that? If you could give advice to other dads out there, how can you inspire your daughters to get involved with mappy stuff? What did she map?

A: My sweet Sophie 🙂 She really thinks what I do is cool, and after a few years of talking to her school classes about maps, she’s been bugging me to teach her something. What better way than through OpenStreetMap? She’s 10 and starting 5th grade, the iD editor was really easy for her to pick up. We talked about what she wanted to do, she decided on schools and parks, because “I think kids like me would like to know where playgrounds and schools are.” She loves the fact that everyone can see the work she has done. She wants to teach her friends at school once she goes back next week.

Q: So recently you started up a Hampton Roads, Virginia #maptime, how’s that going?

A: Like most I’d seen some ramblings of #maptime over the last several months on Twitter, and after hearing Lyzi Diamond talk about it (twice) at the Esri UC, I was really inspired to get one started. I like helping and sharing about maps, and have been struggling with a way to do that locally with more than the typical GIS crowd. I’d started attending the local Code For America Brigade meet-ups earlier this year and @maptimehrva is a great extension of that hack night concept. Come hang out, and let’s talk maps. Doesn’t matter what you know, you’re gonna learn something tonight.

Q: I find the cartography you do with ArcGIS Desktop breathtaking but honestly, I get excited when I toss in a drop shadow or I do a transparency mask to highlight my area of interest. If you were to put three pieces of low-hanging fruit out there for other Desktop users to implement in their maps, what would they be? (READ: a couple of cool “tricks” in Arc that have good cartographic payoffs?)

A: Regardless of what software you use, practical knowledge of concepts helps greatly, experience helps too! To me it’s fun to learn the ins and outs, push its limitations and figure out ways to do things it easily can’t. Something I tell people who ask for cartographic help: GIS people make GIS maps — which is a bad way of saying GIS people tend to make maps they can read and understand. A friend made a great analogy of that — people would rather read “SF Earthquake: 6.1” than be shown a seismograph.

My three tips would be:

  1. Use a color palette. Colors are better when they are not fighting with each other for paper space supremacy. But also be mindful of too much color. Nothing stands out when everything is on the same color ramp. Finding the right balance pays off in the end.
  2. Never accept the defaults. Things I’ve seen overused for the last 10 years: ArcMap Yellow (hex #fcfbab) in the legend or graphic background, Esri North Arrow 9, Layer_and_field_names_like_this_in_the_legend… Change something, change everything. You’ll gain experience just by exploring the options.
  3. The One “Thing” — before you start a map, determine what is the one “thing” the viewer should take away from the map. Is it the neato font? Keep going. Is it the pattern on the water? Keep going. Keep going until it’s the purpose of the map. All of those design elements should only help tell the story, they shouldn’t be the story.

Q: I love the term geohipster, I take it as a playful comment. How do you feel about the term, do you self-identify as a geohipster? What does it mean to you?

A: It’s a playful comment I can relate to. I get regular comments about my mustache, and I’m like, I’ve had this thing since sixth grade, and I’ve only been without it once. Then all these people started growing ‘staches out of novelty, or because it was the new cool thing, and I get lumped in with that crowd. Maps have been around. It’s only natural for those of us that have been around with them to say “yeah, but I’ve been mapping since before Google.”

Q: Five awards at ESRI UCs, first place at Virginia’s GIS Conference last year, Runner Up, Best Cartographic Design at last year’s FOSS4G, 2nd Place in this years GISCI-GISP Map Contest — do you have any award winning pieces in the works?

A: I try to do several personal projects a year. It helps me keep my skills sharp, and gives me a chance to just have fun mapping something for myself. All shrouded in secrecy of course, sorry.

Q: Some weeks I see you at #gistribe, here’s your opportunity for a #shamelessplug — do you have anything you would like to share with geohipster readers?

A: #gistribe, #geowebchat and others provide such a great social resource. My #shamelessplug would be to invest your time in social discussions like those. Company feeds are good for updates and examples, but only provide one view of the technology. Engaging with other like-minded geo people via twitter provides a great unfiltered look at what’s working and what’s not. It’s the biggest downer to me when I talk to someone in our field who’s never heard of OpenStreetMap, Github, Leaflet, Tilemill, etc. And it happens often. There’s so many great things happening in Geo that you’ll never know about unless you step outside of your bubble and explore.