Archive for March, 2010


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.


Getting Minard to Spin in his Grave

Gentle readers, permit me to request your participation in Cartastrophe’s very first Redesign Competition!

Charles Joseph Minard’s famed carte figurative of Napoleon’s march to Moscow is considered by quite a number of people to be one of the finest maps ever produced. It’s elegant, it’s clever, and it’s clear. Tufte said that it “may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.”

Click for a much larger version

High praise for an impressive work, certainly, but I want to challenge the cartographic community to see if they can improve upon Minard’s effort. To be fair, I haven’t the faintest idea if I have enough readers to make this work. But I’m going to give it a try.

I hope you will consider submitting a redesign of Minard’s map to me at, by June 1st, 2010. Please include a short bit of text describing your design —  inspirations, what you changed or improved upon and why, etc. I will review them all and post the best examples on this very website. As an enticement, I am offering a fabulous prize: A grab-bag of free maps from the Arthur Robinson Map Library, which regularly sheds parts of its collection. I am a graduate student, so I am afraid I cannot offer much more than that (though, if you feel like being a generous donor and offering up your own prize, let me know).

Feel free to use whatever resources are at your disposal, and to take this project in whatever direction you may prefer, so long as it remains a map (rather than an aspatial infographic) and contains the same data as the original (you may add more data if you think it necessary and relevant). A simple web search turns up a lot of good material on Minard and this map, including a number of re-designs, though most are rather unimpressive.

For those of you like me who have no idea what any of those words on the map mean, here’s a link to an English translation of the original French. I found it on the Internet, so it must be accurate!

Minard’s design is indeed excellent, and deserves the praise he has received, but it is not perfect. So let’s see what we can do with it.

Please spread the word about this competition — the more people involved, the better!


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.