About Quick-Service Mapping and Lines in the Sand

April 4th, 2015 by Claus Rinner

A walk on the beach along the still-frozen Georgian Bay has helped me sort some thoughts regarding fast food cartography, quick-service mapping, and naturally occurring vs. artificial lines in the sand … but first things first: This post refers to a debate about Twitter mapping and neo-cartography that is raging on blogs across the planet and will flare up in the Geoweb chat on Twitter this Tuesday, https://twitter.com/hashtag/geowebchat. Update: #geowebchat transcript prepared by Alan McConchie available at http://mappingmashups.net/2015/04/07/geowebchat-transcript-7-april-2015-burger-cartography/.

Lines in the sand (Photos: Claus Rinner)

Lines in the sand (Photos: Claus Rinner)

A few days ago, The Atlantic’s CityLab published an article entitled “Why Most Twitter Maps Can’t Be Trusted”, http://www.citylab.com/housing/2015/03/why-most-twitter-maps-cant-be-trusted/388586/. There have been other cautions that Twitter maps often just show where people live or work – and thus where they tweet. Along similar lines, a comic at xkcd illustrates how heatmaps of anything often just show population concentrations – “The business implications are clear!”, https://xkcd.com/1138/.

The CityLab article incited Andrew Hill, senior scientist at CartoDB and mapping instructor at New York University, to respond with a polemic “In defense of burger cartography”, http://andrewxhill.com/blog/2015/03/28/in-defense-of-burger-cartography/. In it, Hill replies to critics of novel map types by stating “The dogma of cartography is certain to be overturned by new discoveries, preferences, and norms from now until forever.” He likens the good people at CartoDB (an online map service) with some action movie characters who will move cartography beyond its “local optima [sic]”. Hill offers his personal label for the supposedly-new “exploratory playfulness with maps”: burger cartography.

Examples of CartoDB-based tweet maps in the media (Source: Taylor Shelton)

Examples of CartoDB-based tweet maps in the media (Source: Taylor Shelton)

The core portion of Hill’s post argues that CartoDB’s Twitter maps make big numbers such as 32 million tweets understandable, as in the example of an animated map of tweets during the 2014 soccer world cup final. I find nothing wrong with this point, as it does not contradict the cautions against wrong conclusions from Twitter maps. However, the rest of Hill’s post is written in such a derogatory tone that it has drawn a number of well-thought responses from other cartographers:

  • Kenneth Field, Senior Cartographic Product Engineer at Esri and an avid blogger and tweeter of all things cartography, provides a sharp, point-by-point rebuttal of Hill’s post – lamenting the “Needless lines in the sand”, http://cartonerd.blogspot.co.uk/2015/03/needless-lines-in-sand.html. The only point I disagree with is the title, since I think we actually do need some lines in the sand (see below).
  • James Cheshire, Lecturer and geospatial visualization expert at University College London, Department of Geography, supports “Burger Cartography”, http://spatial.ly/2015/03/burger-cartography/, but shows that “Hill’s characterisation of cartography … is just wrong”.
  • Taylor Shelton, “pseudopositivist geographer”, PhD candidate at Clark University, and co-author of the study that triggered this debate, writes “In defense of map critique”, https://medium.com/@kyjts/in-defense-of-map-critique-ddef3d5e87d5. Shelton reveals Hill’s oversimplification by pointing to the need to consider context when interpreting maps, and to the “plenty of other ways that we can make maps of geotagged tweets without just ‘letting the data speak for themselves’.”

Extending the fast food metaphor, CartoDB can be described as a quick-service mapping platform – an amazing one at that, which is very popular with our students (more on that in a future post). I am pretty sure that CartoDB’s designers and developers generally respect cartographic design guidelines, and in fact have benefited commercially from implementing them. However, most of us do not live from fast food (= CartoDB, MapBox, Google Maps) alone. We either cook at home (e.g., R with ggplot2, QGIS; see my previous post on recent Twitter mapping projects by students) or treat ourselves to higher-end cuisine (e.g., ArcMap, MapInfo, MAPublisher), if we can afford it.

I fully expect that new mapping pathways, such as online public access to data and maps, crowdmapping, and cloud-based software-as-a-service, entail novel map uses, to which some existing cartographic principles will not apply. But dear Andrew Hill, this is a natural evolution of cartography, not a “goodbye old world”! Where the established guidelines are not applicable, we will need new ones – surely CartoDB developers and CartoDB users will be at the forefront of making these welcome contributions to cartography.

MacEachren's Some Truth with Maps (Source: Amazon.com)

MacEachren’s Some Truth with Maps (Source: Amazon.com)

While I did not find many naturally occurring lines in the Georgian Bay sand this afternoon, I certainly think society needs to draw lines, including those that distinguish professional expertise from do-it-yourselfism. I trust trained map-makers (such as our Geographic Analysis and Spatial Analysis graduates!) to make maps that work and are as truthful as possible. We have a professional interest in critically assessing developments in GIS and mapping technologies and taking them up where suitable. The lines in the sand will be shifting, but to me they will continue to exist: separating professional and DIY cartographers, mapping for presentation of analysis results vs. exploratory playing with maps, quantitative maps vis-a-vis the map as a story … Of course, lines in the sand are pretty easy to cross, too!

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