Archive for the 'Government' Category

02
Oct
09

Two Steps Removed From a Photograph

Hey everyone,

As promised, something a little different this time. We learn a lot from the mistakes of others, to be sure, but we can learn from their successes as well. There are many great maps out there which inspire me to keep going, to keep making myself better. And, of course, there’s something to be said for looking at things that are beautiful.

So, today I’ll make a few comments about one of my favorite maps, which I fell in love a couple of years ago when an instructor of mine used it on his intro cartography syllabus.

Kenai Fjords National Park, by Tom Patterson. Click to go to National Parks Service viewer where you can see the image in more detail.

Kenai Fjords National Park, by Tom Patterson. Click to go to National Parks Service viewer where you can see the map in more detail.

Detail of Kenai Fjords Map

Detail of Kenai Fjords Map

This is a map of Kenai Fjords National Park, in Alaska, by Tom Patterson, one of the masters of creating terrain relief. Not only is he great at it, but he has a website which helps explain his techniques to anyone interested: Shaded Relief. You can also find some nice, freely available, premade relief images for the entire globe.

The most obvious great thing about this map is the relief. I’ve provided a detail above, but you should click on the first image, which takes you to the National Park Service map viewer, and browse around the image in detail yourself. This is not just some quick, automatically generated terrain relief that you put together in ArcGIS. Those can look decent, but the Kenai Fjords map is a huge step beyond what most people do. I am not sure as to the exact details of its creation, but he has clearly done a lot of manual work here, airbrushing in Photoshop or some similar program, carefully choosing his colors to show shadows, vegetation patterns, etc. The detail is incredible. I mean, you can even see a fine snow texturing on the top of the ice/snow dome and the glaciers. And small mountain peaks poking up through the snow. This thing is just one or two steps removed from a photograph — just far enough away from one that it doesn’t have that weird mismatched feeling that I get from looking at satellite photo that have been labeled with simple symbols and clean type, as though there are 1000-foot-high letters on the ground. He did his job well, and that means that you don’t notice most of the effort he had to go to. It looks right, it looks natural — nothing sticks out as being obviously wrong or feeling artificial. He even carries the relief into the water, so that the land doesn’t look like it’s sitting on a flat plane.

I will speculate, however, that the beauty of this relief is probably helped out a bit by the fact that the actual terrain of this region in Alaska is, itself, beautiful and interesting (applying this same technique in Kansas would likely produce something less stunning). Nonetheless, it would be easy to fail at doing justice to such terrain.

The labeling and other symbols on the map are still clear, despite what goes on underneath them — they’re not overpowered by the terrain relief. I also like the parts which show how the glaciers have receded in the last century. This is not just a pretty map — it’s a functional one that conveys data.

As I’m writing this, I’m finding it’s a lot more challenging to pick out what’s good about a map than it is to discuss what’s bad. This, again, links to what I said above about how, when things are well done, they’re harder to notice. A bad color scheme sticks out. A good color scheme draws little attention, because it just feels like it’s suppose to be that way. Likewise with the text — above, Mr. Patterson does a fine job of separating text styles. The type used for glaciers looks different than the type for islands and the type for the ranger station, because those are all different classes of things. It looks good, but you don’t think about it because it’s generally what you’re supposed to do.

As I do more of these posts, I hope to get better at pointing out the good side of things, as well. It is, in fact, one reason that I am engaging in this exercise. Meanwhile, I encourage you all to chime in about your favorite (or, if feeling critical, least favorite) parts of this map in the comments section. And keep sending me maps you like (or don’t), and tell me why.

I’m flying out to California next week to attend the annual meeting of the North American Cartography Information Society. I may be off the radar for a bit, but I hope that I will have a chance to meet some of you there.

29
Jul
09

On the Canadian Adventures of David Wilkins

David Wilkins, the 21st United States Ambassador to Canada, stepped down a few months ago with the election of Barack Obama as President. While both countries eagerly await his replacement at Rockcliffe Park, let’s have a look at this handy map which shows where Mr. Wilkins traveled during his nearly three years in the country:

Obtained from http://ottawa.usembassy.gov/. No author listed.

Obtained from http://ottawa.usembassy.gov. No author listed.

This map can be found on the official website of the US Embassy in Canada, by going to the page for the Ambassador.

The obvious fault, first: Putting big red dots on top of labels tends to defeat the purpose of having those labels. A lot of the things I talk about on this site might not be immediately obvious to a lot of people making maps – good color choices, projections, etc. But it’s hard to imagine how the problematic nature of obliterating text escaped the notice of the vigilant staff of the US Embassy. Maybe they’re trying to subtly insult the people of Saskatchewan or Labrador. I’m sorry, I mean “Lab  dor.” Misread the map for a second.

Speaking of Labrador – it’s not a separate province, last I checked. Not sure why it’s labeled separately from Newfoundland, since all the other labels on this map are provinces. If they’re going to label major physical features, why not label Baffin Island while they’re at it?

The provinces are filled in using different colors. This is a perfectly reasonable idea, to help tell them apart. But, for some reason, British Columbia (BC), Nova Scotia (NS), Prince Edward Island (PE), and Newfound and Labrador (NL / Labrador) are all the same color, whereas the other nine provinces and territories are given different colors from each other. Perhaps the maritime provinces on the east coast have joined forces with British Columbia for some nefarious purpose, and the US Ambassador is secretly trying to alert the world without exposing the fact that he knows.

The dots are different sizes. Insofar as I can tell, this is only so that they fit better – there are many small ones in New Brunswick (NB), for example, to avoid overlaps. But, then there are still small overlaps here and there, anyway, such as in Manitoba (MB). It would be better if the dots were of uniform size – else, it implies that certain places are more important than others, or that the Ambassador visited some places more than others. Smaller would be better – since the ones in NB are quite legible, and there would be minimal overlap.

Me being unreasonably nitpicky: The abbreviations are not all standard two-letter Canadian postal abbreviations. They could be using their own system, but I’m not sure why they would. NWT should be NT, NF should be NL, etc.

Finally, it’s arguable whether or not the island effect is a problem here. Personally, I think it would look better if Canada was placed in a geographic context – especially one that shows the US, since this is a page for the US embassy. Emphasizing that relationship makes sense here, and it seems a missed opportunity.

One Nice Thing: The linework is well-generalized. It’s not overly detailed, but has a clean simplicity appropriate to the purpose.

19
Jul
09

Losing the Bike Path

Today’s map was brought to my attention by a reader, Tina, and comes from the Department of Parks and Urban Forestry in Verona, Wisconsin:

VeronaBikeLoopDetail

Detail of map - click for full PDF (515k). Obtained from ci.verona.wi.us, prepared by JN Design and Planning Services.

This is the city’s recommended bike loop for 2006 (the most recent available year on their website, at the time of this posting). The top of the map mentions that this is “Map 10.4.5,” which makes me worry that they’ve got a lot more of them somewhere.

There is plenty of needless detail on this map – the boundaries of every city lot are included, which is wholly unnecessary unless, as Tina suggests, “they really wanted riders to know that such-and-such a ride starts in front of the THIRD house from the corner of S. Main and W. Verona Ave, not the second.” If you start from the second one, the man there will probably come out waving a shotgun and yelling at you to get off of his property. The map is for your safety.

Needless detail is not harmless. This is a map about where to ride your bike – that means you need to be able to pick out a route following certain roads. On this map, you have to dig the roads out of all the clutter. Many of them aren’t even labeled, though most of the critical ones are. The lot boundaries, being in black, are the thing that stand out most on this map, and they’re exactly the thing that is least important. All the important stuff is in bright cyan and green, which is much harder to see against the white background.

There are a lot of non-functional labels here – consider “New Century School.” Where is it? I can’t tell. The label just sits there among a bunch of lots. The school is probably the biggest one nearby, but there’s no real connection between the label and any specific place. The parks, at least, have green dots in the middle, though, if you’re going to draw the park boundaries on the map, why not fill them in green rather than putting a dot in the middle? Unless the City of Verona, in fact, has a series of small circular parks (I am imagining them as having exactly one tree in the middle) surrounded by a barren lot. Perhaps full of broken glass and cinderblocks strewn about.

The whole bottom 20% of this map is waste – there are no bike paths marked anywhere in it. It was probably added so that the map fit a standard 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paper.  Blank space on the page can be scary, I guess.

There are three kinds of bike loops drawn on this map. Two of them exist right now, and one is listed as “Nearly Existing Off-Road Multi-Use Path,” which suggests to me that it’s not quite complete and ready yet for usage (as of 2006).  Of the three line types (cyan, green, dashed green), which do you think is the one that marks a path that doesn’t yet exist?

No, it’s not the dashed one.

Dashed lines frequently mean things that aren’t finished, or are tentative, or uncertain on maps. But, on this map, a complete and functional path is indicated by a dashed line here, while one that doesn’t entirely exist yet is indicated by a solid line. Confusing at best.

A further confusion – the green line comes in dashed and solid varieties, as I say. But the solid green line is for an incompelete off-road path, while the dashed green is for a complete on-road path. So looking at the color won’t even tell you if it’s a road path or not. Using green for each implies a connection of some sort that does not exist.

There are a couple of other small problems here and there. The Sugar River, to the west of the map, disappears for a little while near the road. And, of course, I couldn’t let this go: “Epic System’s Campus,” with the incorrect apostrophe – the name of the company being Epic Systems.

One Nice Thing: Some of the items on the map besides the trails are indeed useful. Knowing where parks are is a good landmark for reference, and a possible destination for cyclists. Likewise with schools (if it were clearer where they were) – are also a good landmark, since this is going to be used by people familiar with the area who are likely to do at least some navigation based on the locations of things they know.

I leave off with a plug for a friend: Michigan Railroading. It is, as the name suggests, all the news that’s fit to blog about concerning the rails in my native land of Michigan.

03
Jul
09

Burned by the EPA

Heading outside tomorrow for Independence Day (I cannot imagine I have any non-US readers yet)? Be sure to check out this map on sun exposure, before you step outside…

Quick! Which areas are going to have the highest UV levels? No, it’s not the Upper Midwest and Canadian border, despite those areas being fire engine red and practically flashing “DANGER! DANGER!” It’s the light blue areas in places like Wyoming and Mexico. You know, the ones that don’t stand out at all. The ones that look like cool, inviting water.

It looks like they started out with a rainbow scheme, then somehow ran out of colors at level 9, and had to figure out something else to push it out to 15.

And that’s not to mention the unevenness of the color scheme from 0-9. Look at how much the color shifts from 0 to 2 (dark blue to dark green). Now look at how little it shifts from 6 to 8 (medium orange to red orange). The visual shift for each step changes in magnitude.

One Nice Thing: The color scheme from 10 to 15, on the other hand, has some relatively even, yet easy to distinguish, steps.

Thanks, EPA, for helping keep people in the Southwest calm while the ozone layer disintegrates above them.

03
Jul
09

The Town Spreadsheet

The Town of Blooming Grove, Wisconsin. A magical, pixellated land full of jagged lakes and rambling, rustic acres:

Setting aside for a moment the fact that the map has about as much detail as a Pac-Man level, I want to point out that this map is actually provided by the town as a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. I am not kidding.

Look, the town population is only about 1700. That’s smaller than a lot of high schools. I can understand that they don’t have a trained cartographer on staff, and when someone decided to make a map, they were not going to be using the latest and most advanced tools that professional cartographers use. But if you want to make a map with giant pixels, try MS Paint (or your preferred equivalent). It is, in fact, significantly harder to make a blocky pixel map in Excel. It’s a spreadsheet program. It’s designed to crunch numbers and show you if the town can afford this year’s hayride. It takes some doing to get pictures out of it.

I have no idea what “Freeway Manor” is, but it sounds like it’s peaceful and has a great view. Is it a subdevelopment? A neighborhood? Not really clear on that. A legend of some sort might be handy, but all we get is “Anything in Green is the Town of Blooming Grove.” Anything. Any lush, verdant paradise you encounter? That’s Blooming Grove.

I think I’ll just stop right there, and leave the rest of the criticism and commentary to you, gentle reader.

One Nice Thing: Making a map in Excel is certainly an interesting challenge, and this person has managed to construct what is indeed, arguably, a map. For a first attempt, not bad. At, least I hope it’s his/her first attempt at maps ever. And that he or she hasn’t ever seen a map before. Please, please let that be true.

Thanks to my boss, Tanya, for pointing this one out to me.




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