Tuesday, October 14, 2014

NACIS (carto) Conference thoughts

So I'm just back from NACIS (North American Cartographic Information Society) in Pittsburg, USA.  I was a newbie NACISer, I'd travelled over there as I'd heard that it was a good combination of educators, academics, techies, open source enthusiasts and working cartographers.

My everyday tools are adobe firefox and Google Earth (you probably gathered that from the blog title) as I'm primarily concerned with educating 'sub-GIS' audiences like school students*, so it was interesting to find out what everyone else was using and finding which new tools were getting attention.  Of the new tools:
- Mapbox Studio
- cartoDB
were what I noticed everyone discussing, both are cloud services based on cartoCSS - a development of CSS, the code that controls look of web pages.  The difference between then (I was told) was that Mapbox Studio is better suited to finely tuning the look of a base map whereas cartoDB is better at styling data layers.  I did a Mapbox workshop whilst at the conference, it isn't that intuitive but then I don't think either of the tools are good 'first map' starters, they are more tools for those with mapping expertise.

Other tools that are well used are ArcGIS, adobe photoshop and adobe illustrator.  People's workflows generally consisted of processing in Arc then transferring to photoshop/illustrator to fine tune the look.  Very little mention of any of the Google suite of tools.  

There was a really good panel on education, convened by Matt Wilson.   The format was designed to keep people talking too much, I'd term it 'meatspace twitter'.  It largely worked producing some memorable nuggets:
  • Map selfie students produce a map based on their lives as an educational exercise
  • Map global warming or perish : on the future of mapping
  • Maps and mapping is always tied up with the wielding of power
  • Beer fart maps the fashion for 'link bait maps' that get attention but have little value
  • Candy machine gun teaching teaching what students want, in a way they want rather than teaching with academic value
These are what I scribbled down in my notes, more detailed notes 

The discussion also ranged onto the 'future of maps', with discussion moving to privacy concerns about the data being gathered from mobile devices for maps and critical comments about the use of big data.  This paralelled discussions going on in educational technology that I've been following mostly to do with Learning Analytics, interesting that its affecting the two parts of my career in similar ways.

My paper (notes to come) was on the use of map tours (Google Earth tours but for any platform) as an assignment in my undergraduate course fitting in with a session on the use of narrative cartography.   The highlight of the session  for me was Robert Pietrusko's paper on a similar assignment:  

He has design students already skilled at layout and the use of design tools so they produce some fantastic looking tours compared to my students.  I'll be using his student's work to show just what is possible with map tours.

These three are the big companies with serious interests and investments in maps and mapping so it was interesting to see what presence they had.  ESRI had at least 4 delegates at the conference and I heard praise for them from others for integrating with the NACIS community and reacting well to criticism of their products both now and in the past.  Google, lead players in maps as they are, had no presence at the conference, given the effort they've put into producing tools I think it would be sensible for them to be there to promote their stuff and get informed feedback.  I think Apple were there but I didn't come across them, they certainly weren't as visible as ESRI.

Notable People
I was pleased I got to network with Alan McConchie from Stamen, I've been using their maps to illustrate points of good design to my students so it was very useful to hear where he thought things were going in cartography. I also hung out with Anthony Robinson from Penn State who teaches a terrific MOOC on GIS, he has a lot of expertise in education, maps and distance learning so I picked up a lot from him.

Thanks to all the organizers, there's a lot of work done behind the scenes and it made for a great conference.   I never did get to chat to him but Lou Cross clearly has been a great influence on the conference, he has a great sense of humour and is keen to make everyone feel included so last word should go to him:

*as in, not so advanced that they need to use desktop GIS such as Arc desktop.

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