Cartography and NACIS 2011

Madison, Wisconsin

I’ve recently returned from the annual meeting of the North American Cartographic Information Society in my old stomping grounds of Madison, Wisconsin. I’ve mentioned NACIS here in the past. It’s a wonderful organization and it holds the best conference ever.

While I will recap some of the conference (which was very good this year), this time I’ve been thinking about it as a good representation of the state of American cartography. Even if you don’t care about the conference, bear with me as I hit on a few of its points and contemplate their significance to the field.

How does design make a difference?
This was the tagline of the conference, and I’m not sure there was much of an answer. It’s not an easy question, really. We all agree that good design can make a difference over bad design, but what is design? Can we make maps with an absence of design, and if so what difference does design make over non-design?

Let’s assume there is some agreed-upon definition of “design” and think about what it means that this was the theme of the conference. In an era when it’s not always clear what a “cartographer” is, here is a core group self-identified cartographers identifying themselves as designers. I’m among them and have encountered surprise when describing cartography to the uninitiated as by and large a design practice. Maybe now that anyone is a mapmaker, this attitude is what defines cartography. Maybe that’s how design makes a difference. Cartography isn’t making a map; it’s designing a map.

Art in cartography
Or maybe a cartographer is an artist. Tim Wallace organized a session on art in modern cartography, a topic that has come up many times over the years but this time stemmed from a series of blog posts that Tim instigated this past spring.

It continues to be an interesting debate because of its technological facets. Daniel Huffman argued for the art in “human cartography,” lamenting computer automation, which to be honest I see as a bit of a straw man. Aaron Straup Cope, if I am not misinterpreting his points, noted that newfangled ubiquitous, easy mapping creates more room for artistic cartography now that we don’t need to put all our efforts toward painstakingly accurate maps for navigation and the like.

Practical Cartography Day
The main NACIS conference is preceded by a day of more workshoppy talks, which this time I think comprised a representative slice of modern cartography. There was some of the usual fare, tips for traditional print or desktop cartography such as Alex Tait’s top ten reference cheat sheets. But nearly half the talks dealt with web cartography, with several hot shots covering hot topics. They included Nathaniel Vaughn Kelso of Stamen, AJ Ashton of Development Seed (I mean, have you read anything about web cartography lately that doesn’t mention TileMill?), Adam DuVander of the Map Scripting book, and my good pals Jeremy White of the New York Times and (with a presentation that alone was worth the price of admission) Zachary Forest Johnson of GeoIQ and other fame.

Thanks to cool guys Tim Wallace and Sam Pepple for crafting this session so well!

The new crowd
Speaking of those guys, in the six years that I’ve known NACIS I’ve been pleased to see how the membership has evolved to better reflect the reality of modern cartography. At the 2006 NACIS meeting, which was also in Madison and was the first one I attended, Schuyler Erle was invited to give a keynote address. He spoke, as was his wont, about the democratized cartography afforded by things like the still young Google Maps. Listening to the murmurs around the room, one could hear that many of the old school cartographers—the core constituency of NACIS—were appalled by the idea of amateur non-cartographers making maps. But now we seem to welcome these types, as it’s been proven that some of the best cartography is coming from people without cartography backgrounds but rather, often, web backgrounds. It is excellent to see, for instance, Messrs. Cope (who is “from the Internet”) and Migurski (who gave the keynote two years ago) from Stamen showing up among the “mainstream” cartographers, if that’s the right word. Even almighty Google now has a presence.

Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to seeing how my generation of bona fide cartographers helps shape the community. We’re the ones who are trained in cartography but during this explosive period of web mapping, which perhaps gives us a different perspective on the field from that of the more established cartographers. NACIS meetings are attended by a fair number of students as well as people like me who are only a few years out of school, and some of them already have pretty strong and active voices.

Teaching cartography
So far in this post I’ve mostly ignored the academic side of cartography, and I should mention that NACIS comprises a mix of professionals and academics. For me the most fascinating session at this year’s conference was one that brought together both types: a panel discussion on teaching cartography. It sounds ridiculous, but I’ve never had such an easy time staying awake at a conference session. Many topics and challenges were discussed, like teaching software versus teaching concepts and thematic versus reference mapping. (Also, glad that panelist, Harvard scholar, and new local carto/drinking buddy Kirk Goldsberry was dragged to the conference for this.) But at a week’s removal, what’s really fascinating is my fascination itself. I sat there, engrossed in the discussions, kind of wondering why I, not being a cartography teacher, was so interested. Perhaps it’s just reflection on my own roots and where my education was good and where it was lacking. But more likely it’s that cartography is—and I don’t care if this sounds pathetic—my essence, and I care a lot about how it is taught or otherwise instilled in others. It matters to all of us who make maps in this time when, as I noted before, we’re not even sure what a cartographer is. However we arrived at map-making, let’s think about what people need to learn to practice the craft and how it can be taught.

Best week of the year
One of my happiest days a couple of years ago was when the top search term directing people to my website was “drinking in a bathtub,” which brought visitors to a post about a previous NACIS conference. I have certainly been much more serious this time, but don’t let that distract from the fact hat NACIS is simply the best time you will ever have at a conference, especially if it’s in Madison. NACIS truly is a community, where the people you meet are more like friends than professional contacts. The conference organizers do an amazing job of establishing a productive but fun environment. (I want to thank them profusely but don’t want to list names for fear of leaving someone out. If you’re a current or future NACIS attendee you’ll know them.) The schmoozing is easy, and there is a healthy drinking culture among cartographers (I’d like to think that we at UW-Madison were pioneers in that area).

Consider it plugged. NACIS is awesome. Cartography is awesome.



  1. Straw man, eh? =)

    I think I wasn’t clear enough that I’m not against digital technology per se — just that the speed and power of our tools makes it easier for people to stop doing design and let the automaton take over. I thought I emphasized that, but a number of people came up afterwards and seemed to think I was against computers. Which I’m not, because I certainly couldn’t be in this business without them. I’m merely against thoughtlessness — undesign.

    Also, I will second what you said about NACIS being the best time. A friend of mine came to the banquet. She’s not a cartographer and she knew almost no one there. She was blown away by how friendly everyone was and how much fun was had. And by how welcoming we were as a community. No other conferences she’d been to were comparable.

    Daniel Huffman
    24 October 2011 @ 10:11am

  2. Also I’m glad you were able to stay awake during my panel. Given that it was on the third day of the conference, that’s quite a feat.

    Daniel Huffman
    24 October 2011 @ 10:12am

  3. Figured you’d stop by to defend against my straw man accusation! I do get your point and didn’t take it as anti-computer. My straw man sense, I think, is raised a bit because I don’t see computer automation as much of a threat to art and design in cartography, but it’s easy to portray as one. Maybe we’ll have to do round two of these blog debates sometime!

    You’re right, staying awake was quite a feat. It’s a sign of a good conference when we’re able to remain so interested despite going to bed at 4 AM every day. Thanks for running that teaching panel and being one of those motivated next generation NACIS contributors!

    Andy Woodruff
    24 October 2011 @ 10:38am