When Users Don’t Interact with Interactive Maps

Brian Timoney responds to the argument that few users actually interact with interactive infographics with some thoughts on how that might apply to online maps, with their sometimes-complicated, GIS-derived user interfaces. His suggestions? Static maps, small multiples, animated GIFs, text-based search—simpler, more user-friendly, more familiar UIs and ways to present mapped data.

The 74 on Boston Schools and the Peters Map

Education news website The 74 has its own coverage of the Boston schools/Peters map controversy (is it safe to call it a controversy?), with extensive quotes from Matthew Edney, who does not mince words. (Comparing both projections to Comic Sans? Ouch.) [Caitlin Dempsey]

Previously: More on Boston Schools and the Peters MapThe Peters Map Is Fighting the Last WarThe Peters Projection Comes to Boston’s Public SchoolsIn Defence of the Mercator ProjectionHow the Mercator Projection Won the Internet.

William Rankin Profiled

Over at the Toynbee Prize Foundation’s Global History Forum, Timothy Nunan has a long article about Yale history of science professor William Rankin, author of last year’s After the Map: Cartography, Navigation, and the Transformation of Territory in the Twentieth Century (book website, publisher, Amazon, iBooks) and the themes—the shifting relationship between map and territory, for example—addressed by that book. [WMS]

Previously: After the MapWilliam Rankin, Author of ‘After the Map,’ Interviewed.

Deadline Extended for Corlis Benefideo Award Nominations

The nomination deadline for the Corlis Benefideo Award has been extended to April 15. The Award, given by the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS), “recognizes imaginative cartography,” which is defined in part as “the potential … to transform our ways of seeing and understanding our world, and to trigger imaginative reaction from its audience.” It’s named for a character in “The Mappist,” a short story by Barry Lopez, and if you’ve read the story you’ll understand how appropriate the name is. (The story can be found in two of Lopez’s collections: Light Action in the Caribbean and Vintage Lopez.)

Nominations for this award are accepted from anyone, not just NACIS members.

Flex Projector

With all this recent talk about map projections, it might be worth pointing out the existence of Flex Projector, a cross-platform Java application for creating map projections, now at version 1.0.6. Yes, creating: if you want to invent your own map projection and slap your own name on it, you can do that with this app; others certainly have. (You will need to have Java installed on your computer.) Heck, Tom Patterson’s Natural Earth projection was built with it. [GIS Lounge]

Previously: Shaded Relief World Map and Flex Projector.

More on Boston Schools and the Peters Map

Atlas Obscura’s Cara Giaimo has an in-depth look at the reaction to the decision by Boston public schools to adopt the Peters projection in teaching materials. It’s well worth taking the time to read; the general gist from several cartographers and commentators is that swapping the Mercator for the Peters isn’t that much of an improvement. Though it includes comments from yours truly (I was in touch for this article), Giaimo talks to people who actually do know what they’re talking about, including Mark Monmonier (who, again, literally wrote the book on the Mercator projection) and Matthew Edney (who spoke to WZON 3 about this topic earlier).

Joshua Stevens, NASA’s data visualization and cartography lead:

Also on Twitter, and to emphasize how long this has been going on, Jeremy Crampton notes his 1994 paper, “Cartography’s Defining Moment: The Peters Projection Controversy, 1974–1990.” A sequel may be required.

Previously: The Peters Map Is Fighting the Last WarThe Peters Projection Comes to Boston’s Public SchoolsIn Defence of the Mercator ProjectionHow the Mercator Projection Won the Internet.

The Peters Map Is Fighting the Last War

News of Boston public schools’ decision to go with the Peters projection has gone viral over the past week, and my teeth have not stopped itching. Largely because this is very much old news: Arno Peters began promoting “his” projection 44 years ago, and the Peters map has been making the rounds in certain circles ever since then. This is not new, and the media is showing its feckless streak in its lack of awareness of that fact. After all, the West Wing episode with the Peters map in it was broadcast 16 years ago.

The Gall-Peters projection is just one of several rectilinear equal-area projections; that Peters promoted it as a tool of social justice and anti-colonialism made it awfully appealing to people who are concerned with such issues. (They are not wrong to be concerned with such issues.) But cartographers have generally always been appalled by the projection, by Peters’s rhetoric and by his general ignorance of what had gone before. (Peters’s map had already been described by James Gall in 1885; the Mercator projection’s insufficiencies as a wall map had long been known; and there were many other projections, from the Van der Grinten to the Mollweide to the Goode homolosine, that were already being used in the Mercator’s stead.)

(The Mercator projection, for its part, makes a crap wall map: its virtue is that rhumb lines—compass headings—are straight lines, making the Mercator ideal for navigation. It’s worth emphasizing that Mercator himself died in 1594. Again, see Monmonier’s book on the subject.)

Cartographers’ response to the Peters projection is essentially, usually (and correctly) that every map projection is a compromise, because every map projection is an attempt to represent a round planet on a flat surface. All maps, in other words, lie; or at least no map is exempt from lying; or at least the Mercator is no more a liar than any other projection. It’s essentially an effort in debunking—the tedious repetition of “well, actually” to a credulous audience that doesn’t care enough to listen all the way through. (And besides: the company selling the Peters map thoroughly agrees with them!)

For the latest examples of this, see Caitlin Dempsey’s piece on teaching context, and Andy Woodruff’s response to the latest round of this. They’re good pieces, worth reading—but I can’t help wonder whether something different needs to be tried. But then again: what problem are we trying to solve? Media and public credulity? The fact that the Peters projection, bluntly, sucks? The campaign—and it is a campaign—behind it?

But the campaign for the Peters map is increasingly irrelevant. In late 2015 I argued that the debate over the right projection for wall maps was the cartographic equivalent of fighting the last war. The Peters map was a 20th-century response to a 19th-century problem (the Mercator on wall maps) that had already largely been solved earlier in the century. Sure, there are still wall maps out there that use the projection (I’m looking in your direction, IKEA), but by and large it’s not used nearly as much as the Peters defenders would have you think.

But 21st-century mapmaking is not about wall maps: it’s about web maps. As I said in 2015:

Every online map service uses a variant of the Mercator projection called Web Mercator. Whatever its shortcomings—and there are many, owing to the fact that its calculations use a spherical Mercator model to save computational cycles—Web Mercator has become the de facto standard. And the size distortions at small scales that have made the Mercator projection the target of so much ire over the decades are simply moot for most use cases.

In many ways the past debates over the Mercator are moot: arguing over the right projection for wall-sized world maps—Mercator vs. Peters vs. Robinson—is fighting the last war. Mercator has become the default option for online mapmaking, simply because so many data visualization maps rely on Google Maps or OpenStreetMap for their base map layer. Other projections will be reserved for the professionals, people with access to more sophisticated mapmaking tools and the skill to use them, but for the most part, when data is mapped on the Internet, it’ll be mapped according to Mercator.

Zoom out in Google Maps or OpenStreetMap, and what do you see? The Mercator projection, with Greenland in all its inappropriately giant glory. (Apple Maps turns into a globe when you zoom out far enough, but Apple Maps are app-only.) The reason why this isn’t generally seen as a problem is that hardly anyone uses Google Maps as a world map: like topographic maps that use UTM, at close range Mercator works just fine.

While there are efforts under way to use other projections in web maps, it’s unlikely that the Mercator-vs.-Peters battle—a false dichotomy if there ever was one—will migrate to the digital arena.

Previously: The Peters Projection Comes to Boston’s Public SchoolsIn Defence of the Mercator ProjectionHow the Mercator Projection Won the Internet.

Book Roundup for March 2017

Out this month: the English translation of Andrea Carandini’s massive two-volume, 1300-page Atlas of Ancient Rome (Princeton University Press), which “provides a comprehensive archaeological survey of the city of Rome from prehistory to the early medieval period.” See the book’s website. [Amazon]

Other books seeing publication this month: Picturing America: The Golden Age of Pictorial Maps by Stephen J. Hornsby (University of Chicago Press), a history of the pictorial map art form during the 20th century [Amazon]; and Zero Degrees: Geographies of the Prime Meridian by Charles W. J. Withers (Harvard University Press), a history of prime meridians and the standardization thereof [Amazon].

An update: Mapping the Holy Land (I. B. Tauris) which I originally understood to be coming out in January, is now slated for publication this week. [Amazon]

Related: Map Books of 2017.

The Peters Projection Comes to Boston’s Public Schools

Gall-Peters projection (Wikimedia Commons)

In a development that just might make academic cartographers pull out their remaining hair in frustration, Boston’s public schools began using the Peters projection in social studies classes last week. The news coverage (see the Grauniad’s) is the usual straw man argument about the Mercator and the false dichotomy between it and the Peters, as though no other map projections have ever been used. (National Geographic has been using other projections since the 1920s, and currently uses the Winkel tripel. The last time I was at a map store, hardly any of the world maps for sale used the Mercator. See Mark Monmonier’s Rhumb Lines and Map Wars: A Social History of the Mercator Projection, which I reviewed in 2008.)

Cartographers’ Stories

Daniel Huffman and John Nelson have launched A Cartographer’s Story, a website that collects personal essays from mapmakers.

While our community has a rich culture of sharing project walkthroughs and clever tricks, our colleagues also need to hear about the personal and emotional relationships we have with our maps. We invest ourselves in creating works that are meant to stir the hearts and imaginations of others—and in return our works invest in us. What are your stories? How has mapping moved you or changed you? Did it encourage you through a tough time? Teach you something about yourself? Represent a significant relationship in your life?

Seven stories posted so far; they’re looking for more.

The Maps Cartographers Made as Kids

Maps made by children are interesting enough; maps made by children who went on to be professional cartographers—that’s something else altogether, as All Over the Map’s Betsy Mason shows. Because you know they all did that, when they were kids. (And no, before you ask, I don’t think any of my childhood cartography still survives.)

Previously: Children Map the World: The BookChildren Map the World, Volume Two19th-Century Children’s Maps.

The Last Unmapped Places

Lois Parshley’s essay on the last unmapped, mysterious places—Greenlandic fjords, the slums of Haiti, the ocean’s depths, black holes in space—is a long read worth reading. Originally published last month as “Here Be Dragons: Finding the Blank Spaces in a Well-Mapped World” in the Virginia Quarterly Review, it’s been reprinted by the Guardian, in an edited, tighter version, as “Faultlines, Black Holes and Glaciers: Mapping Uncharted Territories.”

Tactile Maps, Modern and Historical

Two items on maps for the blind and visually impaired—a subject I find terribly interesting:

Greg Miller of National Geographic’s All Over the Map reports on a new tactile atlas of Switzerland, which “is printed with special ink that expands when heated to create tiny bumps and ridges on the page.” I can’t find a direct link to said atlas, but Greg interviews Esri cartographer Anna Vetter, who led the project.

Tactile maps have been around for a long time: Atlas Obscura looks at tactile maps—and even a tactile globe!—dating back to the early 1800s. Many of these maps are in the archives of the Perkins School for the Blind. The Perkins School has a Flickr album of these maps.

Dirty Reprojectors

Maps online invariably use the Web Mercator projection. The Dirty Reprojectors project aims to change that, at least in Mapbox. Anand Thakker explains.

Almost all web mapping libraries render maps using Web Mercator, making an assumption that you generally can’t change out-of-the-box. This has advantages, but it posed a real challenge for us when we set out to build the Washington Post’s live election results map, where using the Albers USA projection was an important requirement. To meet that requirement, we built a pipeline to pre-process geometries.

It’s a bit of a kludge, a way of fooling Mapbox into showing a different projection—latitude/longitude coordinates aren’t accurate any more—but it’s an impressive stab at a real problem. The Dirty Reprojectors web app demonstrates the possibilities, with all the projections available through the d3-geo and d3-geo-projection libraries. [James Fee]