Monday, September 1, 2008

Ed Parsons calls for a 'New Cartography'

SatNavs Lack Detail?: Its still the silly season for news in the UK and people from the British Cartographic Society (BCS) have had their 15 minutes of fame on the BBC by criticizing the lack of good old British landmarks on SatNavs. Ed Parson's rightly defends the neo-geographer's point of view by outlining the silliness of this comment and I agree with him, of course you shouldn't have churches and museums on a SatNav, it cramps up the view and you want it to be relatively sparse of detail so you can turn on layers like churches and museums at will.

New Cartography:

Ed goes on to say:
"That’s not to say the principals of design are not important in the creation of “maps” for screen display, indeed one could argue for the need of a "new" cartography which adopts rather than ignores the capabilities of screen based maps to portray information dynamically."
If you're new to this blog: Over the last year I have been arguing on this blog for such a "New Cartography". I have discussed the principles of geo-web design (27 posts) by examining best practicises from cartography, GIS and web usability design. With Steve Chilton, Chair of the Society of Cartographers I've mulled over the relationship between cartographers, neo-geographers and the GIS community. And more.

Analogy with Animated Film: Ed goes onto to discuss an analogy between the geo-web and the development of computer generated animation:
"In the early 1990’s Disney Animation Studios was having great success with movies such as the Lion King, Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast. Indeed they opened up an animation studio ... ... so that visitors could see animators working ... was shut down in 2004, when Disney stopped it’s traditional animation efforts, as it began concentrating on its own computer generated efforts..."
Its a good analogy to the development of the geo-web but a particular Disney film deserves further consideration:

Sequence from Tron

Tron became a cult film because of its innovative use of computer animation and video game look. However, it actually doesn't use that much computer animation, traditional techniques were widely used and matching the new and old technologies together in one film meant it was actually more time consuming to produce than a traditional hand drawn animation.

Bad Use of Technology: My point is that the development of a new technology isn't a simple switch from old to new, as Tron shows there is often an intermediate phase where the new technology actually makes things worse before we learn how to really use the tools properly and reap the benefits. I'd characterize these periods as 'old', 'wrong' and 'right' and at the current time I think the geo-web is firmly in the 'wrong' part of the cycle because of a lack of understanding about design. Exactly the same situation occurred in the development of the web.

Wake up Cartographers: IMHO the BCS needs to think clearly about what it is saying, comments about the loss of churches on SatNavs is as silly as bemoaning the disappearance of chimney sweeps in an age of central heating. As Steve Chilton admitted in his interview with me about cartography and GIS:
"Cartographers in general did not interact with the GIS producers to influence these matters as software and techniques were developed, a certain conservatism and resistance to change was evident."
if cartographers behave the same way about the geo-web and fail to shows understanding of its latest developments neo-geographers won't bother to listen to what they have to say about it and boy, do neo-geographers have an awful lot to learn about map design.

3rd Sep: since I wrote this post I've been in email contact with Mary Spence about the article. I'll add her email as comments so interested parties can see the exchange. She feels that her views were not well represented by the BBC. Rereading the 'wake up cartographers' section of this post I think I put my point too strongly, I didn't mean to insinuate that cartographers aren't up on the latest technologies, I should have limited myself to criticizing the message that appeared on the BBC.


Steve Chilton said...


I am at the Society of Cartographers conference ( right now. I have been on the programme team for this conference and have been trying to ensure that both presentations about, and discussions about, "new cartography" are included. Already we have heard about terrain modelling, 2D v3D maps, 3D visualization, and from Ed Parsons on "building the global map". Tommorow there is an panel discussion on cartographic design, map layout, production and data exchange with GIS. Presentations to come include interactive thematic mapping, internet journey planning, OpenCycleMap and ArcGIS9's new cartographic features. For myself I am giving a lightning talk reviewing online map provision of/for Aberdeenshire. So SoC members and conference delegates are certainly being exposed to "new cartography" and hopefully will take ideas discussed this week back into their workplaces and networks as appropriate. Hopefully as many as possible of the talks, workshops, etc will be avialable in due course from the URL noted above (and subsequently published in the SoC Bulletin for those of the old school). And all this is made possible by generous sponsorship from new wave carto startup Cloudmade ( - "who make maps differently".

Rich Treves said...

Mary Spence's email comment to this post:

Thanks for this. I now feel that I am a fully paid up member of the club of being almost willfully misunderstood. It's terrifying how readily people latch onto one bit, decontextualize it, and raise a row! This was a debate. Two sides to be discussed (in fact three, poor Denis Wood has been ousted from the discussion completely). I dared to suggest that internet mapping was in need of improvement - I did not challenge its very existence as most of the blogs seem to suggest.

The default argument of paper maps versus electronic mapping has surfaced again but that was not where I was going at all. My talk was about basic internet maps versus traditional maps, not paper versus electronic. About relative qualities and disadvantages. I stressed that Google type mapping and personal navigation was only one aspect of mapping and gave examples of many other types. In fact my final slides at the conference said the the future of mapping would be electronic and mobile and that traditional mapping would increasingly be disseminated electronically. I talked about how MultiMap offers OS 50K and CollinsBartholomew street mapping in support of the TeleAtlas data. However, I said these needed to be designed specifically for web delivery and not just be rasterised paper maps. Some providers enhance the basic geographic data which is an improvement. OpenStreetMap proves that there is a will to improve things. I refuse to be drawn into the debate over whether OS are to blame - they have nothing to do with the Aral Sea being 40 hears out of date, surely.

My underlying message which has got lost completely is that ALL geographic data is just that. Data. It can be out of date, it can be inaccurate, it can be inconsistent (I showed examples). Just because there's masses of it doesn't make it correct. The argument that electronic maps can be updated immediately is absolutely true. In my day job I use datasets and enhance them, interpret them and turn them into useful and meaningful maps for both web and paper delivery. But the application of this ability seems to be somewhat haphazard in the basic mapping I have seen on the web.

I can assure you that cartographers today fully appreciate and understand the latest developments. It is with this in mind that I believe the time has come for someone to say 'hold on a minute, what is this stuff we are being force fed?' Google Earth? Wonderful. Google Street View? Great. But I fear that the usefulness of the basic map is being forgotten behind all the technical wizardry. I deal with data providers every day. I know their attitudes to accuracy, revision and consistency. Why has Google not complained to TeleAtlas that the Aral Sea is out of date? I can only presume that they're not bothered by out of date data or incomplete data. Which is what I am complaining about. The underlying mapping should be correct - the user deserves it and will certainly be expecting it.

I criticised the quality of some internet mapping. I criticised the ethos that no one cares about accuracy. I bemoaned the fact that internet maps look so bad. The response has been to say that cartographers are boring, out of touch and don't know what we're talking about. I find that very disappointing.

Part of my reply to that email:

OK, we are discussing two different things here. My blog post referred to the news story on the bbc:
you seem to be referring to your talk to the BCS? if this is on the web there was no direct link to it from here so all I have is the text and video on the BBC page.

In that interview you criticized the lack of the type of data available on a paper OS map in Sat Navs: "Hiding landmarks from view" was your phrase. In the text it also says:

"Ms Spence said landmarks such as churches, ancient woodlands and stately homes were in danger of being forgotten because many internet maps fail to include them.

She said: "Corporate cartographers are demolishing thousands of years of history - not to mention Britain's remarkable geography - at a stroke by not including them on maps which millions of us now use every day"

I take this to be an argument about what base data should be on a sat nav, that it should be more like a paper OS map and have lots of layers of data showing. Is this what you meant?

If this hasn't been misconstrued then it is this that I am criticizing. When in use for driving, a sat nav screen needs to have roads, road names and road structure on it. Anything else just clutters up the view which a] causes the unit to work less effectively as it has to render more elements b] causes more cognitive load for the user as she has to interpret the data she wants from the screen view: what road to drive along next. Many devices offer other layers, if you're interested in seeing museums or places of interest as you drive you can turn those layers on, or will able to soon as the devices develop. So the Landmarks have not been lost, they are still there you just have to choose them. And including landmarks in the default view would not be the most elegant design.

Of course there are counter points to this argument, render time is not that big and the OS paper maps are a classic example of wonderful design - maybe if offered as a default people would choose to use them rather than bare road views? (if there were no licensing issue of course).

My frustration mostly comes from your choice of topic, in a small segment of interview this landmark issue, which can be fairly easily criticized was the one you choose (or had chosen for you by the BBC) to discuss. IMHO there are some much better cartographic criticisms you could make of online mapping e.g.:

- red dot disease: web developers using large red splodges as icons. When there are lots of red splodges it overwhelms the view and looks like map measles.
- mystery content: Google Earth allows programmers to hide data unless the viewer zooms in to a certain height. A way of avoiding overly cluttered maps but viewers have no way of knowing that the content is there in the first place.
- use of red and green lines to delimit different areas, the different colors are invisible to color blind users.

I know enough cartographers to know that you are fully aware of the new technologies but your choice of topic seemed to not understand the layer control that users now have.

Part of Mary's 2nd email

You are absolutely right - these topics were chosen for me. They do not convey my message at all. And my remarks are heavily journalised inferences from what I said.

In a nutshell I was picking up the defects in Google because I was debating against Google. I even said to Ed on the day that I had deliberately omitted examples of good web mapping because it would support his argument instead of mine.

I totally agree with what you are saying about red dots etc. I understand how to find the layers and there is no way you can switch them all on. You would get measles - a phrase I use often in describing this type of rendition. However, I still feel that some note of the existence of some features and points of interest should be made clear on the basic map. This is precisely what I was saying - the design of internet maps (such as Google and Multimap) is poor. The content selection is poor. Having all of something can be poor - part of what makes a useful map is selection. What is missing from Google is cartographic representation - or not using opponent colours (red and green), using more finesse in the symbology, showing some points of interest. Take a look at this example to see how a basic internet map should be: