In the travel section of yesterday’s New York Times, map illustrator Nate Padavick offers a way to make lemonade from travel-restriction lemons with a short guide to making an illustrated map (pictorial map, map illustration—the terms are roughly interchangeable) of a favourite place—a neighbourhood, a vacation spot, “a place you’ve never been.”
The rigid and scientific rules of cartography simply do not apply here! Nope. While an illustrated map is often a wildly useless tool for providing directions, it can be a beautiful and highly personal reflection of a place you, friends and family know quite well. It can tell a story, a personal history, or be a unique lens through which one can experience a special place. An illustrated map can be loose and hand-drawn, filled with fun drawings and doodles that together make a sometimes inaccurate, but always spot on record of a memory or a place from one’s own perspective.
The New York Times does a deep dive into New York’s current subway map: its design choices, its history, its quirks. It’s more an animated slideshow than interactive map: each step takes us along a route, bouncing up and down (for example) where you’d expect to walk. It’s also completely devoid of any context, particularly the controversies around this very map’s design. People have been agitated about New York’s subway map, and have been reimagining and rethinking it, for decades.
Yes, I've seen this NY Times subway infographic piece. It's… odd. Seems to excuse bad design with some magical hand waves and expect us to believe this is really the best map that could be made.https://t.co/5xjiAK9EQz
That said, even a naïve look at the status quo isn’t without value, especially since the status quo is rarely looked at on its own terms, but rather in the context of tearing it up and coming up with something new and better.
The New York Times maps ongoing wildfires in California—and the state of things is that I have to specify which: in 2019; the Easy, Getty and Kincade fires in Ventura, Los Angeles and Sonoma counties, respectively. The page also maps where PG&E engaged in preventative power outages to inhibit the spread of fires.
The New York Times maps confirmed measles cases in the United States as of April 29, 2019. “Measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000 but the highly contagious disease has returned in recent years in communities with low vaccination rates. The number of cases reported this year is already nearly double last year’s count and has surpassed the previous post-elimination high of 667 cases in 2014.”
It’s 2018. The 2016 U.S. presidential election is nearly two years in the past. But that didn’t stop the New York Times from unleashing a new map of the 2016 election results earlier this week. On the surface it’s a basic choropleth map: nothing new on that front. But this map drills down a bit further: showing the results by precinct, not just by county. The accompanying article sets out what the Times is trying to accomplish: “On the neighborhood level, many of us really do live in an electoral bubble, this map shows: More than one in five voters lived in a precinct where 80 percent of the two-party vote went to Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton. But the map also reveals surprising diversity.”
Kenneth Field has some objections to the map. “So you have smaller geographical areas. Detailed, yes. Accurate, certainly. Useful? Absolutely not because of the way the map was made.” It’s a choropleth map that doesn’t account for population: “An area that has 100 voters and 90 of them voted Republican is shown as dark red and a 90% share. Exactly the same symbol would be used for an area that has 100,000 voters, 90,000 of whom voted Republican.” It gets worse when that thinly populated precinct is geographically larger. (Not only that: the map uses Web Mercator—it is built with Mapbox—so Alaska is severely exaggerated at small scales.) There are, Ken says, other maps that account for population density (not least of which his own dot density map).
The Times map has a very specific purpose, and Ken is going after it for reasons that aren’t really relevant to that purpose. The map is aimed at people looking at their own and surrounding neighbourhoods: the differences in area and population between a precinct in Wyoming and a precinct in Manhattan wouldn’t normally come up. It works at large scales, whereas Ken’s point is more about small scales: zoom out and the map becomes misleading, or at the very least just as problematic as (or no more special than) any other, less granular choropleth map that doesn’t account for population. The map isn’t meant to be small-scale, doesn’t work at small scales, but then people regularly use maps for reasons not intended by the mapmaker. The mistake, I suspect, is making a map that does not work at every scale available at every scale.
Update: See this post for more reactions to the map.
When we talk about gerrymandering, about redrawing the political map to favour one’s own party at the expense of another, we talk a lot about the maps themselves. The mapmakers, not so much. Check out this New York Times article on the political consultants who do the redrawing; it focuses on the electoral map of Maryland, which like several other states’ maps is the focus of a court challenge. The process has become even more refined as more and more data becomes available to feed into the redistricting maw.
Inside the lab, conservators talk about the care of antique maps like a doctor discusses a patient’s condition and treatment in an intensive care unit.
Conservators will lay a given map on a table for an exam and diagnose the issue: Is it brittle or burned? Damaged by water or tape? Crumbly, delaminated or peeling? Then they record the treatment in a chart of sorts so that years later, the next caretaker will know what remedy was given.
The repair process of a map—like that for a more than 200-year-old, torn illustration of Williamsburg, Brooklyn—typically takes several hours, though sometimes the conservators will spend days working on just one.
The New York Times is collecting several maps on two web pages. The first page deals with subjects like rainfall, river level, current and historical hurricane tracks, damage reports, and cities and counties under evacuation orders. Maps on the second page look at Harvey’s impact on the Houston area.
Kenneth Field critiques the National Weather Service’s decision to add more colours to their precipitation maps (see above). “Simply adding colours to the end of an already poor colour scheme and then making the class representing the largest magnitude the very lightest colour is weak symbology. But then, they’ve already used all the colours of the rainbow so they’re out of options!”