Posts Tagged ‘bad colors


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 No author listed.

Obtained from 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.


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:


Detail of map - click for full PDF (515k). Obtained from, 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.


They’re Watching Us

Today’s effort comes from Privacy International, a human rights watchdog…

2007 Surveillance States

Found at No author given.

Two words: Mercator Projection.

See, back in the 16th century, this guy invented a map projection that helped make it easy to navigate at sea. And, if you happen to be making a nautical chart of the North Sea, this is probably a good projection to use. If you’re making a map of roughly anything else*, it’s a terrible choice (though this doesn’t stop Google Maps from using it). It distorts sizes greatly as you move away from the equator. See Brazil? Brazil is four times larger than Greenland, in reality. On a Mercator, Greenland looks like it could eat Brazil. There are also political arguments against using it as well, on account of the fact that it makes Europe and North America look larger, relative to Africa and South America, than they really are. Anyway, point being, there are many other better options for a simple world thematic map.

*Yes, there are a few legitimate uses for Mercator, but this is definitely not one of them.

Colors: Looking for countries that fit in the first three categories (“Consistently upholds human rights” / “Significant protections and safeguards” / “Adequate safeguards against abuse”)? They’re not on this map. Sorry, thanks for playing along with our legend! What there is, though, is Greece. Which is shaded a color that doesn’t actually appear in the legend. If you click on the picture you can see the table with the scores each country was given, and it’s clear there that Greece was supposed to be in the third-lowest category.

When you’re ranking countries according to a particular data set, such as how surveillance-y they are, you want to use colors that are likewise ranked, to visually show that these places can be ordered from most to least. Look quickly at North and South America and tell me, between Canada, Brazil, and the US, which is worse? It’s pretty hard to see any sort of natural arrangement there. Brazil is in red. Red is danger, right? But maybe the black indicates the dark and insidious police state that is the US. My favorite, though, is the bright magenta in places like France and India. What’s a good color to use that indicates that something is worse than red-level, but not as bad as black-level surveillance? That is the answer that someone came up with. Today’s surveillance alert level is bright magenta.

Also, I’m being a bit generous in interpretation, because the magenta in the legend doesn’t match the magenta on the map. The reds don’t really match, either. So, if you’re keeping score at home, a total of two out of the seven colors in the legend actually appear on the map. And I didn’t check the yellow that closely.

Grey probably means no data. But it’s probably dangerous to make assumptions about what colors mean on this map.

One nice thing: The colors are set such that the worst offenders, in black, are one of the things that stand out the most. Though, they are tied visually with the fourth-worst offenders, in yellow.

(Someone here in my lab disagrees with me on the above – given that there is a visual tie, the black doesn’t stand out sufficiently)

One alternate nice thing: It’s nice that there are insets to help clarify cramped regions.


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.


The Cruelty of War

Another Wikipedia map (don’t worry, they won’t all be from there), showing battles of the American Civil War, based on National Park Service data:

Amazingly enough, it turns out that the red-coded counties, coded for “Eastern Theater,” are, in fact all in the east! The color coding has no particular use here, except to show you the difference between the NPS-defined theaters of the war. Why not just draw a border around the zones, so that you don’t need a confusing rainbow of colors to tell you roughly nothing that isn’t apparent by looking at where the filled-in counties are?

Also, why is “Mult. Years” the darkest color? This map’s color scheme suggests that “darker is later” – 1863 is darker than 1861. Making a county that saw battles in multiple years (about half of the ones on the map) even darker than the color for 1865 makes it seem like they were fighting the war there well into the 1870s. A media conspiracy has kept it secret.

Quick tip: Let’s say you’re making a map of something that happened, say, 140+ years ago. Using modern county and state borders might be ill-advised.

It looks like the US is tilted backwards. Maybe it’s a commentary by the author – “Look! The US is falling over…a house divided cannot stand!” Actually, what probably happened is they used a sinusoidal projection, which is good for showing the whole world at times, but not so good for showing one country at high latitudes.

One Nice Thing: The color scheme for the years within each theater makes some level of sense – the colors are arranged in a light-to-dark pattern as the years go on. Excepting, of course, the color for “Mult. Years.” Good cartographic sense.


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