Maps vs Cartography


This week a minor spat broke out on the twittersphere, so what’s new you ask?

The chart in question is Ken Field’s somewhat ironic decision tree on whether one should make a map

I need to emphasise that this is a joke that makes a serious point (IMHO) and the promotion of Ken’s excellent book Cartography. is the punchline.

This prompted Amber Bosse, who describes herself as a critical cartographer, to reference Ken and other “critical cartographers” in her talk at the Atlas in a Day event. It seems to me that her key messages are summed up in these quotes

“Cartography has a PR problem”

“Caring about the look of the map and not giving much attention to what the map does in the world”

“A certain section of twitter uses #cartofail to publicly call out those who have made supposedly bad maps”

She calls out the president of the International Cartographic Association for saying

“the number of maps created today can be rather overwhelming, but their communicative quality is not always convincing … just because one can more easily map today, this does not mean one should”

Sound advice that I cannot but agree with.

Amber then sets out her own position which is very centred around the way making a map can be empowering for minority groups and the oppressed. She suggest that it is important to consider “How people who the map represents feel about the map” rather than whether the map complies with established cartographic design standards.

I don’t think cartographers who are critical of others’ efforts are necessarily trying to enforce anything, I think they are questioning whether the map communicates effectively to its intended audience.

Amber goes on to set out her own criteria for judging a map.

“Does this map represent my story in a way that resonates with me? Does this capture our truth in ways that we own?”

“Love does not just represent the experience of colonisation and white supremacy in ways that the patriarchy considers beautiful”

This is a highly producer centric view of mapmaking, what matters is how the mapmaker feels about their map and whether they feel empowered. She concludes by saying

“We don’t need a handful of people mapping perfectly, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly”

I find it interesting that Amber switches from talking about cartography to talking about mapping, because I think there is a difference.

Millions of people can make a map (the tools are widely available and in many cases free) and with a basic level of competence they can use their maps to explore data and possibly to get some insight into that data. Of course you can make mistakes, confirm your own biases and get things wrong but that may not matter if you are making the map for yourself. It’s quite similar to downloading a table of data and making a chart or an infographic, if you don’t understand statistics you could make some quite glaring errors. Over time, with a little study, you will start to make better maps. If you share your map with colleagues they may well point out flaws in your map or suggest ways to improve it.

If Amber’s criteria for a “good map” are meant for people making a map for their own consumption then I guess that is ok, where I would disagree is when those maps get published to a wider audience. When you publish a map I think you do need to be aware that the viewers may not have the same level of knowledge about the content or domain that you have. We know that the way people perceive colours and shapes, let alone understand and interpret the statistical calculations behind a map, will impact the information and understanding that they take from the map.

Those cartographic design principles that Amber rails against represent the accumulated wisdom and research of many map makers, not all of whom are patriarchal oppressors. Of course you can choose to ignore them but others are entitled to question whether those choices are effective.

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