I enjoy burgers and have a passion for maps and mapping, which is probably why Andrew Hill’s recent blog post “In Defense of Burger Cartography” offered a sufficiently large piece of bait for me to bite on and respond to (I join Kenneth Field and Taylor Shelton [and others, I am sure] in his cartographers’ keepnet) . In summary, the post says its time to “fall in love with maps all over again” thanks to a “new world of cartography” that has been liberated from old world critiques.
I agree with many of Andrew’s points – it’s good to make it easy for people to make maps, traditional cartography can seem a bit crusty in this “new age” of so-called “Big Data” and web mapping, the more people who enjoy maps the better etc. etc. – but I have a few thoughts of my own to add.
Firstly, I’m all for “exploratory playfulness” but I am more for thinking critically. Twitter maps are a key example in Andrew’s post – why get hung up on things like accounting for the underlying population distribution – or even caring about the countries where Twitter is banned or few people use the platform? The simple answer was provided brilliantly by XKCD a few years ago:
The lengthier answer is that it underestimates the consumers of the maps. People aren’t stupid and can easily see flaws when they repeatedly see heat maps that essentially flash on top of populated places in the (largely Western) World. Sure, such maps are great link bait and generate tens of thousands of hits. But so did this dancing sea otter:
Unlike this otter, however, I suspect that such maps will start to get old very quickly. I too was tickled by the Burger Map, but I doubt I will remember it for much longer. If a measure of success for the new world of cartography is the number of web hits, I worry it will be an unsustainable race to the bottom. I think people trust maps more than any other data visualisation (see here) and it would be disappointing to lose that. It is this trust that Andrew’s employer, CartoDB, taps into every time they sell their services: mapping is a premium product in the data visualisation world.
A second point I would like to make is that Andrew Hill’s characterisation of cartography (and the associated fields he was too drunk to remember) is just wrong. I am part of that world, one that may be the tortoise to CartoDB’s hare, but that demonstrates progress in a way that is sensitive to, but not wedded to, the great work of the past. Andrew wants the “next Indiana Joneses and Katniss Everdeens” to explore beyond the bounds of comfort for traditional cartography. I want to see the next Charles Booths, John Snows or Charles Minards, partly because they are real people but mostly because they are the people who inspire me and my students.
Take the recent book I co-authored with designer Oliver Uberti as an example. We wanted to do something that showcases the cartography made possible in the past few years thanks to powerful computers, software and open data, we even have a few Twitter maps in there.
The book is not interactive and it did require complicated software to produce – so it is still a bit of a dinosaur in contrast to “Burger Cartography” – but the maps have still been seen, and hopefully enjoyed, by millions online. We wanted to create something new and exciting – both visually and in terms of the data we are representing – but we didn’t stray too far from best practices that have carefully been constructed over millennia. We hope we have achieved this and in turn created something people will enjoy for years to come.
It is clear that “Cartography” will only survive if it innovates to better capture the billions of new data points generated each day, but it doesn’t need to take the short term view and compromise its standards to remain relevant.