Carto-thoughts from the #cartosummit

My attempt to summarize the proceedings, plus my own thoughts, questions, and musings.

Warning — No Lifeguard on Duty
A lovely place to craft carto-thoughts

It’s frightening to say things on the internet. We all have thoughts, opinions, and viewpoints, and we love talking about them. But when we do, we run the risk of running afoul of someone else’s thoughts, opinions, and viewpoints. When that happens, there’s no lifeguard on duty to save you.

I was reminded of this when I was having some technical issue or another a few weeks ago. I turned to my friends and colleagues in The Spatial Community for help.

Me: Hey, is it true that the only way to do X with software Y is to use Z?

To which some experts in Software Y delivered some very swift, harsh, (and helpful) assistance.

No feelings were hurt, no names were called, and a problem was solved 🎉. But this incident made me think about the nature of seeking assistance. Sometimes, questions are greeted with silence. But wrong things are almost always granted a response.

I attempted to share this revelation in a tweet:

Classic Rich Donohue.

Enter #cartosummit

This week, the ICA partnered with Esri to host The Cartographic Summit in Redlands, CA. From the About page:

This summit will bring together people who are passionate about these issues and who have a commitment to drive the evolution of cartography forward in an inclusive and collaborative framework. From mapping organizations to startups, traditional cartographers to the hacker and maker communities, artists, journalists, graphic designers; each will have a voice.

This was an exciting event featuring many of the most vaunted experts in the field discussing the theory and practice of big-C Cartography. As such, many ideas were presented.

I’m going to try to share some of my thoughts and opinions on these ideas.

You may not agree with them, and that frightens me.

Day 1 morning session: Data

First up, Katy Borner took us straight to meta, talking about the science of science, and using visualizations to map collective knowledge. This was a fascinating talk that went completely over my head. Nonetheless, she brought up some great points worth considering:

  • What we call what we do is critical for cross-domain communication.
  • Design of sci-viz is crucial for communicating message to the public.
Katy investigates data viz classifications

Next, James Cheshire (@spatialanalysis) plucked at all of our heart strings by opening his presentation with:

Cartographers are taken for granted every time they make a great map.

Then he reminded us all to spend more time scripting our data processing so that we can spend more time on the fun part of cartography. You know, line weights, colors, and fonts!

James’ talk brought these thoughts to my mind:

  • Good design is invisible.
  • I need to improve my scripting skills.
Displaying the “tree map” of artist contributions to a museum collection in a radically different way

After James was Stamen Design’s carto-whiz Alan McConchie, who added a very illuminating and useful concept to our lexicon:

Professional Amateurs

I thought this was a brilliant concept. The example I like was rail nerds geeking out over the classification of railways in Open Street Map tags. These domain experts, who are possibly railroad professionals in their daily lives, are nevertheless amateur when they come to OSM. Yet they provide an extremely valuable contribution to the dataset.

Amateurs are also free from encumbrances that professionals are bound to. For example, they’re not afraid to ask their software to do something it’s not made to do. As a result, perhaps they find a way to get it to do something we, as seasoned software wranglers, never thought it could do.

Alan made me think about:

  • Acting like a professional amateur reduces the stress of being in either category alone.
  • Don’t be afraid to involve non-specialists in your cartographic production

Breakout Session #1

Each 90 minute session was followed by a half-hour breakout groups which took key points from the session and discussed them in more detail. A rapporteur was assigned to bring back the salient points that from the group. Groups were randomly assigned to encourage the members represented a cross-section of the attendees.


  • Data Design
  • Data Analysis
  • Domain Experts
  • Users & Apps
  • What is Cartography — Conceptualization

Group 1 report:

  • Software doesn’t make you check your data.
  • Data crosses social constructs.
  • Use “forensic cartography” to look back and where your data came from.

Group 2 report:

  • The big problem of cartography: distilling data into a story
  • Software needs to empower amateurs to do great work
  • Right now we live in a “wild west” of geo-software. How to choose the right tool?
  • Integrate Open concept into design, code, and education to foster community
  • It’s important to remember that context use changes how you should design
  • How do we establish best practices for new platforms while maintaining historical legacy?
  • “Small mapping” — Formerly, large orgs made large maps with large data. Now, small orgs make up most of the map making, but the data is bigger. Tools have dramatically increased cartographic capacity.
  • Maps as conversation — as author, don’t inject your message, let the data speak.
  • “GitHub for Cartography”
  • Machines help us handle big data.
  • What is the expiration data of our theories?

Group 3 report:

  • Expertise in Cartography is sourced in many fields
  • Cartography degrees are in decline. Many young people don’t label themselves cartographers, thus the specific discipline of Cartography isn’t attracting new talent
  • Is cartography data science?
  • Making maps has become making map-making tools.
  • Maps are a window to data.
  • Old ideas help prevent reinventing the wheel

Group 4 report:

These are my notes from our discussion. Our report to the group may have been slightly different.

  • We shouldn’t be surprised that well designed maps are invisible
  • Good cartography is (sometimes) ancillary to some other purpose
  • “Text promotes its own oblivion” applied to maps
  • Maps are knowledge infrastructure
  • Art tries to **not** promote it’s own oblivion
  • Therefore maps are not science + art
  • Data = science | design = finding what’s useful

Day 1 afternoon session: Media

After a delicious meal at the Redlands café it was back to the refreshment-free auditorium.

Gary Gale of what3words fame regaled us with tales of maps past, a snapshot of maps today, and a peek into map’s future.

Gary has been kind enough to include his prepared notes in between his numerous slides. Check out his presentation here.

Gary made me think:

  • Maps have gone through numerous evolutions.
  • Maps can be many things.
  • Maps are marvelous.
The age of maps on things (again)

Next, Kaitlin Yarnall of National Geographic discussed the ongoing changes at the magazine post-Murdoch acquisition.

Kaitlin made me think:

  • NatGeo does some amazing work.
  • The acquisition isn’t going to kill cartography.
  • I hope I can contract with them someday

The next lightning talk was by none other than Robert E Roth of UW Madison fame. He had some brilliant ideas about cartography that really got me thinking. I especially liked his concept of borrowing literature concept of ‘tropes’ for use in cartography.

  1. Set the Mood
  2. Enforcing Linearity
  3. Genre
  4. Redundancy & Motifs
  5. Focusing & Accenting
  6. Voice
  7. Visual Simile
  8. Irony & Satire
How could you apply this to your map?

That marked the end of a very engaging and though provoking day 1! Now it was time to unwind with some complementary cocktails, passed hors d’oeuvres, and dinner at State.

Breakout Session #2


  • Storytelling
  • Technological Needs
  • Ethics, Responsibility, Privacy
  • Purpose
  • Users/Humans behind the map

Below are my bullet points from the conversations or reports. Hopefully when the presentations go up, so will these reports. I’d like something to help me remember what some of these were -_-’

Group 1

From my rough, woefully incomplete, conversation-driven notes.

  • Personalization — interactive maps are still immature. Need to learn from graphics design
  • Cartography can learn from print to advance the profession; cartographic desires (for techniques, methods, tools) can drive cartographic tech.
  • Don’t worry about Mercator; this is fear. Maps happen anywhere.
  • Media drives design — and media is new
  • Don’t worry about the old rules.
  • “Map” has transitioned from being a noun to being a verb.
  • We’ve seen a change in map quality; not just in appearance, but also in message. Always consider the purpose and the audience.
  • Rules of cartography? Good design is the judicious breaking of rules.
  • Maps are artifact — rules are more important.
  • No rules — there is just the ethics of the message.
  • Don’t worry about justifying our existence. Just because mapping has become cheap (a la desktop publishing) doesn’t mean we’re threatened. The cream rises to the top.
  • Maps as art? Can maps be just art?
  • Art maps vs Smart maps.
  • Service oriented cartography — how do we preserve history? When APIs are turned off, companies defunct.
  • Map as Biography

Group 2

  • Do story map skills add to cartography’s dilution of the field? Is there a line of demarcation?
  • Do story maps have to follow the narrative form?
  • Story maps as a post-modern attack on GIS? GIS = data truth; story = narrative
  • Maps as advocacy? Lie with story maps?

Group 3

Focus: ethics, storytelling, purpose

  • Privacy — maps expose private information. Should there be rules?
  • Technology drives storytelling to be interactive. Can we use game design methodology to create more engaging interactions?
  • Do interactive maps provide more ways for cartographers to like with maps? Ethical concern.
  • Technology both expands and contracts opportunities
  • Teaching additional skills to implement new cartography technology
  • Cartography to benefit users as the driving purpose of the map
  • Need richer datasets for storytelling
  • Capture audience in 15 seconds — images and text on a map

Group 4

Anthony Robinson helpfully tweeted his group’s main talking points:

I won’t discuss what happened once the bar opened up

Day 2 morning: Design

After we recovered from the debauchery of the night before, we stumbled back into Esri Building Q and settled in to hear some more great talks. The day started off with a talk by the great Nigel Holmes, who worked at Time magazine for 16 years, ultimately retiring as the Graphics Editor. He inspired us with some marvelous examples of cartography he’s encountered or created over the years.

Nigel made me think about:

  • Historical map styles are ripe for revisiting and revitalizing
  • Cartographic explorations can inspire other cartographers to push the artistic envelope
  • Big-D Design is a critical component of good cartography

Next up, Jeremy Crampton from the University of Kentucky discussed privacy in the big data era. Unfortunately I don’t have good notes from his talk, but this slide does a good job summarizing.

Jeremy made me think about:

  • The impact maps have on the world
  • Transparency of data is just as important as transparency of process

Finally, Sara Irina Fabrikant brought us home with evidenced-based research on good cartographic design. Naturally, she busted out her map shirt.

Sara made me think about:

  • Think about the map end-to-end, not just in well-lit offices
  • Think about the user

Breakout #3


  • Clarity
  • Audience
  • Uncertainty
  • Big Design
  • Privacy

Group 1

  • You cant argue about clarity in design
  • Big data <-> designers simplify = tension. This is role of cartography
  • Uncertainty to inform the audience
  • People want a certain visualization of uncertainty
  • Carto-advocate

Group 2

I was the reporter for this group. Here are my notes:

Group 2 in discussion
  • Privacy is a tradeoff. We used to pay with cash and be anonymous. Now we use cards which can link us to transactions. We chose this because of the tradeoff of convenience.
  • Loss of privacy is “OK” only when “nothing happens” — no intrusion into our life. We are the embodiment of big data, but it’s invisible to us. It’s comforting to be lost in the crowd.
  • Big data, social networks — these all seemed like great tools, despite the reduction in privacy. But now we write and post pictures online that destroy our privacy. We took the un-private path.
  • Cartography heavily contributes to thinking about privacy. We [map big data] without discussions of the limits. We never asked, as technicians, “How do we solve privacy?”
  • “The future is individual creativity.” Will there be room in the future for creativity when we have automation etc? Or will it lead to and enable more creativity?
  • Do you ever stop to ask — “Are you sure about your data?” Is it the obligation of the cartographer to withhold, correct, explain, or prevent publishing an unsure map? Inaccuracy leads to distrust of the field.
  • For interactivity, give user freedom, but engineer their direction.
  • If you put an uncertainty measure disclaimer, your map may be seen as untrustworthy.
  • Maps are always uncertain. How uncertain? That question makes cartographers statisticians.
  • Interactivity answers uncertainty. Let the user suggest other options
  • “Helpful tech” (i.e. backup cameras, lane-change warnings) won’t prevent you from hitting things.
  • Example: In the beginning of digital nautical charts, captains could turn off depth lines. (“Map is too crowded.”) This lead to many groundings, and now that option is removed.
  • Are there symbols that can represent uncertainty? For example, Nigel’s blueberry map, nobody expects that the blueberries represent the exact places and amount of blueberries grown.
  • What are the limits of design of an interface. Do maps have to work for grandma and a baby? Maybe “ugly” maps will prevent lay users from expecting to understand it. (See: aeronautical charts)
  • Privacy + uncertainty = design? Driven by talent, creativity, inspiration.
  • In OSM, standard cartographic choices influence what shows up on the map. Someone makes an edit, they want to see it. This skews what people put on the map, leads to data overload. “Less is more”
  • Re: above — Atlas editors can do the same thing
  • Re: People are nervous about blank areas on a map
  • Big data makes us feel like it’s complete because it’s big
  • Privacy is in decline, but how do we protect ourselves? Self-monitoring helps, but invasions continue to get worse
  • Re: privacy — “Knowing where is OK, just not who.

Group 3

  • Maybe we need a historic resource of cartography?
  • Inspire students through education? Cartography as discipline is in decline in favor of Geography, Design.
  • Play to our strengths. Include more people. Even bad cartographers
  • Represent the uncertainty of large datasets.

Group 4

If you’re interested in taking a listen to the proceedings yourself without my carto-filter, stay tuned:


Day 3 of the summit was mostly tech demos and some additional conversations, but I’ll leave you to find those things out on the corporate blogs or conferences. The one thing I do think will be of great interest to you:

ArcGIS Online + Adobe Creative Cloud is coming


A brief summary of my feelings from the event:

  • It was an honor to be invited.
  • I thought many others deserved to be there instead of me.
  • Those that weren’t there often featured heavily in the presentations and discussions.
  • I had many thought-provoking conversations about cartography to a depth I’ve never explored before.
  • There was quite a lot of interest in basemaps.
  • The crowd was very homogenous.
  • I thought the breakout discussion groups really allowed for deeper explorations of topics.
  • Cartographers are very nice people.
  • Despite being at Esri HQ, the conference was very platform-neutral. There was plenty of discussion of other powerful and popular cartographic tools.
  • I was extremely inspired by all of the attendees.
  • I’m really excited about cartography.

Some thoughts from others:

Thanks for reading

If you have any thoughts, questions, comments, or concerns — please feel free to reach out. I’m on Twitter @TheMapSmith and in The Spatial Community Slack daily.

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