Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Further to my last post, the thread on James Fee's blog took an interesting turn in which John from Jerzee complained against unqualified people creeping into GIS (especially in management), I responded noting that I had only three classes in grad school and a studio art degree and have built a successful career on that, and John responded (in part):
Nat: I find your post irritating to say the least. Your example is based on getting an entry level job you were never qualified for then learning on the job and taking a higher position you should’ve never been qualiifed for either.
My argument is based on people like yourself who think you can pick up every detail on the job. Unfortunately, you can not and that is why formal training is neccesary. All my cartographic skills were developed in training and college. I applied them in my job but I never gained more cartgraphic training at work.
On the job training teaches us how to make cost effective maps not cartographically correct maps.
Not surprisingly, I take umbrage at the idea I am unqualified for my job. But the whole exchange sets up for me a fundamental divide not just between GIS and cartography, but between people whose job it is to manage and operate a complex system, and people whose job it is to make something or perform a service. For the former, training is essential; for the latter, seat-of-the-pants can work, especially if the system is not too complex.

There was an article last year in the New Yorker by Atul Gawande about checklists in medicine. A doctor named Peter Pronovost has found that using checklists for procedures (such as intubation) where every step is essential can save lives, because in the heat of the moment even the best nurses or doctors can have a momentary lapse. In a relatively simple system, like driving a car, one can readjust, but at some point that is a recipe for disaster.

The classic example, and the origin of Pronovost's idea, is the 1935 crash of the prototype Boeing airplane later called the "flying fortress." The plane crashed not for mechanical reasons, but because the plane had gotten too complex to fly by the seat of the pants. So:
...the Army purchased a few aircraft from Boeing as test planes, and some insiders remained convinced that the aircraft was flyable. So a group of test pilots got together and considered what to do.
They could have required Model 299 pilots to undergo more training. But it was hard to imagine having more experience and expertise than Major Hill, who had been the U.S. Army Air Corps’ chief of flight testing. Instead, they came up with an ingeniously simple approach: they created a pilot’s checklist, with step-by-step checks for takeoff, flight, landing, and taxiing. Its mere existence indicated how far aeronautics had advanced. In the early years of flight, getting an aircraft into the air might have been nerve-racking, but it was hardly complex. Using a checklist for takeoff would no more have occurred to a pilot than to a driver backing a car out of the garage. But this new plane was too complicated to be left to the memory of any pilot, however expert.
So what does all this have to do with cartography and GIS?

A GIS is a very complex suite of software. It takes all one's expertise and attention to make sure it does what it needs to do, and it can do an enormous amount. But because of this, GIS experts tend to be very focused on the system.

Cartographers (or at least the graphic-designy ones I identify with) tend to have a less intensive approach to the tool(s), and spend more time on the product as an organic whole. The cartographer will be working back and forth between comparatively simple adjustments of the map elements and stepping back and judging how it is working from the point of view of a user.

All extremely generalized, but as I think about the difference between liberal arts types and technical types—and how they approach the nature of a job—it makes a lot of sense. Most of us find ourselves having to meld the two approaches: the generalist has to learn some very specific tool-based skills (and yes, training of one sort or another is usually necessary), and the specialist has to learn some basic "liberal arts" skills like business writing and customer service (often on the job).

[updated 2-17-13 with new links]

Thursday, June 12, 2008

In front of a crowd in your underwear

Interesting thread on James Fee's blog. It's an argument over where to draw the "good enough" line when making a map under tight deadline and budget. The argument I'm fighting is that "cartography" (and in some posters' minds this seems to mean "making the data look pretty") is an optional item that can be left off if time gets tight.

This seems to me to be like arguing that getting dressed is an optional part of a public speaking gig, that the clothes you choose don't really matter. Showing up for a speech in a dirty t-shirt and cutoffs isn't a big deal if you run out of time.

Good design takes practice. I've been doing this for 17 years now, and I still have a lot to learn (hence, in part, this blog). Good presentations of any kind take practice—whether performance, graphic, verbal, oral, or sartorial. And if you are gearing up to present in front of an important audience sometime in your life, you don't want (on one hand) to look like a rube who can't dress him/her self, or on the other hand like someone who is trying too hard. If you want it to look normal and easy, and if you don't want it to take twice the time of an ugly data-dump, you have to practice.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Home and Away

One of the defining moments in my pre-cartographic life was my first time in London (England) in 1983. I did a lot of wandering about, and had an old-fashioned Bartholomew’s map of the city (hand lettering and cross-hatching, spot colors, etc.). I took some longish walks exploring the city, and then would get out the map to see where I’d been. Because London is such an un-gridded city, I’d find myself approaching places I’d been before from new directions, and later, tracing my route on the map, I’d realize I’d sometimes been only a block or two from a previous day’s walk.

In this case, the map provided an obvious framework on which I “draped” my own experiences. I’ve found that for large-scale maps in general, this process of using the map as a common base for explorations makes places make sense—especially urban spaces (I’m not much of a wilderness walker).

To me this is central to what a map is good for, but it is of course only a small part of what maps do in the world: it only really happens using large-scale maps: maps of states and countries don’t have the sort of visual information that ties direct experiences together.


Every so often these days, I’ll find myself approaching a familiar place from an unfamiliar direction, and I find the jump from one to the other to be a sudden change in attitude. When i drive through unfamiliar places, I pay attention to the generic: interstate highway signage, billboards, franchise stores. It makes me a little sad to see this generic quality, when I am interested in seeing something new and different; it makes me think a little of John Steinbeck’s rants against growing uniformity and generic-ness 50 years ago in Travels With Charley.

On the other hand, I see the same signage, billboards and franchise stores in my own back yard, and they seem simultaneously normal (they’re always there) and locally rooted (they’re landmarks, and they employ or otherwise have to do with my neighbors). A Burger King on the corner near my office closed earlier this year, and while I won’t miss it as a place to get food or as a neighborhood social hub, it was a little disturbing to see the marker of the corner of 18th and Central change.

My point is, depending on whether I’m home or away, my responses to these generic landmarks change. When I’m in unfamiliar territory, they are the only things familiar to me. And in fact when I’m on the road, I tend to seek out specific generic national brands for the sake of being reasonably sure of what I’m getting. When I’m on familiar turf, these generic brands are just part of a familiar landscape more shaped by my past experience and those of friends.


Where am I going with this?

When I cross under an anonymous freeway bridge (and is there any other kind, really?), it makes a huge difference in my attitude if I can see in my mind’s eye that it’s a bridge I’ve crossed myself. It becomes a “home” experience. When it’s an unfamiliar road, all I see is the bridge; when it’s a familiar road, it becomes part of a mental map of the familiar.

I think of the experience of driving a new bypass on a formerly familiar route. The landmarks all look right, and then suddenly I’m seeing familiar places from the wrong angle, and then familiar places from elsewhere on my map, or features I’d never seen before.

This to me is where large-scale maps can be very useful. They let me make sense of new experiences like this, and ground them amongst my existing experience. I find it a kind of exciting thing to edit a map to show a new road alignment (call me weird) in part because it’s about a new experience of a familiar space.

But interestingly, those maps are themselves built of entirely generic graphic materials. So they can’t and don’t actually transmit local sense of place. They are all grammar and syntax, all the graphic equivalent of journalistic speech, without any sense of direct experience or personal lives lived. When I project my experience on them (as JB Harley did in his famous essay on an Ordnance Survey map of his former home town), I am essentially draping experience over a framework. This process is similar to the way I approach a new place via landmark, directional orientation, and street grid, and then build experience on top of that.

So what I think I am approaching here is a way of looking at maps that needs to incorporate more than the map itself. Studying cartography separate from experience, especially studying meaning and implicit content of maps, is like studying syntax and grammar and sentence structure without ever acknowledging one can be moved by literature.