Posts Tagged ‘unnecessary detail

02
Jan
12

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.

17
Sep
10

A Silent Buoy

Last month, a friend and I went on a tour of wineries in the Grand Traverse Bay area of Michigan. I don’t drink, but I was happy to act as her driver and companion while enjoying the beautiful scenery of my homeland (though I am from further south in the state). At our hotel in Traverse City there was one of those little guidebooks for tourists listing local attractions. At the back was this map, a great example of how carelessness can prevent a map from reaching its potential:

Copyright 2010 In-House Graphics and Publishing. Obtained at Knights Inn, Traverse City, Michigan.

Now, I’m not expecting design masterpieces from free tourist guides, but it seems like some things are just common sense. Like not cutting off the name of Lake Michigan (upper left corner). There are actually a number of labels all over the map with problems like this — they run off the map edge, they’re covered by other symbols and text boxes, etc. It doesn’t seem like you need formal cartographic training to perceive that this is a problem. We label maps so that people can read the labels and know what things are called (especially if you’re a tourist and unfamiliar with the area). If the label stops being legible, it’s wasting page space and readers’ time. Besides failing in function, it makes the label look sloppy, carelessly placed. It detracts from the reader’s perceptions of quality, and suggests that this map maybe shouldn’t be taken too seriously as a guide to actual geography.

Or maybe I'm mistaken, and Manitou Passage is actually spelled with a buoy in the middle. It's silent.

And what’s going on with that buoy, anyway? There’s no point to it, is there? There are buoys in Lake Michigan, no doubt, but I don’t think the map is attempting to show where they all are. It looks like it’s just thrown on to make things look cute. Now, I’m not against decoration on maps, but I am against ones that make the map harder to read by covering up labels.

While we’re focused on objects in the water, note that there are three colors of lakes on this map. Lake Michigan is a medium blue, then there are some cyan lakes, and finally some dark purple-blue ones. There doesn’t appear to be a difference between the cyan lakes and the purple-blue ones, though some of the former are labeled. And this is the problem here: I had to look for a while to figure out there was no difference. When you make things different colors on a map, most readers will assume that they are different things. Maps, being authored, consist of a series of deliberate choices. If someone deliberately chose to make some lakes one color and some lakes another, it seems like they ought to have a reason. But, alas, none seems apparent. Maybe it means that some lakes are filled with water, others are filled with antifreeze.

There are an awful lot of roads on this map. I think possibly every paved surface in the area was included here. But most of them aren’t marked. You can’t use this map to drive, or to figure out where you are (“I’m at the intersection of unlabeled green road #1 and unlabeled green road #2!”). Most of the lines are printed so small (such as in Traverse City) that you can’t use this map for navigation even if you did know what street you were on.

M-37 is the only labeled road on the map that isn't orange or brown. I'm not sure if that means anything.

All this road network does is get in your way without telling you anything or adding to the aesthetic value. The few roads which are marked aren’t enough to get to a lot of the places shown on this map. I guess tourists have to admire Lake Ann from afar, unable to figure out a path there. The map would be of much greater value if more of the roads were labeled, and 80% of the smallest were eliminated.

I don’t believe the 45th [North] Parallel undulates quite like that. Now, parallels are not always going to appear as straight lines, depending on your map projection. But there’s no projection I know of that will cause a parallel to wobble up and down like that. I’m not sure what software was used to make this map, but it’s usually harder to make a wobbly line than a straight one. Again, I can’t fathom the author’s purpose.

That’s a common theme with this map — there are a lot of details that make you wonder, “Does that mean anything? Were those colors/line styles/paths chosen randomly, or am I just missing something?” Confusing the reader and causing frustration is not usually a major cartographic goal. The map is covered in little mysteries, like these point symbols that probably mean campground or forest entrance or something, though there’s nothing to tell me if I’m guessing right.

Rather than telling you what to think, this map frees you to use your imagination.

The sloppiness of this map is tragic, because it has a lot of potential. The overall aesthetic is decent, before you get down into the details. It’s got colors that are pleasant and fun but not overwhelming; the artist seems to understand subtlety. I appreciate how the unlabeled roads are darker green, and the Lake Michigan water feature labels are a light blue — each keeps a similar hue to its background, rather than contrasting strongly with it. Details like this show some care and thought, but then the artist inexplicably turns around and covers up labels, randomly colors lakes, and leaves arrows pointing to nowhere:

"The road actually goes over here, but we liked how it looked where we drew it."

It’s possible that more than one artist put this together, one careful and one less so. The influence of the latter seems to reach its worst in the unlabeled settlements near the bottom of the map. Maybe the village councils didn’t kick in enough money to be included.

"Nothing to see here, move along."

There are a few other minor amusing gems and mysteries on this map, but you’ll just have to go visit the Traverse City area yourself to see them. Bring your own map.

One Nice Thing: Again, I like the way many of the colors work together. It lacks the gaudiness and high contrast of many tourist maps, some of which can make your eyes bleed.

22
Mar
10

A War without Humans

A colleague of mine, Tim Wallace, recently alerted his classmates to the existence of this Google MyMaps mashup of US drone attacks in Pakistan:

Click to go to the actual map

This map is the poster child for emotionally inappropriate symbology. A lot of people think of maps as simply carriers for data. But they do more than transmit information — they influence our thoughts and our feelings as well. They’re artwork. One point symbol is not as good as any other, and I believe that bright red and green pushpins are completely unacceptable for a map about death, and war, and terror. These are human lives we are talking about here, not regional sales numbers in a spreadsheet. This map is dehumanizing. This map makes war look tidy and fun.

The internet has brought a lot of changes to cartography. Data are cheap, distribution is cheap, and access to the technology to make maps is opening up to more and more people (though we would do well to remember that the touted geoweb revolution is still confined to the iPhone-toting wealthy western elite — click here for more of my thoughts on this). All of this is, to my mind, good stuff. But, right now, the tools are still in the formative stages. The problems with this map are not really the fault of the creator. They had a data set that they wanted to get out there and share with the world. Google provided them a free, easy to use tool to accomplish this. Ideally, better tools and better cartographic education would be available to the new influx of people interested in mapping their world, but the above shows that we’ve still got a long way to go.

And, of course, this data set is all laid on top of an unnecessary satellite photo, along with some roads that will mean nothing to most readers. But, that’s par for the course with these early days of free web maps. It is my hope that the mapmaking infrastructure will continue to improve as demand for custom mapping applications rises.

Finally, I should point out that the yellow and green pushpins are largely indistinguishable to certain types of color vision impairments.

I am glad the author made this map and shared it with the world (I am, in fact, using the data in a personal project of my own). The problems are largely forgivable and understandable. But they are still serious problems, and we need to be aware of the effects this map can have on us when we look at it.

24
Feb
10

The Uncanny Valley of Color

Hello, everyone. Apologies for my absence — I was challenging John Krygier for the “most dormant map blog” award, before surrendering to his superior non-updating skill. Actually, I’ve just been occupied with my classes and work at UW-Madison, as I prepare for them to evict me from the security of graduate school and into the world of “unemployment.”

I found a copy of today’s map sitting in an office in the UW Geography Department. It’s a world wall map, about 36″ x 20″, and is marked as being produced by Portal Publications, Ltd, of Novarto, CA. They appear to have folded in 2008, after renaming themselves in 2007 to Innovative Art.

Published by Portal Publications, date unknown

Mercator. On a world reference map. I’ve said this before, but I will repeat: Mercator is great if you’re a navigator, especially one in 16th century Europe. Its usefulness pretty much stops there. This map is not intended to be used for sailing from Japan to Taiwan, so I’m pretty sure another projection is called for.

The colors. Oh, the colors. You see, a lot of world maps have what you call hypsometric tinting — colors that indicate elevations. You’re probably familiar with the classic scheme of green lowlands, transitioning to yellows and oranges and browns as elevation rises, and finishing off with white for the mountaintops. On the other hand, I am wholly uncertain as to what is going on with the colors on the map above. The lightest areas are in northeast Russia, which is certainly not the tallest place in the world. So, perhaps instead of elevation, the colors are depicting land cover, and showing a snowy Russia? But then, why is northern Canada marked with verdant plains (in an area labeled on the map as “barrengrounds”)? And why is Europe completely free of green areas? It’s certainly got areas as lush as the east coast of the USA, which is marked green on this map, and it certainly has lowlands at the same elevation as other places which are marked green. I cannot make heads or tails of the color scheme, and there’s no key included. It’s like the uncanny valley of hypsometric or land-cover tinting — it’s close enough that it looks normal when you walk by without thinking, but then when you actually have a look at it, it starts weirding you out. I was going to tag this map as being unkind to those with color vision deficiencies, but I think it’s also unkind to people with normal color vision, so I’ll skip it.

While we’re on the subject of elevation, have a closer look at Asia:

Asia detail

Tibet, over in the lower right corner of the image, has some of the world’s tallest mountains, included Mt. Everest. You may have heard of it. However, on this map, it looks relatively flat compared to the giant peaks of west and central Russia, which are apparently about 30 miles high if you are comparing with Tibet. This may be because of the tinting again, and/or because of the hillshading, but I would not rely on the terrain representation to have much connection to reality. Unless you need a guide to a parallel Earth where most of Turkey is higher than Tibet.

That being said, I do kind of like the highly generalized, faceted appearance the terrain has. It’s not unnecessarily detailed, and lends a sort of “crystalline” aesthetic — almost like the map was carved out of rock, and then smoothed out a bit. Kind of like the actual Earth. I think it’s well generalized for the purpose.

Before I move away from this image, notice the Aral sea, in the center. It’s a different shade of blue than every other body of water on the map. A much brighter blue. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps the artist had some outdated data on the Aral Sea (which has changed in size and shape considerably over the past few decades), and had to replace it at the last minute and somehow they couldn’t match the colors. It has an almost pasted-in appearance.

On to labels…

Europe detail

The labeling here is a vast mess of black ink.

On the image above, I count seven types of labels: Countries, capital cities, other cities, islands, individual mountains, mountain ranges, rivers, and seas. These very different things are being represented by very similar looking labels. It’s hard to see the label for Spain and the label for Serbia as being the same type of thing, and as being separate from whatever is represented by the label for “Rome,” for example. The label styles aren’t creating a hierarchy or establishing distinctions. Now, I know a little about Europe, so I know that Croatia and Italy are both countries. But if I knew nothing of Europe, this map would be pretty confusing, and I imagine I would be left wondering, in some cases, whether a label represented a country or a city. Look at Serbia and Belgrade — it looks to me like Belgrade is the country and Serbia the city. Using multiple colors for the labels would help, as would using something like small caps for the countries, or even another typeface. Admittedly, the terrain colors limit the options for label colors, which is perhaps another strike against them.

Speaking of countries, where are the borders for Poland? Or Switzerland? They’re pretty hard to see, both on the scan and in the print. The map labels all the countries of the world (which helps date it to the early 1990s, as well), but the borders rarely show up clearly. If it’s worth putting on the map, it’s worth putting on the map in a way that people can actually see.

The labeling would also be less confusing if it were not so dense, which means that it’s hard to associate a label with a specific feature, or place them very clearly and cleanly. I’m not sure why there are so many cities on this map. It’s nice to have them for a general reference map, but I imagine it would still look fine on your wall if it was missing Arad, Romania. Time to cut some out place out — simplify, to make things easier to read. You reach a point where adding more information simply obscures information already on the map, having a net effect of making your map less and less useful as you pile more data onto it.

Can you find the label that says “Alps”? I spent quite a time figuring out what the letter “A” was doing by itself in France, before I realized that it was part of a word that was so spread out that my brain stopped processing it as one word. While tracking out labels to mimic the area of a feature is a useful practice, it can be taken too far. Especially, again, if you’re trying to educate people who are unfamiliar with the relevant geography. If I didn’t know where the Alps were, or what they were called, I don’t think this map would tell me.

I’ll also briefly mention that I looked at a few cities in the USA, and their city dots are way off in their placement, so I wouldn’t necessarily trust it to point out where some of these places actually are.

One Nice Thing: I like their use of Tanaka’s illuminated contours:

Arguably, you can criticize it for its stair-stepped appearance, but I find the aesthetic interesting and attractive. It’s still requires painstaking manual effort, so it’s still rare, unfortunately. It’s rarer, still, in my experience, to see it on something other than a greyscale background. I think it does a nice job of bringing out the continental shelf.

Also, don’t know what’s going on with the little white trapezoids in the north. I think they represent the frozen nature of the north pole.

Special thanks to Jaime Stoltenberg at the Arthur Robinson Map Library for running this through the large-format scanner for me.

30
Jul
09

Misplacing Egypt

A quick post today for the 1 month anniversiary of Cartastrophe. Most of you have probably already seen this map make the rounds of the cartography blogs during the last couple of days, but it’s worth reposting.

Issues of accuracy aside, my question is why do they use that satellite photomosaic as the background? There’s no call for it – a simple solid fill would work better, and would be less distracting to the eye for a map that’s likely being flashed on the screen for a handful of seconds. It’s needlessly cool and fancy.

Also, Iran is set in much larger type than everything else. I think Israel might actually also be a bit larger than the other countries, despite being the smallest one marked on the map.

One Nice Thing: They did highlight countries of interest to the news story.

Hat tip to Daniel Reynolds for pointing this one out to me.

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.




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