Mapping ‘River of Teeth’

Sarah Gailey/Tim Paul

Sarah Gailey is the author of two novellas, River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow, about an alternate America that domesticated hippos, which promptly ran swam feral in the Mississippi. In this post, she describes how there wasn’t supposed to be an accompanying map, but one got made anyway.

It had never occurred to me to draw a map. I had written a story that wasn’t an epic, high-fantasy journey across nations. Why would I draw a map? Maps are for bigger stories, right? How does one go about drawing a map? I stayed up that night googling cartography. My search was not fruitful. I tucked that particular insecurity into the part of my brain where I catalogue all my shortcomings as a writer, and I did my best to forget about it.

Imagine, then, my abject horror when my River of Teeth editor, Justin Landon, sent me the following message: “oh hey, btw, do you have a rough map you’ve done for RoT?”

I said no, and he asked me to put something together. I hedged heavily, hoping that if I said “I will probably do a bad job” enough times, my editor might say “oh, ha ha, just kidding, I would never make you do something this hard! Please, go enjoy a cocktail.”

Reader, he made me do a map. I gritted my teeth, grabbed a piece of paper and an existing map of Louisiana, and braced myself for despair. You’ll never believe what happened next.

I had so much fun.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Imposes New Congressional Map

New congressional districts for Pennsylvania (Pennsylvania Supreme Court)

A major development yesterday in the case of Pennsylvania’s gerrymandered congressional electoral district map, which was thrown out as unconstitutional last month by the state’s supreme court. The legislature and governor having failed to submit a new electoral district map by the  court’s deadline, the court has imposed what it calls a remedial plan, drawing a new congressional electoral district boundaries for the state of Pennsylvania (court documents). These boundaries will take effect in the primary vote next May, but not next month’s special election.

The general consensus is that the map is more favourable to Democrats than the Democrats’ own proposals: under this map, for example, Clinton would have won the vote in eight seats to Trump’s ten; under the old map, she won the vote in six to Trump’s twelve. Republicans are already planning an appeal. The New York Times does a map-heavy deep dive into the new district boundaries: which areas they include and exclude, and their electoral implications.

Suddenly rendered moot, but still worth pointing to:’s  interactive comparison of congressional map proposals. There were a lot of them, before the court put its foot down yesterday, and this website is a similarly deep dive, analyzing each rigorously.

OpenStreetMap ‘In Serious Trouble’

Much chatter on Twitter about a blog post criticizing OpenStreetMap that made it to the front page of Hacker News; problem is, said chatter hasn’t been linking to said blog post. Here it is: “Why OpenStreetMap is in Serious Trouble,” in which Serge Wroclawski argues that OSM has lost its way on a technical and management level:

Before I criticize the project, I want to state emphatically that I still believe wholeheartedly in the core principles of OpenStreetMap. We need a Free as in Freedom geographic dataset just as much today as we did in the past. When I wrote my article about OSM in 2012, self-driving cars and other services were still a dream. Today the importance of having a highly accurate, libre geographic dataset is more important than ever, and I support those working to make it happen.

That said, while I still believe in the goals of OpenStreetMap, I feel the OpenStreetMap project is currently unable to fulfill that mission due to poor technical decisions, poor political decisions, and a general malaise in the project. I’m going to outline in this article what I think OpenStreetMap has gotten wrong. It’s entirely possible that OSM will reform and address the impediments to its success—and I hope it does. We need a Free as in Freedom geographic dataset.

I do love me a good rant; and as an OSM contributor myself, I do recognize some of the problems Serge highlights, particularly the difficulties in importing data, moderating edits, and vandalism.

Since getting linked there is what drew attention to it, Hacker News comments (I know, I know) are here.

Previously: OpenStreetMap at the Crossroads.

Pictorial Railway Maps

Vilelms Griķis, “Apcelo savu Dzimto Zemi!,” 1938.

At Retours, a digital magazine about railway history and design, Arjan den Boer looks at pictorial railway maps.

In the mid-20th century pictorial maps in cartoonish styles were a popular way of promoting travel and tourism. In contrast to objective, realistic maps they appeal to emotions such as romance, fantasy and humor. They are used to tell anecdotes about a region’s history, culture and landscape in a way attractive to old and young. These illustrated maps are meant to inspire, not to provide travel information.

Pictorial maps or Bildkarten seem to be the opposite of the schematic metro-like maps of railway networks from the same period, composed of straight lines and without any details. Schematic and pictorial maps share one thing though: they are only loosely bound to geographic reality. Their common goal is to convey a message—either the straightforwardness of a journey or the attractiveness of a region.

Lots of maps featured here, mostly from European rail services. Since much of the study of pictorial maps focuses on the United States, as well as Britain (especially in re MacDonald Gill), this is a refreshing filling in of the gaps.

The United States of Canada

We’ve seen maps reimagining the United States reorganized into a different number and configuration of states before, but this map by Reddit user Upvoteanthology_ looks north of the border for inspiration. It imagines what would happen if the U.S. were organized like Canada, with the same population imbalances: Ontario, for example, has 38.9 percent of the Canadian population, so this map imagines a superstate, Shanherria, with 38.9 percent of the U.S. population that spans the entire U.S. South, plus Kentucky, Missouri, Kansas and the non-Chicago parts of Illinois. Meanwhile, Maine is roughly equivalent to Prince Edward Island, and the three northern territories map to Alaska.

Previously: The Concentric States of AmericaFifty Equal States Redux.

Gladys West, GPS’s Hidden Figure

The Associated Press has a story about Gladys West, now 87, an African-American mathematician who did pivotal early work on the calculations that led to GPS.

She collected information from the orbiting machines, focusing on information that helped to determine their exact location as they transmitted from around the world. Data was entered into large scale “super computers” that filled entire rooms, and she worked on computer software that processed geoid heights, or precise surface elevations.

The process that led to GPS is too scientific for a newspaper story, but Gladys West would say it took a lot of work—equations checked and double-checked, along with lots of data collection and analysis. Although she might not have grasped its future usage, she was pleased by the company she kept.

If that reminds you a bit of Hidden Figures, it’s not just you. And if reading this piece makes you want to read about the process that led to GPS, even if it’s too scientific for a newspaper story, it’s not just you either. [Blavity]

The Pyeongchang Winter Games: Maps and Toponyms

The official Pyeongchang 2018 website has maps of the various facilities for the Winter Games, though except for the Pyeongchang Olympic Plaza and Gangneung Olympic Park maps, there isn’t a lot of detail. Some of that is ameliorated by this Story Map of Olympic venues, which makes use of DigitalGlobe satellite imagery; the interface is a little less than obvious, but you can navigate around each facility. See also Explore Pyeongchang in Google Earth (Chrome required). [Maps Mania]

There’s an interesting story behind the name of Pyeongchang (평창군). It’s often spelled PyeongChang, which is odd because you don’t expect camel case in romanized Korean; and before 2000 it was spelled Pyongchang. Both changes have an explanation: as The New York Times explains, “it was often confused with Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. So in 2000, the town added a letter, capitalized another and changed its name to ‘PyeongChang,’ though most foreign news agencies declined to use the capital C.” [CityLab]

Speaking of toponyms. As I watch more Olympics coverage than is strictly good for me, I can’t help but notice the CBC’s sports commentators make frequent reference to the “East Sea”—the body of water that Gangneung, which hosts a number of ice venues, is on the coast of. It’s better known as the Sea of Japan, but as I’ve mentioned before, that name is disputed by Korea, where there’s a push to have it called the East Sea (동해), reflecting longstanding Korean practice. CBC’s use of the name is likely simply good manners.

Indiana University Is Digitizing Its Collection of Russian Topo Maps

Indiana University’s collection of some 4,000 Russian military topographic maps is being digitized, thanks to a grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources.

“The world-changing differences documented by maps in the Eastern Bloc Borderlands project cannot be overstated,” says Michelle Dalmau, head of Digital Collections Services for IU Libraries, and the project’s principal investigator. “In some cases we see villages and settlements depicted that no longer exist.”

Created by the Russian Military from 1883 to 1947, the maps traveled widely through their tactical use in the field. In the years surrounding World War II, many were captured by opposing forces, including German and American troops. As a result, myriad stamps from institutions they passed through—such as the University of Berlin, the U.S. Army Map Service, and the CIA Map Library—mark the maps with a unique and visual history.

More than 1,000 have already been digitized. These maps are similar to the maps chronicled by John Davies and Alex Kent in The Red Atlas (see my review), but date from before the Cold War. [Osher]

Colour Differences in Metro Maps

Scientific American reprints a 2016 article from The Mathematical Intelligencer on an obscure, but important, corner of transit map design: how to choose a colour for a metro line. The discussion is rather math heavy (and therefore above my pay grade), but the gist is that for ease of use lines’ colours should look as different from one another as possible, and it gets more complicated as you add more lines. “Not only must the new colors be unlike the old ones, but also they must differ from each other as much as possible.” The article discusses the math involved in choosing new colours. [WMS]

Previously: The Transit Line Colour Palette.

Clickhole: Rising Sea Levels to Turn Australia into a Rhombus


Clickhole, The Onion’s satirical clickbait website, had a hilarious piece last October declaring that rising sea levels will turn Australia into a rhombus: good news for cartographers, for whom Australia will be easier to draw.

According to a new study by the National Ocean Service, melting icecaps and glaciers will raise sea levels enough to cause drastic coastal erosion to virtually every landmass on the planet, including Australia, which will transform from its current shapeless continental configuration into a crisp, tightly angled quadrilateral. While this will unquestionably result in an incalculable amount of economic and ecological devastation, it will likely be a welcome change for cartographers, who instead of spending hours trying to perfect the jagged and asymmetrical outline of the Australian coast like they do now, will in the coming decades be able to handily dash off a geographically accurate rendering of the continent in just a few seconds flat.

In your face, Wyoming. [Cartophilia]

Estimating Population

NASA’s Socioeconomic Data and Applications Center (SEDAC) has produced a population estimation service “for estimating population totals and related statistics within a user-defined region.” Basically, it provides a population estimate for an area drawn on a map. Available as data via map and GIS clients, it’s also accessible via a web app. I’ve noodled about with it; its population estimates are generally not insane. [Kottke]

Coming Soon: Kenneth Field’s Open Online Course on Cartography

Esri will be hosting a free, six-week massive open online course (MOOC) on cartography later this year. Called Cartography., it’s taught by Kenneth Field and coincides with the release of Field’s textbook of the same name.

Each weekly lesson in the Cartography. MOOC focuses on the creation of one exemplary map that draws together key cartographic ideas. Lessons consist of about two hours of content, including video discussions, guided and self-guided exercises using ArcGIS Pro and ArcGIS Online, quizzes, interactions between students and instructors, and supplemental resources. Participants who engage with all the course content will receive a certificate of completion and a discount code to purchase Cartography., the book, should they wish to continue their learning.

Registration opens on 18 April and continues until 2 May. It is, as I mentioned, free; Esri expects more than 10,000 people to sign up.

Cartography., the book, is currently scheduled to come out in June.

Strava, Responding to Security Concerns, Disables Features

Strava has reportedly disabled certain features in the wake of the privacy and security issues raised last month, with users reporting that they can no longer create workout segments. In a statement given to The Verge, Strava said: “We are reviewing features that were originally designed for athlete motivation and inspiration to ensure they cannot be compromised by people with bad intent.” [Canadian Cycling Magazine]

Previously: Strava Heat Map Reveals Soldiers’ LocationsNon-Anonymized Strava User Data Is Accessible.

Freedom in the World, Mapped

Freedom House

The 2018 edition of Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties, Freedom in the World, is out, and it’s illustrated by maps that categorize countries into “free,” “partly free” or “not free” and assign them a score out of 100. (I can’t say 1 to 100, because Syria is -1. According to them, it’s been a bad year for global freedom.) The main map, above, shows the three categorizations. It’s a bit reductionist: “partly free” includes Morocco (score: 39) and Bolivia (score: 67), which obscures the fact that Morocco’s score is closer to nearby Algeria’s (35, “not free”) and Bolivia’s is closer to Peru’s (73, “free”) than they are to each other. But scores and categories don’t always map cleanly to one another. A second choropleth map of the scores themselves is more granular, and more revealing:

[Boing Boing]