It can get pretty quiet here. See Bostonography or Axis Maps for some other posts.

The end of imagination

Looking dusty here. Tap, tap. Is this blog still on? Here’s an anecdote and a thought.

As much as a decade ago, I remember running into amazingly high resolution aerial imagery of Cambridge, Massachusetts. You could see people in this imagery, which was not so common on the web at the time. I explored Cambridge a bit via the map, as I am wont to do with any map in front of me. I found what looked like some busy spots, identified the famous Harvard University, and so on. It was a strange, unknown place—a city I only knew in person as a collection of buildings glimpsed from highways or from across the river in Boston, where I had been a number of times. It was mostly only a place on a map, and it was up to my imagination to picture what it was like to be there.

Harvard Square aerial circa 2001

Aerial image of Harvard Square, dated 2001 in Google Earth.

Then, some years later, circumstances brought me to Cambridge as a resident. Now a further four years after that, I obviously have a much different image of the city. I love this place, and I’m glad I’ve come to know it well, but there’s no longer any mystique. I kind of miss imaginary Cambridge.

Part of maps’ broad appeal is that they are captivating as canvases for imagination. They can represent lands we’ve never seen, offering a simple lattice of information but requiring us to fill in the gaps in our minds. We can explore maps and “know” places to be as fantastic as our minds will allow. Ultimately, I think, it leads us to explore the places in reality, and it can be shocking when reality doesn’t match our imagined expectations. The shock is not necessarily bad and may even be pleasant (except when, say, imaginary beauty turns out to be a trash-strewn real world); but if you’re like me, you lament the demise of the place your mind invented, even if the reality that supplanted it is better.

As web reference maps move toward less and less abstracted representations of the world, some observers have begun to wonder whether people are losing the interest or need to go to explore real places and experience them in real life, because Street View can show you exactly what a place looks like, or Twitter maps can tell you exactly what people are talking about there, and so forth. I remain optimistic that modern maps will not be a substitute for reality, but rather will draw people in to experience what they know is happening in different places. The maps of old may have tantalized people with their sea monsters and blank spaces, but people didn’t stop climbing mountains when someone else had mapped their slopes with precision, and I didn’t avoid walking around town because I had already seen people-level aerial photos. Knowing what’s out there is as much of a draw as not knowing.

No, the victim in the march toward realistic maps is not real-world experience; the victim is imagination and a bit of the fun of reading maps. I don’t cease to imagine places when looking at a map. It’s just that my imagination is increasingly accurate. It used to be that for every place in the world there were actually two places: one in my mind and one on the ground. Soon, perhaps, there will be only one.

RIP, the last imaginary place on Earth.

Map monster from the Carta Marina

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Submit to the Atlas of Design

This is a quick plug for a new publication being put together by NACIS (the North American Cartographic Information Society, also known as the most awesome bunch of cartographers anywhere): the Atlas of Design, which will feature “cartography at its most beautiful, its cleverest, its sharpest, and its most intriguing.” It’ll be the best coffee table book ever!

A couple of our favorite cartographers are out there now rounding up work from all of our other favorite cartographers. If you’ve got a map to show off, submit it for consideration! If you know people who have maps to show off, encourage them to submit! The deadline is February 24; see all the instructions on the Atlas site.

Do it!

Atlas of Design

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Things I hope you want: this year’s typographic maps

Permit me one avaricious advertisement of a blog post this holiday season. We at Axis Maps have several new typographic city maps that have come out since the summer, and, well, we think they make super gifts. Here are the ones I haven’t mentioned on the blog before.

Chicago letterpress: Two-color prints of the downtown area, with a light blue background on the lake and rivers and either blue or black ink for the text. An addition from the poster prints is the inclusion of the ‘L’ transit lines.
Chicago letterpress map

San Francisco letterpress (2nd edition): In either blue or black ink, this one features a waterline effect around the city.
San Francisco letterpress map

Manhattan letterpress: Two sections, upper and lower Manhattan. Available individually or as a set; with careful cutting you could splice them together and everything will properly line up.
Manhatttan letterpress map

Madison, Wisconsin: The old Axis Maps stomping grounds and home of our graduate institution, the University of Wisconsin. This one is a regular offset print and covers the isthmus and university areas.
Madison typographic map

Besides those we’ve got our old standard posters: Washington DC, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston.

So there it is. Get in any orders by this Friday to ensure delivery by Christmas!

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Cartogrammar is stupid

Three or four years in, I’m sick of that “Cartogrammar” name. I’m abandoning it and using my own name instead:

Back in 2007, or maybe 2008, I agonized over choosing a domain name. Those were wild days, a time when we all had to try to compete with the more badass names of our friends’ websites (e.g., or really i.e., indiemaps). Eventually I settled on Cartogrammar for its mild wordplay. It was about the grammar of cartography or some such nonsense. It never was a cool name and I never did invent a meaning for it, but even worse is that it sounds like it has to do with cartograms, which I kind of hate. And why try to give myself branding, anyway? I’m already part of a company that has a name. Using my own name for a domain name seemed dull a few years ago, but now dot-comming myself just seems to make sense.

No bookmarks or anything are dying here. The new domain simply points to the same place as, so everything continues to work as usual. Just wanted to note that I’m dropping the Cartogrammar name from the site and that from now on I prefer to link to instead. (While I was at these changes, by the way, I made some updates to my portfolio page.)

See you in hell, Cartogrammar!


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.

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Mapping Flickr colors again. Better late than never.

About two years ago I picked up small side project that involved messing with geotagged Flickr photos to generate maps of the photographed colors of a landscape, and I liked the idea so much that I vowed to keep it up. So I did. With a short two year break in the middle.

Boston summer photo colors map

I came back to it for the above map, which was done as a feature in the Ideas section of this past Sunday’s Boston Globe. I’d post a link, but after a day or so external links are redirected to some stupid archived text-only version. It’s the second newspaper map to come from the Bostonography blog that Tim Wallace and I write. (See Tim’s Radio Rivalry map.) That’s enough plugging, and I’ll leave the map interpretation talk for my post on Bostonography. Instead let’s get nerdy here.

To recap, the idea in a nutshell is to map the dominant colors of Flickr photos located in places across the map. I had hoped to come up with better ways of doing this than last time, but although I got a bit smarter about the data collection, the overall methods didn’t change much. I’m very interested in any ideas for this sort of map (you know, for when I do it again in 2013), so allow me to explain what I did and where some questions lie, in two stages.

Finding dominant colors

This is tricky, and I have yet to track down easy solutions. There are two obvious tracks at first:

  • Calculate the average color by going over every pixel to come up with average red, green, and blue values, then combining the average of those channels to get the result. I tried this in 2009 when I was young and naïve, and quickly learned that the average color of an ordinary photograph almost always turns out to be something slightly brown, dull, and unsaturated. Unless the photo is almost entirely one color, the average color is not representative of the photo.
  • Find the most common color of a photograph, which is even easier. This is usually a little better but still isn’t great. The most common color is often not the one that sticks out; rather it’s probably something dark and shadowy. Below is a comparison of this and the previous method, in an example from the old blog post.

Methods of calculating dominant color

In the original maps, as you can see above, I ended up deciding to discard all saturation and brightness information and only look at color hue. It was the best way I found to get something that was sort of representative but wasn’t consistently dull and dark. The drawbacks are that colors are exaggerated and it misses out entirely on something like a white, snowy scene. In the old maps I calculated the average color and then mapped its hue at full saturation and brightness. In the new map I looked only at hue to begin with and went with the mode, calculating the most common hue for a given photo or location. I took it a step further by ignoring any especially light or dark and unsaturated pixels.

There have got to be better ways to do this! Any wisdom, internet?

Displaying colors on a map

Last time I simply plotted each photo on the map as a colored point, then “blurred the crap out of it” to get something surface-like. It was quick and dirty, not accounting for overlapping points that obscure one another and excessively interpolating areas on the map. This time I kept it a little more accurate by doing everything based on a grid. For each grid cell I found the most common hue of pixels in photos contained in the cell. Each dot represents one of those cells. I show circles rather than solid squares because, well, it ended up looking a lot nicer. So there’s no interpolation this time, only generalizations due to aggregation. And I think I prefer the results aesthetically.

I’d love to find a clever way to do two things here:

  • Show proportions of many colors, not just the one most common color. The supposed dominant color is interesting, but it isn’t the whole story of the colors of the photo-landscape. Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg did this brilliantly with Flickr Flow, but that can’t show any spatial variation. Is there a way to apply that concept to a map?
  • Show temporal variation, something also covered by Viégas and Wattenberg. Assuming that many photos are taken outdoors, predominant colors are going to change over the course of a year in a place like Boston which has four distinct seasons. There are some obvious answers to this challenge, but it would be great to come up with something novel and interesting.

The conceptually easy answer to both of those is interactivity, although it would mean a lot of data and/or on-the-fly number crunching. But I don’t know… sometimes interactivity feels like the easy way out. Hit me with some ingenious ideas!

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