Free as in painstaking cartography labor

There are ways in which I think cartography is an under-appreciated and poorly understood field, some of which are enumerated in occasional rants on the Axis Maps blog and elsewhere. But these are usually philosophical or academic matters, and as someone who is making a career of cartography, increasingly I’ve been trying to offer this piece of advice (which isn’t as obvious as it should be) to aspiring map people: cartography skills are valuable, as in dollar bills.

Hence my—and some peers’—disappointment in the most recent “challenge” from the MBTA, Greater Boston’s transit agency. To summarize a somewhat lengthy description page, they are essentially seeking new design ideas for their standard subway map—in the space of three weeks, for free, and with no rights retained by the cartographer. And if you win this contest? You get… um, fleeting glory, apparently.

MBTA map

I want to like the idea. The MBTA carries crippling debt, and as a somewhat regular user of the system I don’t want to see its service diminished or my fares increased, so I applaud any other funding or savings. But—and I’m looking for some kind of “third rail” wordplay here—this time they strike a nerve with those of us who have mapping jobs.

The T has run contests before. The most successful was a few years ago at the dawn of its open data age, resulting in some cool visualizations and interesting apps using schedule data, which shortly thereafter was supplanted by real-time tracking. These previous contests, though, were very much about openness. Yes, the clever angle was to get the community to create products at no cost to the agency, but at least these products were not owned by the agency. And there totally were prizes.

From the outside it’s easy to mistake modern cartography for a free endeavor driven by some desire to improve the world. Indeed, we do have a few altruistic motives, and the latest trends are all about openness: open data, open source code, etc. But even these things are not always free. Free to use, yes, but often enough someone has paid for them to be made in the first place. And this model doesn’t really apply to design. Good design is a part of any project, open or not, but when the job itself is design, we don’t jump at the chance to do it for someone else without compensation just because it’s fun. Like everyone else in the world, we do this to earn a living.

In short, if you can design a subway map that’s good enough for millions of people to use on a daily basis, you are very good at this. Maps are easy. Good maps are not. Your skills are valuable. Make maps for fun when it’s for your own satisfaction or for the causes you champion, but recognize your worth when it’s for others’ satisfaction. And make them recognize your worth, too.

In any case, while we’re on the subject, do enjoy Cameron Booth’s MBTA map redesign—which the MBTA can’t have for free—and Peter Dunn’s time-based map.


  1. Well stated Andy. There is a reason they are doing this, presumably being they don’t currently have the skill set to create this map in their office. For any other operations task, they would pay and recognize the talent and skill required to complete it. Designing a map of the system should be no different. It is arguably the front door to their world, and that deserves recognition. Skill = time = money. It will be very interesting to see what they end up with. The devil is in the details in this one…

    10 April 2013 @ 10:41am

  2. Great post!

    10 April 2013 @ 1:56pm

  3. Interesting post. At Ordnance Survey, in the UK, we have recently been embracing the idea of sharing and in general it is a very nice idea that I completely support.
    But getting the best design is the same as getting the best data – you generally need to pay for it.
    That said, I do like the idea of giving a neocartographer the chance to make a widely-used, published map.

    Love the website by the way!

    10 April 2013 @ 2:54pm

  4. I share your sentiments about this. You can see my own non-entry MBTA map and thoughts on the “challege” here:

    PS Your maps are amazing. -Dave

    Dave O.
    30 April 2013 @ 12:01pm

  5. Awesome, thanks for the link! Great work!

    Andy Woodruff
    30 April 2013 @ 12:04pm

  6. I’ve been wanting to redesign the official transit maps here in Cincinnati for ages and have been talking with the agencies for a couple months about paying me to do so. I’m terribly afraid that the potential fun of the project may temp me to just do it, paid or not if they don’t end up scraping together any money.

    I’ve decided that if I do ever go that route(again), I’ll explicitly license the map such that anyone at all except the agency itself can use the map free of charge(CC-BY-SA). In my dream world, they’d take offence at that and pay up or at least take map design more seriously in the future 😉

    If I made that explicit on the map itself, I think it could also have the effect of gently pointing out to the general public that this stuff isn’t cheap or easy to produce.

    Nate Wessel
    27 July 2013 @ 10:09am

  7. Nate, perhaps the legal side of it would ultimately mean more work but you could always make them the map free of charge and then license it to them such that everytime they print it or put it online you claim a royalty. A bit like freelance photographers who just go out and take their photos and then license it to whoever is interested with fee depending on use.
    Just an idea.

    Christopher Wesson
    28 July 2013 @ 11:04am