Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Keep the user in mind

I nearly splurged my Corn Flakes all over the breakfast table this morning as I saw various people begin lauding the merits of a new map tool called 'cartogram'. As an avid fan of most forms of cartogram I was immediately interested. Cartograms are hard to make...hard to make well. Was there a new tool to help?

Imagine my surprise when I launched the tool to find it has absolutely sweet FA to do with cartograms. You take a picture, or use one and the map gets 'styled' according to colours in the picture.


That word cartogram already has a meaning - a map on which statistical information is shown in diagrammatic form That surely couldn't have been too hard to find?  Except Mapbox have re-appropriated the noun as a product that allows you to 'make a map style by dropping an image on the map'.

It doesn't even do that. Style is so much more than just getting an algorithm to take colours from an image and then re-colour basic elements of the map. It allows you to re-colour land, buildings, water, roads and labels. Look, here's a Mona Lisa map style I made:

And this is what happened when I tried to style my map like Google's map:

But my point about it not really being a styling tool is evident when you do want to have some control. This is as close as I could get to Google's Map...and it isn't very close.

Here's my final effort before I got bored...look, it's the Ron Jeremy map:

I'm sure others can be more inventive....

Like I said, style is so much more than basic colouring in by numbers. It's about working with consistent denotation, about placement and typographic control. It's about careful generalization - selection, omission, simplification etc. It's about composition and the human act of making choices to reflect a particular look and feel; a certain aesthetic that ties in with the map's purpose and your desires for the map.

Look, don't get me wrong. It's fun. It's click bait to get you to want to save your map and sign up. I get it. But why can't the thing have a different name. Something that neither sullies a word already in very clear mainstream cartographic use AND something that actually says what the thing does. This isn't the first time there's been a lack of invention in cartographic circles. It wasn't long ago that we saw an entire company decide to truncate its name to an abbreviated form of the word cartography itself. We use the term carto every day, but not to refer to a company.

For my money it's just lazy. It's a lazy choice of name and it's mistakenly suggesting this is what map styling is all about. Come up with a decent name and sell what it is, not what you think you can get away with by corrupting a term that already exists and is well understood. Think of something original. Don't constantly look to take something and try and turn it into some sort of game.

As cartographers are always told, you need to keep the user in mind. With more and more of this sort of bastardization of nomenclature all we do as an industry is confuse the hell out of people.

Just to avoid confusion, here's the entry on cartograms for my forthcoming book. I am not going to change it but I'd recommend it as reading for those who just killed a little piece of cartography with their poor choice of marketing BS. By the way, the book is called Cartography. Because that's what it's about. I also wrote the entry on cartograms for the forthcoming v2.0 of the GIS&T Body of Knowledge. I'm not changing that either.