My talk from #FOSS4GUK 2018

The Importance of Design in Geo

On 8th and 9th of March I was lucky enough to attend FOSS4G UK at the Geovation Hub in Clerkenwell, London. I was even luckier to have a paper accepted and have the honour of joining a stellar line up of speakers.

As well as share my slides I thought I would also write up my talk in more detail, so here goes…

My talk was double-pronged and titled ‘The Importance of Design in Geo: GeoDataViz Toolkit’. When I submitted my abstract I wasn’t 100% sure what I was going to talk about! I know I wanted to introduce the Toolkit that my team and I at Ordnance Survey had recently open sourced, but the “Importance of Design in Geo” bit was still just a collection of vague thoughts in my head!

I attended the same event in 2016 when it was hosted at my place of work (Ordnance Survey HQ in Southampton). I sat in on most talks and came away a little disappointed that there wasn’t much content about cartography, or indeed visualisation of any form. I vowed then that I would return to the next event and fly the flag for those of us focussed on the design aspects of geospatial. When I started reflecting back over the two years in between conferences I began to realise that loads of super cool stuff has happened in the world of cartography! Like, loads!! My talk became a bit of a celebration of all this awesome stuff and a reflection on some of the things that I considered to be important, contributing factors.

GeoDataViz at Ordnance Survey (OS)

I started by talking about the work that I do at OS in the GeoDataViz team, the benefits of what we do and also some examples of the work that we deliver. You can read more about that in this blog post.

An example of the bespoke visualisations that we craft in the GeoDataViz team at OS

What’s changed in the world of Cartography?

I was reflecting on the 2 years between 2016 and 2018 but these observations run further back than that. I focussed on 3 areas — things that I have been seeing and thinking about a lot recently. These were:

  • Maps on the web have matured
  • Convergence of disciplines
  • Evolution of terminology

Maps on the web have matured: I made a case that web mapping started with many teething problems but that (on the whole) maps on the internet are awesome and as maps have hit the mainstream we are seeing some of the bad practices disappearing. I highlighted the dreaded geoportals, red dot fever and the increasingly successful campaign to #EndTheRainbow. I feel that as more people are now making maps, more knowledge is being shared and bad practices are less common. Don’t get me wrong, not every map that gets shared on Twitter is an award winner, but we are seeing less ‘bad’ maps and we are definitely treated to beautiful and powerful maps on a much more regular basis.

Convergence of disciplines: Unsurprisingly, as map-making becomes more accessible (open data, more tools, free tools, more tutorials etc.) we are seeing way more people making maps than ever before! We now have people from many diverse backgrounds ‘doing’ cartography and they all bring their own skills and expertise to the game. These include software developers, front-end developers, graphic designers, UX designers, data scientists, game developers and of course data journalists (who I always call out for extra praise as I feel they have contributed more than anyone to digital cartography in recent years and really dragged the art form forward.)

We have also seen more experts sharing their knowledge via blogs and tutorials. Forums like GIS StackExchange are crammed with people sharing hints, tips and tricks. Equally Twitter has a fantastic community who are always willing to share best practices and advice through things like #GISTribe and #PractiCarto.

Evolution of Terminology: Is the word Cartography slowly disappearing? Do new map-makers (those as discussed above who come from different backgrounds) feel uncomfortable calling themselves Cartographers? I don’t know the answers but these are questions that I have pondered recently. You see more and more maps described as ‘dataviz’ and seemingly less map-makers with the job title ‘Cartographer’.

Certainly at Ordnance Survey this is something that we have reflected on and you can read more here about why we evolved our team from ‘Cartographic Design’ to ‘GeoDataViz’. It is over a year since we made these changes and we have had these changes validated lots since. You often see peoples bio’s referring to maps and dataviz and there are cartographers speaking at large dataviz conferences.

Gallery of amazing maps

Next I introduced a gallery of maps that I have admired from the last two years — maps that for me paint a great picture of how awesome maps on the web can be. I singled out individuals and their respective teams as people who are doing great work, and used examples of their graphics to highlight certain elements that make them so effective. It was quite an exhaustive list which I won’t go through in full detail here but I will pick out some of my favourites…

Joshua Stevens and the dataviz team at NASA: Joshua creates some incredible scientific visualisations of our planet using often large datasets. The clean aesthetic that he achieves is a great example of how to distill complex data into clear and concise messages/stories.

Lisa Charlotte Rost and the team at Datawrapper: Datawrapper is quickly becoming everyone’s fave online chart making tool. Their recent success has a lot to do with the recent acquisition of Lisa and Gregor. Lisa’s blog posts are as educational and thought-provoking as they are regular — she is dropping some serious knowledge! She also did some fantastic work recently to introduce cartograms to the tool.

John Nelson and the cartography team at ESRI: I have been a huge fan of John’s work for years now and am a keen follower of his personal blog. At ESRI he is really pushing the art of the possible and often mixes tactile cartography with modern, digital tools — a great advocate for ArcGIS Pro and Story Maps.

Ship Map from Kiln: This map from Kiln, who recently launched Flourish, really pushed the story-telling aspect of geospatial data with this award winning piece. It really is a thing of beauty, combining a full screen map, animation, time series, user interaction and audio (both music and commentary.) This map gets so many things right and is a shining example of modern, digital cartography.

Mapbox: I couldn’t talk about how great digital maps are without mentioning Mapbox and their amazing team. I have been a huge fan and user of their platform since the early days (yep, even TileMill!) and have always liked their design-focussed approach — they have a great team of designers and cartographers! Their own maps are beautiful but what they’ve enabled for others is even more remarkable. Their vector tile spec has been a game changer; both in terms of the user experience of web maps but also how easy and accessible they are to design and develop.

Ashley Clough and his team at Parallel: Parallel are one of the many companies who are putting Mapbox’s tools and libraries to great use. Ashley has an amazing portfolio of online maps. The range and diversity of the maps are testament to his knowledge and creativity.

The National Geographic maps team, both web and print: The National Geographic have long been admired for their beautiful and detailed infographics. They are a great example of how to take this strong print heritage and continue delivering amazing work online. They are rightly often awarded for their work, the intricacy and detail of which is often mind-blowing!

Onto data journalists…

Lauren Tierney and the graphics team at Washington Post: Lauren recently moved from NatGeo to WaPo and has hit the ground running with some fantastic mapping projects. I really enjoyed WaPo’s 2017 coverage of the total eclipse — their graphics-led story was perfectly pitched and contained a bunch of amazing static and interactive maps. Their beauty is in their simplicity and I really enjoy the subtle design elements that make it really pop, like these maps and labels spilling out of the small circles. So good!

The graphics team at The New York Times: They’re getting so good that it’s almost unfair! Almost every day, certainly every week, you will see an amazing piece of dataviz from the phenomenal team at NYT. For me, they’re really leading the way and have done so much to advance the art of maps on the web. Their graphics embed into their web pages in such gorgeous and seamless fashion, always adding value to the reader. I could call out numerous projects but two that have really stuck in mind are their Trump’s America map (a fun and refreshing take on the election results — not just another choropleth!) and their piece about mapping the shadows of New York City. #Amazeballs

Alan Smith and the dataviz team at The Financial Times: I have had the pleasure of meeting Alan and his team, including grade-A cartographer Steven Bernard. They are so consistent with the style and quality of their work — their productivity and efficiency is admirable. Alan is a real though leader in the field of dataviz and has assembled a really great team, who seem just just get better and better.

In my talk I also highlighted the great work of Topi Tjukanvov, Federica Fragapane, Craig Taylor, Alasdair Rae, James Cheshire, Buzzfeed and the incredible EarthWindMap from nullschool.

My talk was followed by 3 excellent speakers on the subject of geospatial visualisation; Oliver O’brien, Tom Armitage and Ross McDonald.

Summary

Through showing all these amazing maps I hope that I have showcased how incredible maps are these days (certainly how good they can be!) and when I look through them I am reminded what an honour it is to be a cartographer working in the world of geo right now! Geospatial is in the spotlight and enjoying a really good period — long may it continue. And long may we continue to see great maps on our computers, our mobile devices, on the TV as well as in our newspapers and our much-loved paper maps. I personally feel that maps have a very important role in shaping the future.

It is amazing to see how many of these carto and dataviz experts share their knowledge (tutorials, processes, tools, best practices, demystifying assumptions, advice, help and support) through social media and their own blogs! This is super useful for combatting bad practices and helping people new to the game.

The GeoDataViz Toolkit

I finished my talk by introducing the GeoDataViz Toolkit, a series of resources and assets that we recently launched. You can read more about it here, and access it directly here.

I would like to finish by expressing my thanks to James Milner and the whole team involved in organising FOSS4G UK 2018! It was a fantastic event with a great agenda of interesting talks and enlightening workshops. Whenever I encounter the FOSS community I am always blown away by not only how competent and clever but equally how nice everyone is — friendly, happy to help and share with others. The party was fun too!

Until the next one, Peace.