Archive Page 2

03
Feb
11

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.

30
Jan
11

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 somethingaboutmaps.wordpress.com 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.

24
Jan
11

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 Perspectiveshttp://www.nacis.org/CP/CP66/CP66.pdf. Especially if you want to hear me go on at length about reviving the historical technique of waterlining.

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.




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