The Unicorn of Map Projections

It’s a shame that Sarah Battersby’s essay in The International Journal of Cartography, “The Unicorn of Map Projections,” is behind a paywall: it looks at the recent rash of map projections that purport to solve all our mapping problems.” There have been more than a few that have claimed the title of “most accurate map”; Battersby refers to these projections as a class as unicorns. The most recent example of this I dismissed as the cartographic equivalent of a spherical cow; five years ago there was also Narukawa’s AuthaGraph map; and of course there was the Peters map.

The Spherical Cow Projection

Today is The Map Room’s 18th anniversary. When I started this blog back in March 2003, it was as an exercise in self-education: I liked maps a lot, but knew very little about them, and thought that the blogging process would enable me to learn things and share what I learned with my readers. The idea that I’m some kind of map expert is just silly: I have no professional credentials whatsoever, not in cartography, not in geospatial, not even in illustration. (I haven’t even taken geography since high school.)

But that’s not to say that I haven’t picked up some knowledge: I’ve turned my longstanding interest in fantasy maps into a few published articles (with more still in the works or in press), so I will concede the point on that front. But in general what I do have is exposure. Over the past 18 years I have seen just about everything to do with maps, and so I know a little bit about just about everything. Not enough to be employed at any map-related job, but 18 years of paying attention, of synthesizing everything I’ve seen and read, has afforded me some perspective.

Enough to call out obvious horseshit when I see it.

Continue reading “The Spherical Cow Projection”

Upcoming Workshops

Two workshops/courses coming in June:

Australian author and illustrator Kathleen Jennings will teach a workshop on fantasy mapmaking in June: the focus of Map Making and World Building is “on story and art,” the mapmaking illustrative rather than cartographical, and in general it seems to be about the relationship between map and story. The workshop will take place on 19 June both in-person (at the Queensland Writers Centre in Brisbane) and via livestream; tickets range from A$35 to A$100, depending.

A History of Maps and Mapping, a short introductory online course taught by Katherine Parker as part of the London Rare Books School’s program of summer courses, “will challenge students to destabilize and broaden the traditional definition of ‘map’, and to recognize maps as socially constructed objects that are indicative of the values and biases of their makers and the cultures that created them. Students will learn how to analyse and catalogue maps for a variety of research purposes, and to discuss changes in map technology and style without recourse to a progressive narrative of scientific improvement.” Matthew Edney will supply a guest lecture. The course runs from 29 June to 2 July and costs £100 (student) or £175.

Edney Reviews ‘When Maps Become the World’

Matthew Edney reviews Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther’s When Maps Become the World (University of Chicago Press, 2020), a philosophy of science book that engages with maps and representation—with what Winther calls “map thinking.” Edney isn’t convinced by Winther’s approach: “Winther remains committed to outmoded and deeply flawed concepts of the nature of ‘the map’ that, to be honest, call into question the entire project.”

Map Projections for Babies

Map Projections for BabiesLate last year Dan Ford launched a Kickstarter to create a board book (i.e., a children’s book printed on paperboard) about map projections called Map Projections for Babies. Presumably intended to be in the same vein as other board books on surprisingly advanced science topics (Chris Ferrie has a whole series of them; Quantum Computing for Babies is a typical title), Map Projections for Babies “explains how we unwrap the round Earth to make flat maps. This guide for babies (and their loved ones) describes a complex concept in kid-friendly terms. […] This project began last year, when I was inspired threefold by my daughter’s curiosity, my love for maps, and a growing number of board books that condense complex concepts for babies.” The Kickstarter was successful, the book is now at the printing stage and is on track for delivery in April; additional orders will be accepted at some point. [Geography Realm]

Maps at Year’s End

Kenneth Field has posted his favourite maps from the past year—something he’s been doing since 2013. Quite a diverse set, from the Johns Hopkins coronavirus dashboard to a Lego model of Manhattan: you won’t have seen all of them.

CityLab has posted a selection of reader maps that explore how their lives were affected by 2020. Coronavirus, change and disruption are recurring themes. “We hope these maps offer readers a sense of solace and solidarity, a chance for reflection or provocation, and perhaps even a breath of creative inspiration.” (Previously: CityLab Wants Your Homemade Map of 2020.)

Fifteen Ways to Depict Elevation on Mars

How do you depict elevation on a map of Mars? Earlier this year, Daniel Huffman posted a roundup of hypsometric tints for Mars.

I have a peculiar hobby of collecting Martian hypsometric tinting schemes: those sets of colors that cartographers use to depict elevations on the Red Planet. It’s a fascinating cartographic frontier. While the classic (and somewhat flawed) way of showing Earth’s elevations is to use a color scheme that starts with green lowlands, and then proceeds through some combination of brown/yellow/orange/red until it reaches white in the highest areas, there’s no standard yet for Mars. Maybe centuries from now, one of the schemes below will become that standard.

Huffman looks at fifteen schemes in total in the post, and in this video on YouTube:

BCS 50th Anniversary Book Available to Download

BCS 50th Anniversary Book (cover)The British Cartographic Society’s 50th anniversary book, which came out in 2013, is now available as a free download (68 MB PDF). “This beautiful book, lavishly illustrated with over 130 maps, is presented in double-page map spreads for each year from 1963 to 2013, one map illustrating a UK event and the an overseas event for each of the fifty years.”

Field’s Virtual Talk on Election Mapping

Kenneth Field’s virtual talk on the cartography of elections, given to University of South Carolina students on 25 September 2020, is now available on YouTube. “It explores the way in which map types and their design mediate the message, and using examples from elections shows different versions of the truth.” Also includes material from Ken’s forthcoming book.

Mapping with Purpose

In “Mapping with Purpose,” Heather Smith of Esri uses blueberry crops in Canada to make a very good point about mapmaking. “You have data, but that’s not enough to make a map. You also need a purpose. There’s no point in making a map unless you have something to say.” In other words: If you’re going to map blueberry production, why? Is it to compare the acreage of blueberry-producing regions? To compare it to other berry crops? A map is a statement: what are you trying to say? [Kenneth Field]

What an Atlas Does

Chris Wayne’s article for Directions Magazine, “Stories and Lies: What an Atlas Reveals,” does something interesting that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before (which at this point is saying something): it talks about atlases as a class, exploring what they do and how they’re arranged. For example: “Page pairs are arguably the most effective format for blending narrative and cartography. With two facing pages, a self-contained story is told; then each page pair becomes a building block in the epic of the atlas itself.” In other words, it looks at atlases as objects in themselves. [WMS]

Pandemic Mapping and Posterity

The flurry of COVID-19 maps that have emerged in the first half of this year will be something that future cartographers and librarians will look back on, both in terms of historical records that need preserving, which is the subject of this CityLab interview with Library of Congress map librarian John Hessler, and in terms of best practices for disease mapping—what to do and what not to do when mapping a pandemic—which is the subject of this Financial Times video interview with Kenneth Field. (Both from early May; I’m playing catchup right now.)

Bending Lines, an Online Exhibition from the Leventhal Center

Bending Lines: Maps and Data From Distortion to Deception, the latest exhibition from the Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library, is a wide-ranging, comprehensive look at the relationship between maps and the truth. We expect maps not to lie, but maps have misled, propagandized or at the very least provided a particular perspective for as long as there have been maps.

Every map is a representation of reality, and every representation, no matter how accurate and honest, involves simplification, symbolization, and selective attention. Even when a map isn’t actively trying to deceive its readers, it still must reduce the complexity of the real world, emphasizing some features and hiding others. Compressing the round globe onto a flat sheet of paper, and converting places, people, and statistics into symbols, lines, and colors is a process inherently fraught with distortion. […]

In Bending Lines: Maps and Data From Distortion to Deception, we explore the many ways in which maps have “bent” reality and created a picture of the world that is oftentimes more real than reality itself. Some of the maps in this exhibition are deliberately nefarious, created by people or institutions who are trying to mislead or persuade. But for many of the others, the relationship between map and truth is more ambiguous. Some maps dim a certain type of truth in order to let another type of interpretation shine through, while others classify and categorize the world in ways that should raise our skepticism. And for some of the maps shown here, the persuasive goal isn’t trickery but liberation, as they seek to raise awareness of truths that were previously obscured or oppressed.

This exhibition was to have launched last month, but thanks to the pandemic has had to go fully online. Tackling everything from persuasive cartography to map projections to the sort of thing Mark Monmonier talks about in How to Lie with Maps, it’s an enormous undertaking in more than one sense. CityLab’s Laura Biss interviews the Leventhal’s curator, Garrett Dash Nelson, about the exhibition.

Update, 2 July: Harvard Magazine looks at the exhibition.

Tom Patterson’s Physical Map of the Contiguous United States

Physical Features Map of the Contiguous United States
Tom Patterson

Tom Patterson’s latest project is a map of the physical features of the contiguous United States.

This map showcases physical features—mountains, plains, rivers, lakes, etc.—of the 48 contiguous US states. Map colors reflect natural environments across the continent from the forested east to the snowcapped Rockies to the desert southwest. You will also find a smattering of cities and faint state lines for reference.

Emphasis on smattering: there are only enough human features—cities and borders—to orient the reader; the focus is on bodies of water and landforms.

It’s freely available and in the public domain: it can be downloaded, shared and modified.