A conversation with Andrew Turner about data and design in the geospatial realm

I really chatting last week with Andrew Turner on my Innovators show. Andrew is the driving force behind GeoCommons, a new service that brings social curation and visualization to the realm of geographic information and cartography.

A lot of our discussion wasn’t specific to geographic data. Issues of provenance, data tethering, syndication, and interpretive context apply to any kind of data that lives online and is both produced and consumed by a lot of different people. As more kinds and quantities of data move into the public realm, we’ll discover and codify best practices for coordinating our efforts.

But we also, of course, talked about the special challenges of geographic data. Marrying temporal and spatial data is a huge one. As I mentioned here, the team at Stamen Design is doing great work on that front.

Of course we’ll want to encapsulate, in software tools, some of the chops that produce animated displays like their Oakland crimespotting map, or the Rocky Mountain Institute’s oil import map.

My own related effort was far less effective than that RMI oil import map. The best stories told with data will arc through time, and it needs to get way easier for anyone who cares to tell those stories.

As the tools and services emerge, we’ll run into another issue that Andrew and I discussed. Cartography is an incredibly subtle art, and we will soon see a proliferation of awful maps made by folks with data, tools, and no design sensibility. But that’s OK, in fact it’ll be a good problem to have. People went nuts with fonts and colors when the web was new, and everyone suddenly became a publisher. Over time things have settled down. It’ll be interesting to watch the cycle repeat as everyone becomes a mapmaker.

5 Comments

  1. Re Cartography: I have been tracking the misuse in design terms on the GeoWeb for coming up to 2 years on my blog. They’re out there now making ugly maps!

    As you note, it’s to be expected but Jakob Nielsen claimed that bad design on the web went on for 10 years. I think we have to be smarter about neo-cartography (if you will) much quicker than that.

  2. And it’s not just about aesthetics. Maps are about the enter the realm that tables, charts, and graphs have inhabited for many years. We have made distressingly little progress in teaching people how to use such devices in ways that properly support discourse.

    I don’t see this as a “design for the web” issue. The principles predate and transcend the web, we should be teaching them, and we mostly don’t.

  3. > It’ll be interesting to watch the cycle repeat as everyone becomes a mapmaker.

    I’m not sure the analogy to fonts in the 1980s is applicable to map making. My logic is as follows — fonts (and choosing them) and desktop publishing was something that just about everyone got into because it was essential (e.g., eventually you had to understand how to use Word and later Excel and PowerPoint — part of jobs requirements). I don’t think everyone needs to become a mapmaker (just because smart phones will all have GPSs in them doesn’t mean people are going to make the effort to use the GPS). Its just another thing on the “to do list” for people and for many it will be non-essential. Being able to choose fonts and desktop publish was essential, map making is a non-essential for the foreseeable future (unless one’s income depends on it and hence it is a desired skill to have relative to people who don’t have the skill for people, say, competing for jobs in a job market)!

  4. 3/22/09
    I would appreciate confirmation of this e-mail!! I would also like more info regarding your program and membership!! When is the next update???
    Thanks,
    Diana

  5. Another for your list of instances – mapping of cycling accidents in the UK following the release of the raw data by DirectGov

    http://labs.timesonline.co.uk/blog/2009/03/11/uk-cycling-accidents/

    I remember being part of the team that first put census data and maps into the hands of non-specialist users through the then-new technologies of PCs and CD-ROM back in the late 80s with a product we called SuperMap (from Space Time Research).

    We couldn’t even dream of this sort of access to data and maps back in those days, although I dare say that the ability to misread and misrepresent the information has remained constant.

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