Author Archive for Daniel Huffman



22
Dec
10

Texas Grows 70% Each Year

Welcome back, everyone, to Cartastrophe: The Blog with First-World Problems (as a reader rightly pointed out recently). Today’s effort comes to us from the folks at the Associated Press:

This choropleth appeared this morning accompanying a story I was reading online about the new population numbers out of the Census Bureau. Most of the map is unremarkable, but the legend is worth noting. According to the title on the legend, the colors indicate population growth, in thousands. But, the actual numbers in the legend are marked as percentages. It is probably unreasonable of me to believe that the population of Texas increased 20,000%, as that would put their current population somewhere above 4 billion people. I believe that these numbers are intended to be percentages, and that the title on the legend is simply incorrect. Perhaps this map was made by altering an existing product, and the author forgot to make some necessary changes.

The more subtle, and much more common, problem with the legend is the arrangement of the numbers. There’s an overlap to the data classes. If a state had 10% growth, does it go in the third class or the fourth? Better, I think, to add a decimal place to these numbers so that the separation is clear: 5.0-9.9, 10.0-14.9, etc. Gaps between classes make it plain which numbers go in which class. Alternately, a more complex solution is a redesign of the legend. It may be possible to visually clarify that the 5-10 class includes all numbers from 5 up until, but not including, 10. Here’s a mockup of something that comes to mind as a potential design solution:

That may or may not be too difficult for the average reader to interpret. It’s off the cuff, so I’m not entirely certain about its merits, but I do believe there are visual solutions to this problem as well as ones which rely on changing the numbers. The latter may be more clear, ultimately.

The colors for the choropleth are largely fine, but I think the various shades of blue are a bit too close to each other to easily match back to the legend. Reducing the classes by one, or by making the darkest blue even darker and stretching the color ramp out would help ease this.

One Nice Thing: I appreciate the author’s use of small boxes of color next to the state names in the northeast. The states get pretty small up there, and figuring out the color of Delaware can be challenging. With this solution, there are always legible swatches of color associated with each state.

02
Oct
10

Two Notes

Also, a couple of quick notes:

First off, my UW-Madison colleague Tim Wallace has put together an interesting post on pushpin maps over at his blogging home, timwallace.wordpress.com. They’re a topic definitely worthy of discussion and critical thought, especially given their newfound popularity on the Internet. He’ll also be giving a talk on the subject in mid-October at the NACIS Annual Meeting in St. Petersburg, FL.

Secondly, everyone should come to the aforementioned NACIS meeting. You don’t need to be a mapmaker to attend. You just need to like talking about maps with interesting and friendly people. And, really, who doesn’t?

02
Oct
10

A Village Floating off the Coast

Today’s contribution comes from my friend Kate, the one with whom I was recently on a Michigan wine tour. This is a map which heads an article on the village of Cairanne and the wines which originate there:

Copyrighted by Foodtourst.com. Click to visit site.

There seems to be some sort of notion out there that every map needs a legend. That, somehow, it’s not a map anymore if it doesn’t have one. This is patently untrue. If you know your audience can easily figure out how to read your symbols, you can probably skip it (or, at least, minimize it). Legends are for imparting literacy when your think audience lacks it. They are frequently needed, but not indispensable.

The legend on this map is clearly dispensable. I cannot fathom why the name of the village was not labeled right next to the giant red dot. Instead, the artist created a legend at the bottom to explain what the giant red dot means. His or her choices suggest the following assumptions were being made about audience:

  • Readers have the skills to figure out that Paris, Dijon, etc. are at the locations of the dots found near those words.
  • Those same readers would not understand what it meant if the word “Cairanne” were similarly placed next to a big red dot in France.
  • But they will, however, know what it means if the word “Cairanne” is placed next to a big red dot outside of France.
  • Readers will know that the big red dot outside France is meant to represent the big red dot inside France.

Some of these assumptions are more questionable than others, to put it mildly. In fact, because of the nonsensical nature of assumption number two, the legend makes this map harder to read. As Kate writes, this map had her “confused for almost a minute about whether they thought Cairanne was in Spain.” Probably because she assumed that the artist would label the big red dot in France as “Cairanne” if it were Cairanne. She was confused because she didn’t think that the map artist might have considered her too dumb to figure it out without a legend.

While we are on the giant red dot, I might strongly recommend making it not so giant. Cairanne is a small village. But the dot pattern on the map gives a subtle impression that Cairanne is huge and Paris is insignificant. The artist wants Cairanne to stand out, understandably. But there are better ways to establish a visual hierarchy on this map, for example by changing the colors of the non-Cairanne cities and dots to fade a little more into the background, and making the Cairanne dot the same size as (or only slightly larger than) the non-Cairanne dots, while still keeping it red so that it pops out.

Meanwhile, making its long-awaited return to this blog, it looks like we’ve got another great example of the Island Effect going on here! Just north of France is some water, indicated in white. Just east of France is some land, indicated in white. Thus, France looks like it’s floating off in the sea, lacking any geographic context. Now, I don’t think this is always a problem — it’s perfectly fine to have a map that shows France and nothing else at times. Here, however, the author is very inconsistent in his or her treatment of geographic context. It seems senseless to show some bits of contextual information (the names of some countries) and leave off others (a little bit of land showing where those countries are). It’s also strange to mark Italy, Spain, and Belgium, while leaving Luxembourg, Germany, and Switzerland off the map. Either France’s surroundings are important, or they’re not. To my mind, it should either be an island and the sole thing on the map, or it should be shown in its full European context with all its neighbors. Going halfway just looks sloppy.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the copyright for this map is placed in a bit of an odd position. It’s between the map and the legend, very much visually in the way. I appreciate the owners of the work wanting to ensure they’re credited, but it could be put less obtrusively in the corner.

One Nice Thing: At least the artist thought to include some geographic context. I can imagine a lot of places would just throw an outline of France on the page, with a dot for Cairanne and nothing else. For people familiar with Paris, Bordeaux, etc., this map helps to give them reference points.

Not every map needs a legend. Nor does every map need several of the other common map elements, for that matter. If I scrounge up a few good examples, I may write a post to kick off my Worldwide Campaign to Eliminate Needless North Arrows, and my International Crusade Against Useless Scale Bars.

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.

29
Jun
10

The Vanishing Kingdom

Yesterday evening, I was having a conversation with one of my roommates about Beaver Island, which lay in the north of Lake Michigan. It’s a sizable chunk of land with some interesting history. It was, at one point in the 19th century, home to a kingdom inhabited by a breakaway Latter-Day Saints sect, until the US government facilitated the assassination of its eccentric ruler and the ejection of the Mormon settlers. While mentioning the island to my roommate, I pulled up Google Maps in order to show him where it is. Except it wasn’t there. An entire archipelago, in fact, was missing from the map. Compare the satellite photo to the map and note the difference:

Screenshots from Google Maps, 6/29/10

Perhaps more amusing is the fact that, when you zoom in sufficiently, the road network for Beaver Island (which has a population of about 650, according to Census estimates) still appears.

Screenshot from Google Maps, 6/29/10

Now, I don’t know how the sausage is made over at Google, but I’m guessing it’s a mostly automated process, given the magnitude of their undertaking. And this is what happens when you let computers keep running with insufficient oversight. This is not exactly a tiny island — it’s 55 square miles, and given how large of a scale Google lets you zoom in to, it’s not something that should be left off. Whatever algorithm they’ve used to generalize their data, it’s in need of tweaking. It’s leaving some smaller islands, but eliminating larger ones. Note the smaller Manitou Islands in the south of the first images above, marked as Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Despite being uninhabited and smaller than Beaver Island, they made it on the map. One of them is rather terribly distorted, however — the polygon is way too simplified for the scale.

It’s been said over and over again, but it’s still worth hearing: be careful when using Google Maps and its cousins. There are very few human hands in their creation, and not enough of the scrutiny required to prevent gaffes of this magnitude. Of course, you should be careful when using any map; once humans start making the data and design decisions rather than computers, major geographical errors may become infrequent, but more insidious problems crop up, as we discussed a few months ago.

This is also where learning lots of random geographic facts can be handy. It’s easier to catch the omission of Beaver Island if you know ahead of time that it exists. This is how I justify spending way too much time on Sporcle taking geography quizzes — it will hopefully make me less likely to make an error like the above.

The lessons from today’s map are obvious, but it’s always good to be reminded from time to time of the importance of careful editing. And the end result is a bit amusing here.

One Nice Thing: At least they’ve got a form on the page which I can use to report this error.

Tomorrow marks one year of blogging here on Cartastrophe. I really wasn’t sure that this experiment was going to last more than a few months, but your comments and emails and support have kept things lively. I appreciate your coming along for the ride. To all who have sent submissions: thank you. I don’t use all of them, but I appreciate everyone keeping an eye out and thinking of me, and hope you will keep doing so. This blog has been great for my own growth as a designer, and I hope that you have gained something from it, as well.

Finally, it comes to my attention that there’s another blog out there in a similar vein to my own. If you’d like a double dose of map critique, have a look at Misguided Maps.

16
Jun
10

On the Abuse of Chernoff Faces

Good day, gentle readers. It turns out, not surprisingly, that no one entered my little redesign competition, and so I’ve no news to report on that front, sadly. Bravely I shall soldier on, however, perhaps to give it another try when circumstances have changed.

Rather than discussing a specific map this time around, I want to take aim at an entire symbology: Chernoff faces.

A face map by Eugene Turner, 1977

You’ve probably run into this sort of multivariate symbology before — using faces to convey data. It’s an intriguing idea. As Herman Chernoff proposed in 1973, we can leverage the power of humans to recognize faces to easily communicate information. The face becomes a gateway for people to see patterns in the data.

When Eugene Turner made the above map, he knew that faces carry emotions. As he said on his website, “It is probably one of the most interesting maps I’ve created because the expressions evoke an emotional association with the data. Some people don’t like that.” A face symbology can give people empathy with the numbers — high unemployment is sad, high urban stresses cause anger. Turner could just as easily have made a multivariate symbol map which used abstract geometric figures rather than faces — say, a cross, with each of the four arms changing length according to the data. The map would convey the same information to the reader, but the emotional content — so much of this map’s power to influence readers — would be lost.

Here’s one problem: if you’re using faces, you’re using emotions, so you’d better be prepared to make emotional statements about your data. Empathy can be a powerful force for the narrative you’re trying to convey, but it’s also hard to escape.

By Aaron Rothberg, 2007. From: http://aaronrb204.blogspot.com/

This is a student map, from the looks of the website it comes from (not from my university, however), and while I try to avoid bringing up the work of students, this one happens to be a good example of this problem of reading faces. According to this map, it’s sad when people over 50 are executed, but it’s pretty happy when people under 40 are. That’s going to rub a lot of people the wrong way, I would think. This map also suffers from an issue that Turner’s map does: the skin color of the faces. In each map, the fewer white people in an area, the darker the face gets, towards a skin color presumably suggestive of African-Americans. But there are plenty of non-white people who don’t have dark skin. It sets up an easy and dangerous racial spectrum that runs between white and black.

Here’s another Chernoff example symbology, one taken from an ESRI conference paper:

From Spinelli and Zhou, 2004, linked above.

One of their example faces, assembled.

The eyebrows are pretty emotionally charged, and are here linked to how many women are in the workforce. Using their symbology, if you have an area where there’s high unemployment and a lot of women working, you get angry-looking faces. On the other hand, if there’s not a lot of women working, and high unemployment, the faces look sad and depressed. Is this at all sensible or appropriate? More tense emotional states seem to be on display the more women there are in the workforce.

There’s another issue here, besides the dangers of conveying unintentional emotional messages, and that is the simple problem of a nonsensical mismatch between the data and the way its being conveyed. Do places with higher crime have denizens with bigger ears? Does divorce make your nose bigger? Look, it’s not always possible, or even advisable, to make strong visual connections between the symbol and the data (or, if we want to draw on my limited knowledge of fancy semiotics terms: to reduce the gap between the sign vehicle and the referent), but faces seem to me to pose a special case. Perhaps it’s the deliberateness of choice — again, the author didn’t go for something abstract or geometrical, they went for a human face. The reader is not expecting something as out-of-the-blue as “their nose gets bigger when there are more divorced people.” This kind of nonsensical connection breaks the very humanity that the symbol is going for. We know people get angry or sad when there’s high unemployment, and we can relate to that, but their hairline doesn’t recede as their income drops. Why use a face, in the first place, then? These sort of mismatches bother me, but I’m still working out an articulate explanation as to why — perhaps you all can help me with that.

One more example:

One by Daniel Dorling, 1995

A place with a lot of young voters has a big fat nose? And your eyes get bigger, I suppose, if you’re likely to be in a service occupation. Again, people might disagree with me on whether or not this is a problem. I think not paying enough attention to the emotional content of a face is a bigger issue than these sorts of lesser mismatches between eye shapes and % service employees. But the deliberateness, the unusualness, of employing a face suggests to me that I should be looking for a connection, and I am frustrated not to find it.

Chernoff faces can let you bring a lot of power to bear on social data, by showing how people feel right on the map. But it’s easy to squander or misuse their great potential by treating them as simply something cute, amusing, or attention-getting. They require some thought to use.

One Nice Thing: I applaud all of these people for giving Chernoff faces a try — they are a challenge to employ, and not just for the reasons I discussed; they’re also time-consuming to actually draw in most cases. And everyone here used them for social data, which seems the right idea to me. Data about people, shown with faces of people. Much better than say, geological data, which Chernoff used as one of his initial examples.

01
May
10

Minard Reminder

Hey everyone,

Just a reminder that the deadline for Cartastrophe’s Minard Redesign Competition is June 1st, which is one month from now. You, too, could win a grab bag of old maps! I’ve heard from a number of you out there interested in giving this a try, and I’m excited to see what people come up with. It should be enlightening and inspirational.

We’ll be back with regular content in a few weeks. In the meanwhile, happy mapping.

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.

18
Mar
10

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 cartastrophic@gmail.com, 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!

17
Mar
10

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

Detail

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.




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