Assaulted by Amoebae

Today’s effort comes to me via friend and colleague Richard Donohue, who let me know about the good people of Ledge Wind Energy. You see, Ledge Wind Energy wants to build a wind farm in Brown County, Wisconsin. As part of this process, they filed many, many documents with the Wisconsin Public Service Commission, which you can read for yourself if you visit the linked site and then click on the link for Ledge Wind Energy (seems to be no way to link it directly).

Among these filings were a whole series of maps, one of which I’d like to focus on.

From Appendix W of Wisconsin Public Service Commission filing 9554-CE-100

Above is a map from Appendix W, showing the noise levels the wind farm is expected to generate. It was prepared for Ledge by Michael Theriault Acoustics, a noise control consulting firm in Maine.

Detail of noise map

This is not the most attractive cartographic product. It’s full of bright colors and high contrasts; it sits on top of a busy base map and features a cluttered, haphazard look. But why does this matter? The map gets the information across; does it matter if it’s devoid of aesthetic appeal?

Yes, yes it does. Wind power is a contentious issue, and if you look at the PSC website, you’ll note that citizens made hundreds of public comments on the proposal, many of them denouncing it. Every document that Ledge filed was scrutinized by members of the community who had to decide whether to sign on to the project or to try and stand in its way. And as they turned each page they saw maps which unfortunately looked like the above. Ledge Wind Energy has taken their community and made it look ugly. This doesn’t look like a happy future; it looks like a noisy one with garish colors. It doesn’t look like a map of a place I would want to live, and so it makes me want to oppose the company that’s trying to bring about the scenario depicted. This map is Ledge Wind Energy telling the people of Brown County that they’re going to be besieged by giant blue and purple amoebae.

It’s appearance is amateur, and that subtly makes Ledge look amateur. If they don’t take care to hire someone to make a quality map, one that’s legible (note the numbers in the image above) and isn’t unpleasant to look at, can they be trusted to put up heavy machinery in my town? Where else are they cutting corners? Companies that want to be seen as doing quality work need to do it not just in their main line of business, but in everything that’s got their name on it. All of it figures into how we assess them.

Most of the effort here was clearly devoted to the data, rather than the representation. This is raw GIS output; it’s designed more for the computer than the human. I’m sure many of the citizens of this area take pride in their community. This map’s appearance tells people that Ledge considers their homes to be points in an analysis. The land they live on, the land their ancestors lived on, is just something that needs to be fed into a computer. It’s quietly dehumanizing, which is a poor way to win people over to your vision. We’re used to maps like this, sure, so it’s not a conscious affront. But consider it in contrast to a better designed alternative that suggested the landscape is more than just data.

This map is a missed opportunity. This was Ledge’s chance to show people an attractive future. Imagine if more attention had been paid to aesthetics. Subtler colors that actually go together harmoniously. Show the noise polygons, but give them a less jarring, threatening color scheme. A cleaner, less cluttered style. Make the community look good; make the people there feel good when they see their community being represented. Ledge could have shown the people of Brown County that they care about doing quality work, that they care about being a partner in building a beautiful community. That these people are more than just numbers. Think of how few people make maps of this rural area, and how much goodwill Ledge would have generated by giving citizens a rare series of lovely maps of the places they care about. It shows knowledge of the community; an investment in it.

This map and the many others of similar quality which Ledge filed did not stay confined to the halls of government; they’ve been seen by the residents of the project area. Brown County Citizens for Responsible Wind Energy, for example, makes use of several of Ledge’s maps as part of their effort to stir up opposition to the project. Here’s their version of the noise map, to which they added a subtle Google Maps base and a few road names.

These maps are most definitely out there, and it seems like a poor marketing move to spend so little effort on the design of something that’s part of how Ledge interacts with the community.

Beyond the value of good aesthetics, a few other quick points are worth making about the noise map. First off, it has a pretty weak visual hierarchy. The noise polygons compete with the yellow dots which compete with the green parcels and the red numbers. Everything stands out equally, which means that nothing is prominent. I don’t know where to look first. No one is telling me what’s important or visually suggesting an order in which things should be read. I can’t focus on one type of data without being distracted by another. Everything screams for attention with bright colors in a sensory assault. Arranging things in a visual order, with the noise polygons being most prominent, and the houses just behind, and everything else faded into background, would help significantly.

Oddly, there are two legends on this map, and one is entirely verbal. The parcel boundaries and the green squares are described in a visual legend by the lower left corner. Below that is a written description of what the yellow dots mean and the blue and purple colors. Seems like those items ought to go into the visual legend, where people can compare what they see on the map to its meaning, rather than having to trying and imagine it based on description.

Lastly, I’ll point out that, under the noise polygons, you can’t actually tell which parcels are green and which parcels are not. It is an obvious waste of time and effort (both the mapmaker’s and the reader’s) to put data on the map and then not actually make it legible. Again, the map seems ill thought out. It looks sloppy, and this does not cast Ledge in a positive light.

I’m sure that Ledge Wind Energy asked their contractors to put together some quick technical maps on a tight budget. I do not fault the people who intended to simply generate a data visualization to answer a question for a regulatory filing. In my mind, though, Ledge missed an opportunity to help their cause by skimping on the design budget and not thinking past the data.

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18 Responses to “Assaulted by Amoebae”

  1. 1 BC Swindell
    4th February, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Yikes. As an environmental consultant, I’m all too familiar with these types of products. Thanks for pointing out what I feel is a serious shortfall of the environmental consulting industry: cartographic integrity. We all need to be reminded that our maps can and will be used against us if they fail to respect the intelligence and emotions of the communities they depict.

    • 2 Yashica
      1st June, 2011 at 12:13 pm

      Wow, that is a really ugly map. FYI, if you go and download Appendix W, there are several other maps as bad as this one! A good example of what not to do when making maps.

  2. 7th February, 2011 at 12:25 pm

    Very good write up. It’s amazing to think what perhaps a half hour of work could have done to transform this map. That last half hour of aesthetic detail seems like a vanity to most GIS practitioners who seem to be of one mind in calling it making the map “pretty”, but ignoring design can cause even the most well executed geographic work to fail completely at conveying its message. Design matters when it comes to communicating visually. Small choices in design (or design neglect) may seem inconsequential, but they accumulate over the entire surface of the map and determine the overall look and feel, the message.

  3. 4 Tina
    12th February, 2011 at 9:02 am

    The points you make here are absolutely excellent. In fact, I’m about to start working on a (very) short video to help engineers understand why their graphics, like their text, need to be accessible to the reader; many students just drop in any old image they can find (or, if they are developing their own, don’t bother to think about whether the image really does convey what they want it to convey). This is a perfect example not only because of the overall bad design, but because of the consequences – the wind farm may not be built because of the misunderstanding this generates.

  4. 5 Jeff
    16th February, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    They also screwed up the legend. The text says the yellow dots are residential structures while the graphic legend says they are proposed turbine locations.

  5. 17th February, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    I’m guessing that the map (apart from the legend error) was made to meet a state standard. These usually require the locations of noise sources, receptors and noise contours to be *clearly marked* on a single map. When you have a large number of turbines, your receptors will be in the hundreds (or thousands). Some of this clutter is inevitable, and to omit detail is to risk a submission that will get kicked back by regulators. (Not to mention have local residents mad as hell ‘cos you missed their home out.)

    Part of the problem is that many of these reports are produced by small but specialized engineering/physical science shops. The idea of hiring someone to make a quality map or even having a “design budget” wouldn’t occur. Many of the analysis packages spit out incredibly rudimentary results (if you’re really lucky, you might get a raster of noise levels, or a shape file with hard-coded contours), so even getting it into a mapping package is a major fight. I might not agree with MTA’s colour choices, but the information is presented in a fairly typical format.

    I’ve toyed with producing 3D interactive maps in Google Earth, with isobels shown as transparent contour layers, allowing residents to see where they are, and how many turbines are near them. Sadly, my local permitting agency needs everything that would be considered for an application on paper, 11×17 maximum.

    The level of comment on the project is typical for any generation project. Everyone wants power, no-one wants to be near where it’s made, or even to be near the lines to transport it to the consumer. The sad thing is, though I’m in a different country, I recognize the names of some of the Ledge correspondents as objecting to projects here.

  6. 22nd February, 2011 at 8:35 am


    Interesting blogs!

    Did you ever post results of the Minard redesign competition?

    • 8 Daniel Huffman
      22nd February, 2011 at 10:40 am

      Sadly, I had no entrants to the competition, so there was nothing to post. I may try it again sometime in the future when I have a better chance of stirring interest.

      • 22nd February, 2011 at 3:06 pm

        The influence of Tufte is perhaps too strong. While I like the map, I can’t agree that it’s the greatest data graphic ever, as ET suggests. It’s become a sort of sacred icon, so perhaps people feel that they would only fail it, or defile it by trying to revise it.

        I’ve neither the time nor the talent, but I can imagine a lot of creative reworkings. On the other hand, a lot of the image’s charm is the rather stiff and limited way it exploits the possibilities. Nostalgia for the incunabula days of statistical graphics?

        Maybe try again next year, in 2012, the 200th anniversary of the great military debacle?

        • 2nd March, 2011 at 11:28 am

          Interesting. You know I mentioned the competition to ET shortly after it was announced, thinking he might find it an interesting exercise in attempting to deconstruct a valued info graphic (I do find it to be one of the best data graphics out there particularly for the age of its creation). I was surprised to get a reply back and even more by his response, it seemed very acidic, no curiosity at all. Very dismissive of anyone who would attempt to fiddle with Minards work. It reinforced a lot of what I’ve read about his personality.

          • 11 Daniel Huffman
            2nd March, 2011 at 2:30 pm

            Hmm. Unfortunately, I’ve heard some of the same things about him, and this doesn’t help improve my impressions. Thanks for trying to alert him, though =).

  7. 12 Kelly Young
    24th February, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Terrific analysis. Did you share it with Ledge or Michael Theriault Acoustics, and did either respond?

    • 13 Daniel Huffman
      27th February, 2011 at 6:14 pm

      I have not shared this with them. I didn’t think it would do much good to either of them to hear it, though I may be wrong. The filings are done, and I don’t know as Ledge would be interested in starting over. As to Michael Theriault, I imagine they might not even have a design person in their company, since their clients probably don’t really care, generally.

  8. 25th February, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Nice to know I’m not the only only voice crying out in the wilderness. Thanks.

  9. 15 midavalo
    13th June, 2011 at 3:05 pm

    I’m looking forward to the next cartastrophe installment…

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