Wednesday 3 September 2014

BCS President's Bulletin August 2014

 As part of this year’s RGS-IBG Annual Conference, I was invited to take part in a panel discussion entitled “Geography, geographers and the new cartography”. Along with Chris Perkins from Manchester University and Janet Speake and David Chester from Liverpool Hope University we discussed with an audience of about 25 participants what this meant. Panel members were each given 10 minutes and I reused some elements of my Presidential Address to restate that cartography was not dead, nor was there necessarily a ‘new’ cartography, but that its importance was greater than ever. The discussion was free flowing and we did not all agree on everything, but there was a general consensus that whilst Cartography as a distinct academic discipline may well be dead in the UK, there was still a huge need for it to underpin the huge amount of maps appearing everywhere, not just on the web. Quite a few people in the audience made maps but had never had any cartographic training and recognised that this was a hindrance to producing good quality consistent output.
Cartography on the web 

Remember what I said about the 'silly season' last month? Well it duly arrived. You will almost certainly have seen this map before and you have to wonder whether the designer of the canal map of Berkhamsted had received any cartographic training. I wondered at first if perhaps they hadn’t been paid or there had been a dispute and they decided to get their own back, but the design of this particular map went viral and has generated a huge amount of publicity, so I guess that in the end it has proved to be very successful.

There are lots of examples of both good and bad cartography and whilst it’s great to showcase the good, we also sometimes need to pick out the bad and explain why it went so wrong and what could be done to make it better. Ken Field’s Cartonerd blogspot, pointed out an example of where a little professional advice was needed and it is indeed heartening to see that the producer of the original didn’t take exception but took the comments on board and came up with a better looking product, although as Ken quite rightly pointed out a simple graph might have done a better job of getting the message across. Whilst maps (not infographics) will often do a great job of highlighting trends or patterns that aren’t apparent in the simple data, sometimes just because data has a geo dimension doesn’t mean that you have to map it.

You know when you write something down as a note to yourself and you mean to go back to it later? Well I did that with one of my bookmarks for this month’s bulletin and then forgot which particular item I was highlighting, There are quite a few nice maps on this particular site and a few ‘infographics’ as well, which you will know is not one of my favourite neologisms. Thinking about it, I think it was the Social Atlas of Europe that I meant to pick out as worthy of mention. Using cartograms, which can make things look as though they are about to explode, this Atlas explores a number of different social factors and is described as “a must-read for those seeking to understand Europe, to look at European countries in all their complexity and diversity, and to make sense of what unites and divides Europeans”.

Okay, so the original article was published back in March, but I only became aware of it in August, “Why Geography Is The Best Subject To Study At University… Ever”. Well, we all knew that didn’t we?! Sure, Geographers are often given stick by other graduates and it has been disparagingly described as a ‘colouring in degree’, but Geography graduates remain amongst the most employable and the article itself goes on to give you ten (good?) reasons as to why Geography is the best subject, finishing with “Because everyone loves colouring in”.

I also came across this really clear and well-balanced article this month. It very clearly points out the huge technological advances that we have made in map making and the way in which we use maps to orientate ourselves and find our way It also points out clearly, however, that despite the advent of ubiquitous digital cartography on a whole range of very portable devices, there is still a huge demand and need for the traditional paper map. The two examples cited that particularly struck home with me were that of the military aviation user,  "Whilst reliance on digital mapping and projected HUD information is significant, all military pilots will ensure that they are proficient at reversionary navigation methods, i.e., using a map and stopwatch in the event that the GPS or digital map solution is lost."; and the rally driver,  According to M-Sport, "Technology has a place in motorsport -- but for the core skills of navigating it will be a long time before it is possible to trust GPS technology to replace an Ordnance Survey map and a road book."

ICA Map Carte

There was a really broad selection on offer in August and my first ‘pick’ is the map of the Apollo 11 landing superimposed onto a football pitch (or should that be 'soccer' pitch?). Apollo 11 touched down on a landscape literally alien to us, we had no idea of how big things were, distances we were told were very deceptive due to the lack of atmospheric refraction. So how did we know how far the astronauts strayed from the Eagle, well the answer is pretty clear when you add in a standard frame of reference: not very far. Having said that it I had been in the same situation I wouldn’t have strayed far from the only thing that was going to keep me alive and get me home safely!

A second sporting example is the many dimensions of a baseball field, which perhaps highlights one of the minor pitfalls of the previous map. There are maximum and minimum limits for a football pitch and they are all the same basic shape, but Neil Armstrong might have walked a bit further if he was at the Etihad (the largest Premier League pitch) than at Upton Park (the smallest). Baseball pitches, however, are all the same in the infield, but the outfields vary quite considerably both in size and shape with the home team often having a distinct advantage in the field because they know how their stadium plays and what sort of ricochets you’re going to get.

Having been to Bangkok and used a ‘Nancy Chandler’ in anger I can testify to how useful it is as a guide to getting round a chaotic city. Having enjoyed the experience of being picked up by a taxi driver only to be told twenty yards later, and I paraphrase, “you get out now, I not know where it is”, I will never be rude about London cabbies again. The map is both eye-catching and informative and is still one of the best for navigating your way around a frenetic Asian city. It’s simple, accurate and very easy to follow, perhaps I should have given the taxi driver a copy.

One thing that is very difficult to represent well is fuzzy boundaries. Cartographers love the certainty of a river to divide two countries or the watershed of different drainage basins, but some divisions are not so easily mapped as they are far more transient and movable. Mapping Africa without its borders is a really clever and illuminating concept and as the website notes, “The hand-drawn approach is endearing and lends itself well to this uncertainty.”

You can see these and more at

And finally

This has absolutely nothing to do with maps, but it was one of those real laugh out loud moments and uncannily accurate in capturing the British. Probably of great help to our overseas members, this should finally give you some important clues as to what we Brits really mean. My personal favourite:
No 21 “Each to their own” – Translation: You’re wrong but never mind.

Pete Jones MBE FBCart.S CGeog
3rd September 2014

Twitter: @geomapnut

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog List