SXSW: Axis Maps Roadshow

by David Heyman on April 14, 2009

A couple weeks ago I was lucky enough to get invited to the SXSW Interactive conference to speak on a panel called Neocartography: Design and Usability Evolved. Here are some collected thoughts I had from running through the panel again in my head.

Do you need a cartography degree to make maps? As the only trained cartographer on the panel, they just couldn’t wait to ask me this question (could I really say that Stamen’s “non-cartographers” shouldn’t be making maps?). I gave the popular answer, “No,” but with a caveat: “You just need to care about cartographic design.” Elegant design and clear communication are universal to all aspects of design. Cartographers have a slight leg up in the map game because we’ve been using our design chops to get good at applying these universal concepts to maps, but concepts like subtle use of color, visual heirarchy and map / UI composition can directly be applied from graphic design to map design. Incidentally, this is the hardest stuff to teach to cartography students. However, there is a lot of cartographic design that is uniquely geographic. Issues like projections, thematic symbolization and generalization don’t exist outside of maps and largely exist because of the challenges of representing a complex world on a small, flat piece of paper. These same issues remain even moving from paper to the computer screen, but unfortunately they are largely ignored. On a preachy note, I think it is our responsibility as cartographers to CONSTRUCTIVELY engage ourselves with the new mapping discourse.

What’s with neocartography? Neocartography is a tricky definition (one that I think is changing every day) so take the coward’s way out and define it as:

You know… the Where2.0 crowd.

But “Where2.0″ covers it pretty well. Location (that’s the where) is EVERYTHING. It’s an on-demand (that’s the 2.0) reference-map world where apps need to know WHAT you’re looking for so they can tell you WHERE it is. A lot of cartographers (especially those educated in Geography) probably feel disengaged with the new movement because they are looking for “Why3.0.” We want to make thematic maps that explain the world instead of just locating a tiny part of it. And unbelievably, with two people on the panel who helped build it, we never showed off Geocommons Maker and its thematic mapping to the audience. We could have started the Why3.0 movement then and there!

What about the 9,000 lb Google shaped elephant in the room? Instead of listening to me prattle on about projections and choropleth classification schemes, it seemed like the audience would rather hear what Google, represented by Elizabeth, their Maps UX Designer, had to say about mapping. Me too. Even though we are both making maps on the Internet, our issues couldn’t be more different. Where we can agonize over cartographic and UI issues, Google constantly needs to consider issues of scalability. With their maps viewed by millions of people (horrible problem to have, right?), design decisions take on massive significance. The UI and interactivity set worldwide expectations on what an interactive map should be (look at panning / zooming controls on all the major map providers to see their influence). They’ve become masters of the universal elements of cartographic design but have not addressed (or have been constrained by) the uniquely cartographic issues. Because Google sets the tone for mapping on the web, the web-mapping community has believed that these issues cannot or should not be dealt with.

Anything else? Just a couple things:

  • Cloudmade and OpenStreetMap are going to be huge. They are going to improve the state of cartography on the web and engage both experts and the public with mapping in entirely new ways. 
  • GPS is coming to social networks. This is going to be MASSIVELY HUGE. In 3 years, “location-aware” won’t be a buzzword anymore, it will be an assumed feature. There is going to be insane amounts of spatial data and I, for one, cannot wait to face all of the display challenges it’s going to pose.
  • Stamen kicks ass and they’ve set the bar high for top-shelf online mapping. It’s hard to share a stage with Mike Migurski when he has such awesome maps and visualizations at his disposal. What a show-off.
  • It was great to meet Elizabeth and some of the Google Maps team. I wish I could have pried more Google secrets from them but they’re too tight-lipped.
  • Andrew Turner at FortiusOne is one of the most plugged-in, active people working in the neocartography field. Thanks to him for putting together a great panel and keeping us in line.
  • Everyone at SXSW had an iPhone.
  • Everyone communicated via Twitter.
  • Favorite quote: “The difference between unemployed and self-employed is only in your head.”
  • Favorite panel: How to Give Better Presentations – To unfairly summarize, be gimmicky to get people’s attention, play to their emotions, and don’t split their attention between what they see and what they hear.
  • I honestly cannot recommend this conference enough. Getting to be around the leaders in the technology field was an unbelievably energizing experience. I met some wonderful and inspiring people and I could feel the world changing over those five days.

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