In defense of map critique

Taylor Shelton
Mar 29, 2015 · 4 min read

Since Andrew Hill’s defense of ‘burger cartography’ — or a more general “exploratory playfulness with maps” — seems to have been spurred on, at least in part, by one piece that I wrote and another piece that was written about something I wrote, I thought it worth putting together a short response to clarify some of my own positions on the matter and keep the debate going

As I see it, Andrew’s substantive point boils down to saying that the critiques leveled against the ‘animated ectoplasm’ maps of geotagged tweets made with CartoDB are “too caught up in the belief that mapping and map makers must all share a single motivation”.

Ferguson-related tweeting on CartoDB, by Simon Rogers.

Speaking only for myself, it’s certainly not that I believe that all map makers should share a single motivation. Indeed, the kind of critical approach to mapping that I’m promoting with my collaborators would recognize that such differences in motivation are persistent and pervasive, and are often the result of particular kinds of power relations and subject positions. That is, it’s not even worth arguing whether or not map makers should share a single motivation, since they simply can’t.

But this does not mean that we should simply absolve some maps and map makers from critique because of their “exploratory playfulness”. As my colleague Jeremy Crampton says in his book Mapping:

“maps are incredibly useful ways of organizing and producing knowledge about the world, but…these orders of knowledge also incorporate unexamined assumptions which act as limits which deserve to be challenged” (Crampton 2009: 17).

This is no less true for ‘playful’ maps of Twitter than for any other kind of ostensibly more ‘serious’ maps.

The point of our particular critique of Twitter maps is not to uphold conventional cartographic design standards or expertise as the one true way to map, as Andrew seems to suggest. I am not a cartographer, a GIScientist, or a programmer, and I don’t work for any company that has its skin in this particular game. As the maker of plenty of bad maps, I couldn’t care less about those standards, which tools are used to make maps, or whether someone has had formal cartographic training. The point of our critique is to understand the different motivations and unexamined assumptions that go into these maps and their interpretations, and to think about how we can, again as Crampton says, “open up other ways of doing things” (Crampton 2009: 15).

For us, there are plenty of other ways that we can make maps of geotagged tweets without just ‘letting the data speak for themselves’. Context is of the utmost importance, whether in the form of an interpretation of spatial patterns drawing on established social scientific knowledge or an explicit discussion of the methods of data collection and analysis that went into making the map. But this kind of context is almost universally absent from the viral maps of Twitter being made using CartoDB software and shared by some of the world’s most prominent news outlets. That Andrew finds the maps to be effective at their intended goal is interesting to me, since I’ve never seen such a goal articulated clearly. More often than not, it seems that we’re left to decipher these maps entirely on our own. And yet these maps get held up time and time again as worthy of our attention, a unique look at a given social issue of interest that’s supposed to reveal some heretofore unknown insight… I mean, that’s what data does, right?!

Examples of CartoDB-based tweet maps in the media.

So even if an “exploratory playfulness” renders this attention to context less important to a particular map maker at a particular moment in time, it is these contexts that undoubtedly continue to influence the way the map helps us to make sense out of the world. And sometimes those maps help us to make sense out of the world in a problematic way. Because of that, even ‘playful’ maps are worthy of our critique, not just our unflinching attention.

So, in the end, I’m not sure that we should be concerned about getting people to love maps — indeed, perhaps some of us have too much unconditional love for maps — but instead getting them to take maps seriously.

Taylor Shelton

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Kentuckian // Geographer