Into the big wide open: Think (twice) before you map!

A little bit from my archives which I never got around putting online before…here it comes: Last September I was invited to do a keynote at FOSS4G, OSGeo’s Global Conference for Open Source Geospatial Software. The event is the annual gathering of Open Source Geospatial Developers, Users and Leaders and was held at Nottingham’s new East Midlands Conference Centre, 17th to 21st September. The conference motto was ‘Geo for all’ because, as the organisers explain, “many people who work with geo software and maps find themselves becoming passionate advocates for the power of geography to make a difference: in government, business, travel, environment, crime reduction, social justice and communications to name just a few domains. Open Source Geo software makes this possible.
So how does a geographer, working with geospatial software but being less so a developer, address a huge crowd of people who are little reluctant to see themselves as geeks and nerds? Instead of pretending to be as clever as most of the audience I took a slightly different stance, trying to bridge the gap between those on the programming side and those on the applied side – two groups which sadly rarely speak to each other. Traditional cartographers often see their field of work undermined (and threatened) by computerised methods to generate mapping products, while coders very often find the obsession with minute detail and ‘artisan’ cartography annoying. If the two worlds would come a bit closer together, and both sides speak a bit more with each other, the world of cartography and geospatial visualisations could benefit so much more. Addressing a more technical audience, I concluded that we should all think a little bit more before we start mapping, and that we should give a good mapping project a little bit more time than we often do these days – but more importantly of course: We should never stop mapping. These are the slides of my talk, of course including many maps:

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On the grid: Worldmapper and beyond

My research on gridded cartograms has its roots in the works of the Worldmapper project, which was originally released in 2006/07 and extended in the following years. While the first phase of the Worldmapper project has visually describes the world, mapping the national contours of hundreds of variables, it did so only in one way and a way easily open to criticism despite its novelty and wide scope. To tackle this, I conducted further research to help address these potential criticisms, to work on moving the resource beyond its simple descriptive form. This included a look at more theoretical issues of how world resources, flows and shares are understood, particularly visually understood – and how this can be improved.
The gridded cartograms are one of the key results of this second phase of the Worldmapper project to advance and improve the capabilities of the Worldmapper maps. So far we integrated gridded cartograms on the Worldmapper website only in form of the World Population Atlas that shows an extensive collection of gridded country cartograms. These are the first ever made compilation of maps showing population distributions in cartogram form at that level of detail for every country of the world, but there is more to the underlying technique than this.
Following the release of these first maps using a gridded cartogram approach, I have made progress not only in enhancing the accuracy and quality of these country-level maps, but also in advancing the technique to a stage where gridded cartograms can be utilised as an alternative map projection (explained and discussed in full detail in my PhD thesis). Some examples are shown on this website: One example for the new capabilities at country level is the map of population changes in Germany. At global level the example of agricultural spaces presented at last year’s Annual Meeting of the Society of Cartographers demonstrates their applicability not only for population-related issues, but beyond that for other quantitative dimensions with a new level of detail, but also new capabilities of showing additional layers of information that the original Worldmapper approach was not capable of achieving.
There sometimes is a certain confusion about the differences between the maps drawn in the first stage of the Worldmapper project (and that we carry on producing as well), and the new gridded cartograms. The following map series shows the differences by using the Worldmapper colour scheme applied to the different map types (for full clarity, the map series starts off with a conventional map projection):

Map comparison series: Conventional map vs cartogram vs gridded cartogram
(click for larger version)

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The Worldmapper Rainbow

A question often asked about Worldmapper is in regard to our choice of colours for the different regions and countries. On the website we briefly explain that the colours used on the maps group the territories into 12 geographical regions, and allow for an easier visual comparison between the maps than would otherwise be possible. The shading of each territory within a region is consistent throughout all of the maps.” But there is a little bit more to the colours which tell a story about the unequal fortunes of the world which follow a general pattern along the major regions.
The colours of the world’s regions are chosen very consciously, and have a deeper sense behind their distribution. We split the world into twelve contiguous geographical regions of population groups, with every region being roughly symmetrically balanced and having at least a population of one hundred million people. This is how the world’s population is distributed:
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Art meets Science: Views of the Arab World

Arts-Science encounters‘ are much talked about but much less often put into practice (for their supposedly little economic benefit – not least in times of tight science budgets). Science and art are not such opposing worlds as we often see them today, as they were much less divided world in the past. As I wrote in my PhD thesis, “Cartography has always been connecting the worlds of art and science. McLuhan & Powers (1992) underline the importance of cartography by claiming that without the map ‘the world of modern science and technologies would hardly exist’ (McLuhan & Powers 1992, quoted from Thrower 1999: 1). One may not fully agree with this notion, but the importance of cartographic contributions to our understanding of the physical and social environments is hardly questionable.
More widely, science and art remain closely intertwined. From the view of science, this link is often to be found in the field of scientific visualisation. The exhibition Places & Spaces: Mapping Science for example “is meant to inspire cross-disciplinary discussion on how to best track and communicate human activity and scientific progress on a global scale” (see scimaps.org). And where both worlds actively start to meet, the outcome can be a valuable contribution to a new perspective on research, as well as research can gain inspiring ideas for its own work. As stated in the Guardian, “the results [of such collaborations] can be seismic“.
Less seismic in a literal sense but not less inspiring have been some of the collaborations that originated from the Worldmapper project. Amongst these collaborations that I was involved in were the Story Map: What I Heard About the World by Sheffield-based performing artists Third Angel and the short film Sheffield – A City in Context by (again) Sheffield-based creative agency Human where we as academic geographers learned a lot about the approach artists take to see and explain our world.
A very different example of science and art encounters are the sculptures by Bay Area-based artist Jennifer Brazelton who came across my gridded population cartograms that I created as part of my PhD research and published online in the World Population Atlas. Here is an example of her work showing a sculpture based on the shape and structure of the gridded population cartogram of Syria, a country that made the most recent but also so far most lasting headlines in the events of the still so-called Arab Spring:

Syria
Sculpture and Gridded Population Cartogram of Syria
(click here for a full-size picture of the sculptureor here for the population map)

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World Population Cube

Last weekend I was invited to a workshop on future developments of society. The event took place in Berlin and was organised by the German research institution Fraunhofer-Institut für System- und Innovationsforschung (ISI) as part of the Foresight Process initiated by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The Foresight Process is described as ‘a strategic instrument (…) that provides technology foresight and the determination of future societal needs in terms of research and development‘. The workshop was a day full of creative buzz to squeeze interesting ideas out of the participants. To kick off the discussion everyone was asked to bring an item that symbolises one’s own work. For my work that had to be something abut maps. But to make it a more interesting item than a flat map I decided to craft a more sophisticated version of my maps that also stands for the challenging world views that lie behind the cartographic techniques that I work on. Cubic globes are not a new idea, but are quite handy when wanting just a little bit more than a simple map. They are much less work than creating a spheric version of the earth, and (as said by Carlos Furuti on his online cube globe collection) the cube is an ideal introduction to folding one’s own pseudoglobes.
My very own version of a cubic globe is the World Population Globe which I took with me to the workshop. It shows my gridded world population cartogram including topographic and bathymetric details and is reprojected onto a six-sided figure with square sides. If you want to create your own world population cube from my map, you can use the following template, print it out and have your hands on with a pair of scissors and a little bit of glue. The key instructions are shown on the printout (make sure to click the image or the links below for a full-size DIN A4 version of the template). Change your views of the world – enjoy the world population cube!

World Population Cube Cutout template
(click here for a full-size jpg imageor here for a pdf version)

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The Visualisation of Spatial Social Structure: Reflections on Critical Methods

‘(How) do we understand Capitalism? Reflections on critical methods’ was the title of a workshop on critical methods at the University of Manchester (September 13-14th). As the announcement of the workshop states, ‘there is no consensus on what critical social science is, exactly. Largely it is defined as not orthodox economics or positivist social science‘. Continue reading