Archive for the 'Isoline' Category


An Unintelligible Language

Gentle readers, our first map of the new year is one that I am finally getting to eleven months after it was brought to my attention by a reader, Matthew. It concerns a favorite subject of mine, American English dialects, and was produced by hobbyist Richard Aschmann.

Click to visit Mr. Aschmann's page on North American English dialects.

The style of this work will be familiar to those with an interest in language mapping, with boundary lines delineating different pronunciations and vocabularies. Here’s another one from the Telsur Project at the University of Pennsylvania:

Click to visit Telsur project page

While Mr. Aschmann’s work is of a conventional type, it is also by far the most complex I’ve ever seen, and therein we find the problem. There is simply too much going on in this one map to be comprehensible.

One of the primary things a map reader is going to want to do is look for spatial patterns. After all, this is quite probably the entire point of having a thematic map — showing a relationship between what happens and where it happens. If you there isn’t one, then you might as make a table, instead. Now, in the case of Mr. Aschmann’s map, there’s certainly a connection between where people live and the sorts of speech patterns that come up. The problem here, though, is that this pattern is nearly impossible to discern.

To be able to see how dialects change over space requires that you look at a certain region, determine its characteristics, then look at a second region and do the same, then a third, and so on, comparing them all along the way. Your eyes sweep across the map, and each time you take a quick read and compare with what you’ve already seen. But this only works if that read can indeed be quick. With Mr. Aschmann’s map, figuring out what’s going on in any one location is a significant chore. There are so many possible symbol types, sorting through the legend is a challenge. Just figuring out which set of lines your target area falls within can be difficult, given how many layers crop up. Even if a reader is interested only in looking up data on a single place, and not making comparisons or seeing patterns, the density makes it nearly too much trouble to be worth checking. Once you’ve successfully figured out what’s going on with one region, you can move on to the next region to compare. But by the time you’ve waded through the decoding process a second time, you’ve already forgotten what the first region means. Comparison, and therefore pattern recognition, is nearly impossible, because your brain simply can’t hold that much complexity at a time or absorb it fast enough.

Compare this with a simpler map of rainfall, below. Here, it’s easy for you to quickly spot the distribution. The color pattern is simple, and you need only look for one data set, instead of twenty. There are a couple of other reasons that this map is a bit simpler to read, as well, having to do with the symbology type, but the great majority of the difference is simply in complexity.

Grabbed from Wikimedia Commons

I understand well the urge to include multiple data sets on a map, and longtime readers may recall seeing an overly complex, multivariate map of my own on this site. The more complexity you can show, the richer the story and the more versatile the product. The map quickly begins to be more than the sum of its parts. Putting two thematic layers on a map gives you three data sets — one each for the layers, plus allowing you to visualize the relationship between the two layers. One plus one equals three. But all of this is worthless if it becomes so complex as to be unclear. A map with one clear data set is worth more than a map with fifteen data sets you can’t read. Good mapmaking is about making space intelligible — otherwise, why make a map?

This map needs to be split into a series, each of which tells its portion of the story clearly. The topic it is attempting to portray is deep and rich and complex, and any single map that attempts to encompass so much is likely to end up like Mr. Aschmann’s: uselessly dense. Not every subject can be condensed into a single visual statement, and there is no shame in breaking it down into a series of simpler points in order to clarify.

Before I leave off, I’ll also mention one other thing. This map, like so many others, is going to be even less intelligible to the millions of people out there with color vision impairments. If you happen to have standard color vision and would like to see what I’m talking about, check out Color Oracle by Bernhard Jenny.

I’ve been trying of late to focus more on major items in my critiques, rather than dealing with too many nitpicky details, in order to not repeat too many points from earlier posts. Thus, I leave discussion of the rest (such as the quality of the labeling) to you, dear readers.

One Nice Thing: Mr. Aschmann has done a valiant job of trying to ensure that everything is layered clearly, which is no small task given how many data sets are crammed in. No one data set actually obscures another. There’s still far too much going on to be useful, but it’s not impossible to pull some information out of it if you’re willing to sit down and work at it.


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.


No Swearing in Utah

I’ve got a map on the cover of the latest issue of Cartographic Perspectives, and some colleagues of mine have been so kind as to spread it around Twitter and Facebook and all those other popular social media which I’ve never gotten in to. It’s been a while since I’ve subjected my own work to this blog, so I thought I’d take advantage of its temporary boost in popularity in a small corner of the Internet to do so again.

Click to download PDF (~12MB)

This time, though I’d like to try an experiment. If you would be so kind, gentle readers, I would like to turn this critique over to you. This afternoon I am feeling unrealistically optimistic about the number of readers who might be willing to provide comments. If you’re so inclined, click the link above to download a PDF, and then let me know what you think. Here at Cartastrophe, my goal is to enlighten myself (and, hopefully others), through critique and analysis; anything you can add to the discussion is always welcome.

Among other things, I am particularly interested to hear thoughts on the GIS work (described in the lower left corner); I am no expert in spatial analysis, and I feel I was somewhat arbitrary in my methods. Basically, I generated a raster surface in which each pixel gave the average number of profanities for the nearest 500 tweets that could be located. This should account for variation in population density around the US. Perhaps you have a better suggestion for how to go about it. Comments, be they negative or positive, on non-GIS things are welcome, as well.

And I encourage everyone to have a look at the new issue of Cartographic Perspectives Especially if you want to hear me go on at length about reviving the historical technique of waterlining.


The 1940s Happened in Greyscale

Today we continue our trend of occasionally looking at positive, rather than negative, examples of cartography. I wanted to show off a map by Michael Bricknell, a student at the University of Wisconsin, which concerns the balloon bomb attacks on the US by Japan during the Second World War, and which recently won first prize at the Wisconsin Land Information Association’s annual conference.

Reported Balloon Bomb Incidents, by Michael Bricknell


Another detail

The colors are what really make this map, in my opinion. I am a big fan of subtle color schemes, which leave most of the crayons in the box. I think they’re easier on the eyes; they don’t shout at you with a bright rainbow that demands attention. Here, a simple palette of greys and reds goes a long way toward focusing the reader’s eyes and establishing a visual hierarchy. Imagine if this map were made with a bright blue ocean and green land and brown type — how well would the red dots stand out then? A reduced, subtle palette makes it a lot easier to bring the important information into the foreground — to create a figure-ground contrast, between what’s critical and what’s supplementary. It’s also an emotionally appropriate aesthetic, I believe. We’re dealing with topics of war and violence. Again, subdued colors fit the subject matter’s tone — bright colors would be out of place here.

The map feels a little like a 1940s intelligence report on the subject. The title typeface and the face used on the captions for each panel has a nicely militaristic feel. The greyscale, while advantageous for the other reasons mentioned above, is also very much suited to the time period. Color printing and color film were rare, and so the most of us who weren’t alive during that time tend to imagine World War II as taking place in a greyscale world.

Finally, I’ll point out the graph at the bottom. It’s quite efficient. It aligns nicely with the map of the North Pacific, and packs two graphs into one space — elevation of the balloons and the number recovered at different longitude ranges. The day/night shading is a helpful addition, as it emphasizes the sense of time better than the scale of hours along the bottom can do on its own.

In all, a worthy effort. An interesting story with a strong, coherent aesthetic behind it.

I have focused only on the positive in this post, but a more balanced treatment, positive and negative, of the work would be beneficial. In fact, when sharing his map with me, Mr. Bricknell requested constructive criticisms. In an effort to generate audience engagement, I am posing to you, the reader, a challenge (as suggested by Mr. Bricknell). Please leave comments containing your own critique of his work. I will hold back the rest of my opinions for now, to avoid unduly influencing you.


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.


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