Sunday 6 July 2014

BCS President's Bulletin June 2014

This time last month I was highlighting the upcoming start of the World Cup and wondering aloud if England could win it – well, we all know the answer to that question now! It was a very disappointing campaign, given the promise that all of the younger players seemed to suggest. Unfortunately we didn’t play to potential and the ‘blistering pace’ that was supposed to be our secret weapon against ageing opposition just wasn’t apparent. The same can’t be said of maps of the World Cup, they have been all over the place. Given away in umpteen magazines and newspapers, they now adorn offices and bedrooms around the country or have they all been torn down in frustration?!

BCS Symposium 2014

I am writing this just over a week after the Symposium closed and I have had time to reflect a little on this year’s event. We thought that with our 50th Birthday last year, the numbers attending would be at their peak, but they were exceeded by those attending this year. Some of that was due to the fact that we held a joint event with the International Map Industry Association (IMIA) who swelled our numbers and gave us more of an international dimension. But even allowing for this the number of delegates was up, with over 100 people attending the Wednesday sessions.

The Mapathon on Tuesday went extremely well. Six teams were presented with data from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and given about 6 hours to come up with a map based on that data. I was invited along to help judge the teams’ entries and was impressed by what they had been able to achieve in such a short time. They all took a different approach to representing the dataset and the final outputs all looked at different strands of the information. We hope to make them available via the BCS website soon, so keep monitoring it on a regular basis.

The programme had been constructed to try and reflect the broad nature of our membership, drawing on speakers from a good range of organisations. Although we had one or two late withdrawals it didn’t adversely affect the programme thanks to those who were able to step in at short notice to plug the gaps. One gap we couldn’t plug was the loss of our guest speaker on Tuesday evening. World events got in the way and our speaker from the Army Co-operation Squadron was deployed just days before the event at too short notice to be replaced.

This is not the place to go through a synopsis of the talks and there will be a full article in the next edition of Maplines that will do that. Suffice to say that the range of presentations was excellent, the workshops were thought provoking and instructive, with everything running very smoothly throughout the Symposium. The Gala Dinner was very well attended, with 89 diners and it was particularly pleasing that all but one of those recognised in the BCS Awards process was present to collect their certificate or trophy. Congratulations this year to all who received recognition from BCS for their cartographic excellence and especially to Lovell Johns Ltd who won the overall BCS Award. The Awards Display showcased the work that is going on around the world with entries from as far afield as USA, New Zealand, Mexico, Hungary and Ireland as well as from the UK. The BCS Awards for 2015 are open, so please do think about entering your products for these as we celebrate excellence in Cartography.

The Symposium programme alternates between accommodating the Helen Wallis Memorial Lecture and the BCS President’s Address. This year it was the latter. I took the opportunity to highlight the fact that despite several articles to the contrary, Cartography is not dead – drawing an analogy from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and more specifically the BBC Series Sherlock. At the end of Series 2 we were all lead to believe that Sherlock was dead, but Series 3 showed him to be very much alive. The same can be said of Cartography; commentators have tried to kill it off, but it is in as healthy a position now as it ever has been.

The problem we face is that the proliferation of tools and apps for creating maps, specifically in the web medium, means that anyone can now make a map. Whilst this is hugely positive in raising the profile and making people far more aware of maps and their power, it also has the downside of there being a high proportion of bad maps being created. As a cartographic community we can inwardly cringe when we see some particularly bad cartography, but what can we do about it? I firmly believe that we should not set ourselves up as the ‘Carto Police’ and simply be critical of the bad. In the vast majority of cases it may not do any actual harm as it is merely poor portrayal, clearly failing to get the message across. But occasionally it will mislead, misinform or deliberately contort data and it is this sort of bad cartography that I think we should be reacting to. Whether it is as a result of laziness or lack of knowledge we should fulfil a role of highlighting maps that do their job well and offering advice to those that totally miss the point. There is simply too much for us to notice everything and whilst labels such as ‘pedantic cartographer’ and ‘cartographic purist’ don’t do us any favours it does show that we still have a voice and one that should be listened to.

ICA Map Carte

Four examples that I particularly liked in June, starting with Charles Booth’s famous map of London poverty. Although not the first to portray information thematically, these maps were truly groundbreaking in the way in which highly detailed information was portrayed with such clarity and accuracy. Arguably way ahead of their time, these maps were produced about 20 years after the death of Charles Dickens who wrote so graphically about London and its lower classes. Take the two together and you can create a truly gritty portrait of London in the late Victorian era.

I suspect that not everyone would call this a ‘map’. As a means of portraying information spatially, however, it works really well and the clarity of the message is as good as it was in the previous example. Clear use of colours, linked to the small world inset map, with proportional symbols for the size of countries really works well. The only thing to watch is the logarithmic scale for the horizontal axis which can foreshorten the income differential based on the initial visual perception.

The typographic map of Boston used to illustrate this example shows how a completely novel use of type can be manipulated to represent the features of a large city. It wouldn’t work as well in a rural area, but in the urban setting with solid blocks, punctuated by a rectilinear road pattern the city layout is clear to see, although the designer should have included Fenway Park to make it a true picture of Boston.

 As the text accompanying the image on the Map Carte website says, “Cartograms seem to be one of those map types that garner polarised opinion. There are as many who find them compelling and highly useful as there are those who find any reason to debunk their utility.” When done well, I think they are very useful and can be a really clear way of communicating complex data. Yes, the distortions can look very odd to those used to a ‘standard’ projection, but in conveying proportion by area they can do a really good job of highlighting differences that may otherwise not be obvious.

Cartography on the web

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to stumble upon this website, 'Map of the Week' but it is a real treasure trove of on online maps, some good some bad. Perhaps I was subconsciously ‘channeling’ the author in my Presidential Address as he points out at the head of his blog, “but mostly you'll find bad cartography, bad data, and bad assumptions made from the bad data. You'll also find a healthy serving of lazy stereotypes.” Browse his website and you will find all sorts of maps on a huge variety of themes. Accompanied by some entertaining and well constructed commentary. The BCS salutes you Dug for doing a fine job of keeping mapping on the front line.

Mapping and geopolitics definitely go hand in hand. With an article entitled ‘The Cartography of Geopolitical Chaos’ we are reminded that the lines drawn on maps, sometimes a long time ago are still produced to support the claims of one side against another in a border dispute. There are quite a lot going on around the world, the most famous, or infamous, of which is the long running dispute over the South China Sea.

And finally

It’s that time of year when we issue forms inviting people to submit their names for BCS Council. We like to think that everyone derives benefit from their membership of the Society, but have you ever considered what you may be able to do for the Society? We are all volunteers and it would be really good to spread the expertise wider. Even if you don’t feel that Council is for you, is there something else that you could bring? Maplines are always looking to strengthen their editorial team, the various committees and special interest groups would welcome new members and if you have any expertise in marketing or publicity then we would love to hear from you.

Please do take a few minutes to think what you could contribute.

Pete Jones MBE FBCart.S CGeog
6th July 2014

Twitter: @geomapnut

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