14
Aug
09

Way Over in British Columbia

Today’s effort comes to us from Kerr Wood Leidal, a consulting firm in Canada:

Detail of map - click for full poster. Taken from http://kwl.bc.ca/docs/CEBC2008-RHAM-FinalAwardofMerit.pdf.

Detail of map - click for full poster. Taken from http://kwl.bc.ca/docs/CEBC2008-RHAM-FinalAwardofMerit.pdf.

This one was brought to my attention by a reader, Eliana, who appeared particularly exasperated that this map won an award. It seems that the folks at KWL took first prize in the 2009 Map Gallery competition at GeoTec, which bills itself as the largest GIS conference in Canada. According to the GeoTec site, the winners were selected “based on overall appearance and effectiveness as maps.” So, this means they have to a) look good, and b) communicate spatial information clearly. Longtime readers may recall that one of these things is more important than the other. Though this is not to say that making your map look good is unnecessary, and in a competition like this, it’s a fair criterion for judging.

Let’s start at the legend – of the 8200 or so red spots on this map, each one encodes how much hydropower could feasibly be generated at that site. A red dot means < 1 megawatt, a red square is 1 – 10 megawatts, and a red triangle is > 10 megawatts. This is a non-orderable scheme – squares, circles, and triangles cannot be put into an inherent order. So, it doesn’t make sense to use different shapes for different numbers of megawatts — which can be put into order. Dots of different size or perhaps color brightness (but the same color hue – so, for example, a scheme from light blue to dark blue) would be more sensible here.

The other big problem with this scheme is that if you look at the map, you can’t pick out the squares from the circles from the triangles in most areas. They’re way too small to be able to tell which shape is which without staring or zooming way in, and even then it’s sometimes ambiguous. I will add the caveat that I don’t know how large this map was printed – it may be less of a problem if this thing is two or three feet across. And I’m not even sure if this map really needs to go into this much detail. It does a good job as it stands of showing the general distribution of hydropower sites, mostly clustered along the west of the province. If the authors want to add an extra level of information, about how much power might be generated at each site, their task becomes much harder, because now the dots have to be separate enough, and big enough, for people to be able to tell how they vary. And the reader cannot effectively do that, here.

Even if you could visually tell one shape from another, however, it would still be difficult to pick out the overall pattern of where the 1 megawatt sites are, and where the 10 megawatt sites are. Shape, as a visual means of encoding information, is weak in terms of what we call selectivity. It’s hard to select just one shape, and then try and find the distribution of only that shape. It’s much easier to do this sort of task with something like size – you can quickly see where the big dots are clustered and where the small ones are. A quick example:

Selectivity Diagram

Notice how easier it is to pick out the cluster of small squares near the center than it is to pick out the cluster of triangles near the center - size has better selectivity than shape.

Moving on from the dots, let’s consider a few other, lesser offenses. The labeling has poor contrast with the background, especially at Stewart and Port Hardy. Interestingly, some of the labels have been set in light-colored type, to better stand out against the water, thus demonstrating that the labeler was mindful of contrast issues. But not enough to make them legible against a mass of little red shapes.

Notice the white area in the northwest. That’s part of Alaska. It looks like it’s buried under an ice cap or something, given the color scheme and the fact that it’s flat, while the rest of the map shows terrain relief. I’ve never been to Alaska, so I suppose it could in fact bear a great resemblance to Antarctica. More of concern to me is the fact that the authors have possibly done one worse than the dreaded island effect. Instead of either showing British Columbia as an island with no surrounding land, or showing it in its geographic context, with the USA and other provinces around, the authors have chosen to include just one part of one of the surrounding areas. It looks very odd, and I think it would look better showing just the province, really.

Speaking of odd, it looks like someone has discovered the joy of the “glow” effect in the Adobe suite of graphic tools, because the entire coast of British Columbia is glowing white. Now, a glow effect can be a great addition to a map, but it would probably make more sense to do one a light blue one that looks like shallow coastal water, rather than giving the appearance that there’s been some sort of radioactive disaster off the Canadian Pacific coast.

Since this is a map about hydropower based on the flow of rivers, where are the rivers on this map? You can see a few here and there, in a very light blue, but the hydrography should really stand out more. Maybe not every single creek, but at least the major ones.

Finally, a note on the map projection. The authors appear to have kept the central meridian for this conic projection somewhere far east of the map area – say, around the center of Canada.  For those readers who may be confused by what I just said, I will avoid giving an entire lesson on map projections. Instead, here’s a somewhat related way of thinking about it: Consider your average map of Canada, grabbed randomly from the Internet – the kind with the curved appearance to it. Doesn’t it look like the authors of the map above took BC from the far west end of one of these typical Canada maps, and didn’t bother to rotate it so that it wasn’t tilted clockwise anymore? If it’s the only thing on the map, BC should be centered so that it’s northern border has a shallow “U” shape, instead of curving downward only. The projection on this map just constantly reminds me of the fact that BC is at the far west end of Canada.  Perhaps the authors wanted to keep that suggestion in my mind – “British Columbia: We’re way over here!” Might make a good provincial motto.

One Nice Thing: The terrain relief is not just a useless bit of decoration – it’s useful, because hydropower potential is affected by terrain. You can see the river valleys and everything (if not the actual rivers, unfortunately). So, the relief here is both a nice aesthetic component, and conveys information relevant to the topic at hand. A win-win.

Before I leave off, I’d like to thank all of you who have been writing in to me and submitting maps you have encountered. It’s a big help to have other eyes looking for these things. I may not end up using every submission, but I appreciate them nonetheless.

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5 Responses to “Way Over in British Columbia”


  1. 1 Tina
    14th August, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    I almost didn’t get far enough to read your comments because I was busy screaming from the retinal burn I got from the red-on-blue and red-on-periwinkle. Dear Mapmakers, pls not to be making my eyes bleed, k thx.

    Yeesh.

  2. 2 Tim
    15th August, 2009 at 7:37 am

    Agree with the assessment … within the first second that the map came into sight, I knew that a.) it was “pretty” and b.) unless I was willing to spend a lot of time studying it with a magnifying glass, it was going to be “useless”. Interesting that it came in first place, but that makes me wonder if there was any real competition. After all, I won first place in the Astronomy category in my 6th grade science fair, but I was the only one who submitted an Astronomy project!

  3. 3 Nic Grabien
    16th August, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    Ya know, for a bunch of “consulting engineers” who proclaim themselves “experts” in the application of GIS data, Kerr Wood Leidal makes some TERRIBLE effing maps:

    http://kwl.bc.ca/docs/DEMAND-A.pdf

    I mean, crappy use of map representational techniques is one thing. But to crow about how much more awesome their services are because they know how to apply GIS layering data while producing this crap is, well, not criminal, but lord it’s Not Good.

    Looks like a 4th-grader got a hold of a copy of ArcView, then let his cat walk on the keyboard.

  4. 4 Mark Harrower
    20th August, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    Nice critique Daniel – and any future students of your will be lucky to get such detailed feedback. I don’t mean to be inflammatory, but this post *really* underscores the divide (growing?) between the world of GIS and the world of Cartography.


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