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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.


Assembly-Line Map Elements

Gentle readers, my apologies for being so long in returning to blogging. Inspiration has sometimes been a bit lacking, and when it wasn’t, time was. But be assured I have no plans to abandon this enterprise without notice, though I may take breaks from time to time. I’m also hoping to bring back guest posts to keep things going when I don’t have the time.

On to today’s main event. This morning I received an email from a colleague pointing me in the direction of the GIS Lounge, specifically the recent post there entitled “Ten Things to Consider When Making a Map.” It’s a well-intentioned piece — many people out there who are just starting out begin with the question, “how do I make good maps?”, and there are several other forums and websites out there which give aid to the uninitiated. Unfortunately, the GIS Lounge chose to give the following as one of their pieces of advice:

6. Incorporating Map Elements

Making sure that all map elements are properly applied is important for providing readers with the context of the map.  All maps should have a clear and concise title, scale bar, and north arrow.

I can think of few more misguided statements about cartography. Longtime readers know that I am the head of the Worldwide Campaign to Eliminate Needless North Arrows, as well as the International Crusade Against Useless Scale Bars. Such elements often end up as no more than functionless clutter, yet we are told that they are mandatory all the same. If you click on the link above, you’ll be taken to the GIS Lounge’s list of “required” map elements (edit: shortly after I made this post, the page was changed to no longer call them “required”), including scale bars, north arrows, and legends. To be fair, the GIS Lounge is by no means alone in advising that there are certain things that every map simply must have — such declarations are unfortunately not rare. However, their “What’s in a Map” post is probably the most prescriptive one I’ve seen in a good while.

To begin, the entire concept of a list of “things you must do to make a proper map” is deeply, fundamentally flawed. It’s as misguided as a list of “things you must do to make a good painting,” or “things that make a good story.” Everything is contextual, depending on your audience, the message and mood you want to convey, how the work will be used, etc. It’s impossible to say something is required for every single situation. It’s not just the impracticality that’s a problem, though. The real issue is that such lists of “things maps must have” have their roots in a concept of cartography as a series of steps to follow or pieces to assemble, rather than a holistic art form or craft. Good maps are not made by following a simple mindless procedure or making sure you’ve ticked off all the boxes. That kind of attitude is how maps end up featured on this site. It’s also the only way machines can make maps at the moment, and it’s probably why they’re often so poorly done (see also this post I made on my other blog).

A list of requirements for how to make a good map is dangerous because it tempts beginners into shutting off their critical thinking and their creativity. Rather than consider why something should be done, or trying something new, they simply follow the list. I’ve seen it far too often in students. It also leads people to criticize and think narrowly about otherwise good maps because they don’t fit rigid expectations. Instead of a requirement list, I would say that the best we can do is simply give a list of things to think about when making a map, not things that must be done. To their credit, the GIS Lounge leads off their “Ten Things to Consider” piece with the caveat that these are simply suggestions, “a starting point of things to contemplate.”

Beyond the philosophical problems of actually having a list of required map elements, there are issues with the specific items on the list. Namely, not all maps actually need these elements. Let’s take them one at a time.

Title: Most maps do probably need titles, but it really depends on the context. Something sitting in the midst of a textbook page may have an explanatory caption, instead. A well-done legend often explains what the map is about as clearly and as quickly as a title, as well.

North Arrow: Most maps don’t need a north arrow. I honestly cannot fathom why they are so popular. Consider the following map:

From the US Census Bureau, via Wikimedia Commons

It has no north arrow. Most of us can recognize the United States, and we’re able to, say, determine that Texas is south of Minnesota. Even if we weren’t familiar with the area depicted, we’d probably assume north is toward the top (and, if it’s not, then a north arrow becomes a much more necessary element), as that’s the common convention we’ve learned. But what if you didn’t know this convention and honestly weren’t sure about which way was north? How would you possibly orient yourself? Well, you probably don’t need to. You’re probably not planning on navigating using this map and a compass. Many north arrows on maps aren’t telling you anything you actually need to know, or don’t already know. They’re just in the way.

Of course, worse than having a needless north arrow is an inaccurate one. Consider the Robinson Projection:

From Wikipedia

Dropping a north arrow onto this map would be misleading, because where north is varies based on where you are on the map. It’s not always straight up — sometimes it’s up and to the left, sometimes up and to the right, sometimes straight up. The angle of north varies on most map projections, including the one above. Far better than a north arrow in this case is to use a graticule — the grid of latitude and longitude lines, which shows a reader how the cardinal directions change across the map. But even this is not mandatory — a graticule, like a north arrow, is only useful if people really need to have some idea as to directions. Certainly this happens from time to time — if you’re teaching kindergartners where the continents are, then they probably need that information. But if you’re showing this to a tenured professor, they probably already know that New Zealand is east of Australia.

And I won’t even get in to the times I’ve seen students put north arrows on maps of the South Pole.

Scale: Again, most maps don’t need a scale, either. Will people reading your map really be comparing sizes or measuring distances?  Probably not. Again, this is partly a matter of your audience’s familiarity with the area depicted, but if I’m reading the map below, I really don’t care how far apart the states are:

Of course, the other issue is that, since all map projections necessarily distort, the scale of a map is different everywhere. Sometimes the changes are small enough that it’s not a problem, but a scale bar on a world map is going to be wrong most everywhere. It’s better to leave it off rather than to mislead.

Legend: Finally, many maps can do without legends. For a prime example, have a look again at a map I tackled last year:

The legend on this map is completely pointless. Better to write “Cairanne” next to the big red dot in France and trust that readers will figure it out. Map literacy is much like verbal literacy — people learn certain conventions, and we can rely upon most adult audiences to know these. We know that the red dots are cities, and that the words next to them are the city names. No one needs to tell us that at this age. It’s just a waste of our time and space, and potentially confusing (one can wonder if Cairanne is actually a city out in the Mediterranean). Legends aren’t needed to explain every little tiny symbol; just the ones that your audience won’t know.

As with everything that goes onto a map, conscious thought has to go into application of map elements. They should not be rote, or random. They should be employed with consideration of the map’s purpose and audience. That’s what design is — consciousness. It is misleading to say that legends or scales or other map elements are mandatory, and such statements will only lead to more bad maps. We must teach thoughtfulness and sound judgment, not obedience.

I’ve decided to consolidate the Worldwide Campaign to Eliminate Needless North Arrows and the International Crusade Against Useless Scale Bars into the Global Consortium for the Thoughtful Employment of Map Elements (GCTEME). If you would like to join, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the following address:

Daniel Huffman
c/o: University of Wisconsin Cartography Lab
550 North Park St.
Madison, WI 53706

I will send you back a letter of membership that looks very official and which will win you respect at NACIS. There are no membership requirements, nor are there actually any benefits. Or activities to speak of, except telling your friends about 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.


Sibling Site

Some many months ago, I decided to launch a blog about maps. It was, at first, intended to be about my own cartographic thoughts and designs. However, it quickly turned out that I didn’t have much to say on the subject. So, instead, I closed it down and started Cartastrophe, because I had plenty to say about other peoples’ maps.

I have, however, lately found myself with a lot more inspiration to talk about my own work. So I’ve re-launched my other blog, somethingaboutmaps. It will concern itself with my design work, my teaching, and my other personal thoughts on cartography. It also talks about the new store I launched, because I’m going to try and sell some of my designs, given that the Internet makes it possible to do that with no overhead now.

Cartastrophe doesn’t seem the place for any of that stuff, though, so I’d like to keep these two efforts mostly separate. Readers come here for map analysis and critique, rather than to hear about the work I’m doing, why I have a problem with how conformal projections are taught, or how business is going. If you’re interested in any of that sort of thing, though, please head on over to and subscribe.

Speaking of map critique, I should have another piece coming along in the next couple of days. I have a map in mind and some things to say about it; I just need to gather a little bit of information on its origins to put it in context. If I can get some coherent thoughts together, I may also put together a post on what happens when you make a map and it becomes unexpectedly popular, because that Twitter map was in some ways a little bit of a cartastrophe for me, with people interpreting them in ways I did not expect.


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.


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.


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, 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?


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