New layers for old 6

Reinventing the wheel. Thanks to conskeptical

Maybe it’s an age thing or a touch of deja vue but a blog post from my friend Andrew Turner (hope he is still a friend after this post) at Fortius One prompted a wry smile. The post announced the launch of “Acetate for better thematic mapping”

Acetate allows you (someone who is creating a thematic map on GeoCommons) to separate place names, road labels and roads into layers rather than one raster basemap. You can then set the order of the layers including your thematic layer for better clarity and communication. This example shows how it works (it doesn’t squeeze into these small columns very well but you should get the idea by opening and closing the Layer Control or look at a full size version here)

Hmmm, a “Layer Control” remember those things ESRI and MapInfo users from the last century? I think my old company GDC even had one of those in a browser based application with thematic maps and all of that paleo guff in 2001. It seems that some of that old stuff might be coming back into fashion (which can’t be bad for GeoDaddy’s and Field Marshalls like me).

That said, Acetate addresses a real problem with today’s flood of data and the ease of creating interactive maps, as Andrew says

Cartography has a long history in guiding proper design of maps so that data is interwoven with place – something that we’ve lost with our digital maps and numerous layers on top of generic and ubiquitous basemaps. Acetate is meant to address this by providing you with the tools to combine your data with muted but useful basemap information.

It is great to see cartography being discussed by a cutting edge mapping business like Fortius and even better that they are making some of their Acetate code available as Open Source. Deserves a big respect 🙂

And if this gets you thinking about cartography and visualising data then you might be interested in an event that I am running on behalf of the AGI in early April called Every Map Tells A Story (with apologies to Rod Stewart for those of you who get the reference). More details will be available soon but places are quite limited so watch here or on the AGI site for more details soon.

6 thoughts on “New layers for old

  • Sean Gorman

    Great thread and feedback on Acetate. I think Acetate and GeoCommons in general is less about creating something entirely new and more about making cartography and GIS more accessible to the layperson. There will be ideas that are completely new, but the real thrust for us is bringing geographic science and visualization to a much bigger audience.

    • steven


      I think that Acetate and the other tools that Fortius have made available are making “geo” whatever that is accessible to a much wider audience. That can only be a good/great thing even if some uses turn out to be less than perfect. We might discover some wild and wonderful new ways to visualise and understand data by welcoming in people who didn’t get a degree in GIS or Cartography.

  • Andrew Turner

    Thanks for the post Steven –

    it’s interesting that in your post you point out that we’re using controls from the “last century” but Ken then asks why we’re not working more closely with “those that know about cartography”. 🙂

    To clarify – GeoCommons’ cartography and brewer workflow were designed in collaboration with Mark Harrower from University of Wisconsin and the team at AxisMaps – first rate cartographers.

    Acetate styling was designed with Justin O’Beirne, and the Stamen Design team – all of which are renowned for their cartographic experience and capabilities.

    That said – your feedback is very welcome. We’re working hard to combine good decisions of cartography with modern interactivity, dynamic data and ease of use. In general through visualization API’s developers are able to create all kinds of maps – we only provide a limited subset of options in an attempt to provide good options.

    But anyone can use our API to create their own version, and all of the data is open and freely available – so Ken perhaps you can make a variant clone of this map and address the issues you pointed out!

  • Ken Field

    anyone prepared to acknowledge the importance of design in communicating mapped data effectively is on the right tracks and it’s pleasing to see a little bit of thought go into the design of mashups…much needed! it still needs to be done effectively though and the example you illustrate here still suffers from poor design….some pointers:

    -the choropleth scheme used for unemployment should use a single hue
    -the way the roads cut through the area based thematic data gives the impression of further subdivisions
    -the transparency used gives rise to alternate shades of the same colour suggesting more classes than present
    -class two in the choropleth is virtually the same colour as the background
    -the boundaries for the unemployment layer seem clipped to an arbitrary shape
    the proportional symbols should be re-scaled at different zoom levels to suit the scale. clearly they don’t work well at certain scales

    what baffles me is why are the neo-crowd (for want of a better term) either stubbornly refusing to work with those who know about cartography or seemingly trying to reinvent the cartographic wheel through trial and error. there’s some basic material in any number of decent books that, if implemented, would consign to the bin the basic errors made in so many mashups

Comments are closed.