A couple of years ago, Amanda Ripley discovered that Google Maps had two locations listed for her home, which made giving directions difficult. As the change propagated to services that used Google Maps, the problem worsened. Deliveries kept turning up at the other location. But it turned out that there was no way to notify Google of this specific problem. She had to use her media credentials as a workaround to get it fixed. (Check out Google’s statement at the end: it’s a textbook case of customer service gaslighting.)
Michael Hertz, whose design firm created the map of the New York City subway that in 1979 replaced a controversial (though critically acclaimed) design by Massimo Vignelli—a map that today’s map design largely follows—died earlier this month at the age of 87, the New York Times reports. See also BBC News, CNN, NBC New York, the New York Post—that’s rather a lot of attention.
That 1979 map that has been critiqued, fulminated against and re-imagined over and over again has nonetheless managed to become iconic; however much the map offended various design aesthetics, as the Times obituary (and previous coverage) shows, it was created with care and purpose: the curves were deliberate, the references to aboveground landmarks were deliberate. It was a team effort, but the Times obit had this interesting item about who should get the credit:
There has been some sniping over the years as to who deserves credit for the 1979 map, with Mr. Hertz taking exception whenever Mr. Tauranac1 was identified as “chief designer” or given some similar title.
“We’ve had parallel careers,” Mr. Hertz told The New York Times in 2012. “I design subway maps, and he claims to design subway maps.”
In 2004, the Long Island newspaper Newsday asked Tom Kelly, then the spokesman for the M.T.A., about who did what.
“The best thing I could probably tell you is to quote my sainted mother: ‘Success has many fathers,’” Mr. Kelly said. “That’s not to disparage any work that anybody else put into the map. But, in all honesty, it’s Mike Hertz that did all the basic design and implementation of it. In all fairness, the father of this map, as far as we’re concerned, is Mike Hertz.”
The 1979 map isn’t quite the same as the current version. Transit Maps posted a copy in 2015, and has this to say about it: “It’s funny how we call this the ‘same’ map as today’s version, because there’s a lot of differences, both big and small. The Beck-style tick marks for local stations as mentioned above, no Staten Island inset, the biggest legend box I’ve ever seen, the colours used for water and parkland … the list goes on!”
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal’s take on the Mercator projection is … not what you’d expect. The punch line is similar to Christopher Rowe’s short story, “Another Word for Map Is Faith”: if you can’t make the map conform to the territory, make the territory conform to the map. Since we’re dealing with the Mercator projection, this requires some … escalation.
Swiss topographic maps are legendary for their precision, but that hasn’t stopped cartographers from having a little fun. As Zoey Poll reports for AIGA Eye on Design, whimsical little drawings can be found hidden in some editions of Swiss topo maps:
But on certain maps, in Switzerland’s more remote regions, there is also, curiously, a spider, a man’s face, a naked woman, a hiker, a fish, and a marmot. These barely-perceptible apparitions aren’t mistakes, but rather illustrations hidden by the official cartographers at Swisstopo in defiance of their mandate “to reconstitute reality.” Maps published by Swisstopo undergo a rigorous proofreading process, so to find an illicit drawing means that the cartographer has outsmarted his colleagues.
It also implies that the mapmaker has openly violated his commitment to accuracy, risking professional repercussions on account of an alpine rodent. No cartographer has been fired over these drawings, but then again, most were only discovered once their author had already left. (Many mapmakers timed the publication of their drawing to coincide with their retirement.) Over half of the known illustrations have been removed. The latest, the marmot drawing, was discovered by Swisstopo in 2016 and is likely to be eliminated from the next official map of Switzerland by next year. As the spokesperson for Swisstopo told me, “Creativity has no place on these maps.”
The article suggests these drawings are a coping mechanism, an opportunity to blow off a little steam. I can believe it. [r/MapPorn]
Building Boston, Shaping Shorelines is a Harvard Map Collection exhibition going on now at Harvard Library’s Pusey Library Gallery. “This exhibition allows you to trace the projects to reclaim land and build the infrastructure that has produced a city out of a peninsula. Come learn how much of Boston is on man-made land and what impacts that has had and will have on the city.” There is no online version, but Harvard Magazine has a writeup. Until 1 May 2020.
Previously: The Atlas of Boston History.
Kenneth Field has made no bones about his frustration with maps of the COVID-19 outbreak, many of which have presented data in ways that are at best misleading. A simple choropleth map isn’t always simple. He’s put his thoughts on what not to do, and what to do instead, in this Twitter thread, and followed that up with this article on the ArcGIS blog.
We live in an amazing time as far as cartography is concerned. Technology allows, and actively supports rapid, democratized mapping. Data, compiled and published in near real-time (if not actual real-time) encourages people to get their hands dirty to see what they can make. Media outlets all rush to provide their audience with fast, visible content. Social media drives sharing of these maps at a breathtaking pace. When you throw in a developing human health story the ingredients are ripe for maps to take centre stage, as they have become with the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. Let’s take a look at how maps can help shape the narrative and, as concern (fear?) grows, how to map the data responsibly.
A large relief model of the Grand Canyon, created by Edwin Howell in 1875, has resided in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Science Hall since 1980. The History of Cartography project’s offices are also in Science Hall. Lindsey Buscher, an editor on that project, wanted to include a photo of the relief model in the forthcoming fifth volume (which covers the 19th century), but the model was in too rough a state to be photographed. So they hired a professional conservator to restore the model: the results can be seen above. Now not only will the model’s photo be in the book, it’ll be on the cover. [Tom Patterson]
BBC News: “Here’s how a decade-old map showing global air travel was used incorrectly by news websites across the world, leading to headlines such as ‘New map reveals no country safe from coronavirus tentacles’ and ‘Terrifying map reveals how thousands of Wuhan travellers could have spread coronavirus to 400 cities worldwide.’” Blame the usual culprits. [Kenneth Field]
Yet another interactive map tracking the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, this one from Dr. Edward Parker of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. It compares COVID-19 to other recent outbreaks, with map layers showing the spread of H1N1, SARS, and the 2014 Ebola outbreak. [Maps Mania]
CityLab’s Marie Patino looks at some of the maps tracking the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus and from there pivots to some of the ways we’ve tracked disease outbreaks and epidemics in the past. Examples can be found as far back as the 17th century—long before John Snow’s cholera map, in other words.
Related reading: Tom Koch’s Disease Maps: Epidemics on the Ground (University of Chicago Press, 2011) and Cartographies of Disease (Esri Press, 2nd ed 2016), Sandra Hempel’s Atlas of Disease (White Lion, 2018) and, of course, The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson (2006).
Three books look at islands that never were.
We expect maps to tell the truth; indeed we need them to on a fierce and primal level. “I believe cartography enjoys an enviable position of credibility and confidence among the people who see it. If you see it mapped, you believe,” wrote Charles Blow last fall; he was writing in response to Trump’s petty defacement of a hurricane forecast map with a marker. The reaction to Trump’s stunt, was, I thought, revealing. It’s part and parcel with what Matthew Edney refers to as the ideal of cartography: striving toward a universal, unbiased and perfect map.
When a map has a mistake on it, when it’s wrong, it does something funny to our heads. We obey our phones and dashboard GPS navigators even when they send us off a cliff. We concoct nutty theories about ancient civilizations because a 16th-century portolan chart had a funny bend on a coastline. We wonder, because someone wrote “here be dragons” on a map, whether dragons were actually real. We make brain pretzels trying to force maps to be truthful even when they are manifestly wrong.1
Maps have to tell the truth. They simply have to. Maybe that’s why stories about mistakes on the map, and the havoc those mistakes cause, fascinate us so much. Which brings me to three books, all published for the first time in 2016, that talk about map errors of an older kind: islands and other features that appeared on maps, sometimes for centuries, that in the end turned out not to exist.
Mount Vernon’s library is the recipient of a major donation of 18th-century maps, images and other documents pertaining to the American Revolution that is valued at around $12 million. The Richard H. Brown Revolutionary War Map Collection, named for the private collector who donated them, features more than 1,000 items dating from between 1740 and 1799. Of those items, 292 have been digitized so far. Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington took possession of most of the donation last month. [WMS]