Ed Parsons dislikes cartographers, “more than anyone in the world”

by Mark Harrower on November 5, 2009

The title was one of the opening statements made by Google’s “technology evangelist” Ed Parsons in a recent talk for the British Computer Society. In the talk he argues traditional street maps are bad (all of them) because they fail to engender a sense of place and because they abstract the world using map symbols. He goes on to say Streetview is good and doesn’t suffer any of these problems. So is Google Earth. The take-home message is that 2D is bad! Maps symbols are bad! Photos are good! And paper is bad! [subtext: Google doesn't make paper, but if we did, we might soften our stance].

Here is my concern: I’m not aware of any research to support such simplistic claims. Merely saying them, repeatedly, doesn’t make them true. The wayfinding research that I have seen shows that for some users, for some map reading tasks, yes, absolutely Streetview and Virtual Earths and geo-tagged photos can help. And for some users and some situations paper is better than pixels. And for some users, and some kinds of data, 2D is better than 3D. But none of those statements is a blanket truth and by outright rejecting all traditional maps in his talk–even if just for wayfinding on mobile devices–an otherwise solid argument is overshadowed by hyperbole.

If drug companies made arguments like these they might try to convince us by saying “Aspirin is bad. Aspirin may make your arms fall off. But our new drug has none of these problems. Use our new drug.” The difference is drug companies are legally obligated to back-up their claims. It is perhaps the reason they don’t employ “evangelists.”

The deeper, more troubling message that we hear again and again is that cartography is little more than making street maps.  And the flip side of that coin is the only reason we use maps is for wayfinding. Streetview is very cool (it really is), but it is also pretty specialized in its uses and the advent of it does not in fact “kill cartography.”

Cartography is more than taking photographs of a street. It’s a shame that someone with this level of influence at Google has such a limited view of why we map.

There are 8 comments in this article:

  1. November 5, 2009Ed Parsons says:

    Mark,

    I was deliberatively provocative in my talk, of course it is not as simple as 2D bad, 3D good. Of course there remains a role for the graphic representation of geospatial data and we are beginning to see some interesting new visualisation techniques I would highlight the work of stamen design (http://stamen.com/) here.

    But are stamen cartographers?

    What is been taught today on the few reaming cartography courses you could attend it not keeping up with technological developments, I hope Cartography 2.0 will help move the discipline forward, because we really need a “new” cartography for the 21st Century.

    ed

  2. November 5, 2009Mark Harrower says:

    Hi Ed,

    Thanks for the response and definitely agree that ‘cartography’ as it was conceptualized 20 years ago is no longer nearly enough. The world has moved on. I also agree that Streetview (and other immersive, augmented tools) are a much more powerful way to bridge the gap between ‘the world’ and ‘our understanding of the world’ – especially when navigating with mobile devices – since we have plenty of both formal and informal evidence to know traditional street maps just don’t cut it for many map readers/tasks.

    We really need folks like Stamen, Aaron Koblin and others to push that envelope and show us what cartography in the 21st century looks like (we’re huge fans of their work), although I’m not ready yet to concede that all pre-2005 maps are dead, nor that digital/interactive always trumps paper/static for every map, every user, and every dataset.

    Cheers,
    Mark

  3. November 6, 2009Joel says:

    I’ve got a pretty sweet blog; am I a journalist?
    Stamen is obviously worthy of praise, but to imply that their brilliance is grounds for dismissal of the core, still necessary knowledge dispensed in modern cart courses is silly. Intellectual honesty would insist that a more complete picture of mapping efforts on the web and desktop be offered up for discussion as opposed to cherry picking the shiniest example to support your claims. I would argue that Stamen excels despite formal training, not for lacking in it.
    Do cart courses need to expand their offerings? Of course. Are the basics still necessary and indeed transferable to a new medium? You bet. Just avoid the courses where “reaming” is featured @Ed P.

  4. November 7, 2009BrianSJ says:

    For me, the main point you make is that there ought to be some evidence. What is the state of usability testing in either paleotard cartography or neo geography? Are people doing proper testing to Common Industry Format data or is nothing happening? My suspicion is the latter but I’d like to be wrong.

  5. November 7, 2009Mark Harrower says:

    Brian

    There are 40+ years of careful, peer-reviewed research on how people use maps, including topics like wayfinding, 2D versus 3D, or using photos to navigate versus using maps. Some of it has been done within cartography, some outside (e.g., HCI/V.E.). It’s not complete and still very much on-going, nor am I an expert, but there are probably a hundred published papers that could help us to think about relative merits of regular street maps versus streetview. These studies span experiments from fMRI work on having folks looking at street maps through to cognitive theories spatial learning and placemaking, through to performance and usability testing across a half dozen academic fields (psychology, computer science, education, cartography, etc.). CIT could be one part of that puzzle, but again, not my area of expertise.

    My point is simple: We shouldn’t make unfounded, extravagent claims without being aware of this work.

  6. November 7, 2009BrianSJ says:

    Mark,
    Thanks for the reply. The ‘science’ or ‘knowing stuff’ about the usability of a type of product is undoubtedly useful, but the practice of Human-Centred Design as an approach to design and evaluation is what builds usable products. In the world of mobile systems, there are plenty of people working on applications where they would be able to give you good data on just how usable/fit for purpose it is. It is my impression coming recently to the world of electronic navigation charts that although there is good research, there is not much by way of Human Centred Design happening in hydrographic offices. My suspicion is that traditional cartographic centres are much the same. Your response has got me looking, which is proving interesting.
    Your simple point is spot on. This does not need to be an evidence-free debate.

  7. December 9, 2009Anthony Robinson says:

    Ed and people like him benefit enormously from appearing nimble and forward-looking, so it helps to paint predecessors in a negative light. Witness the emergence of calling people “paleo” vs. “neo” in cartography. I guess in his thorough research on the topic he’s missed the classes we teach (without reaming, thankfully) at my school on user-centered design, dynamic mapping, etc…

    User-centered design & evaluation is an essential part of all contemporary academic work in geographic visualization (since the late 90’s) – whether or not this has trickled down yet to gov’t mapping orgs and the like is debatable.

  8. May 4, 2010David Medeiros says:

    A bit late on this but can’t help adding my two cents. Ed , like many on the “cutting edge” of geo-spatial visualization, has no idea what a cartographer really is or does and assumes (wrongly) that cartography itself must be technologically updated to have anything to offer the new mapping dynamic.

    This would be similar to scrapping all aeronautic understanding because we invented the rocket.

    If every new innovation became the grounds for total displacement of its foundation simply because it was newer, we’d never get past the first innovation. Cartographic principles and best practices are a major, foundational factor in most modern mapping, and where it isn’t… it’s obvious. Cartography gives modern mappers the language and intellectual tools to make their innovations work.
    While there is a lot of interesting and even groundbreaking work going on in geo visualization today, there wouldn’t be any of it without cartography and it won’t progress in any meaningful way without it either.

    I agree with Ed on one point, modern cartography courses, especially those attached to GIS programs desperately need updating. They are usually over narrow and don’t reflect the broader understanding of geography, people & place dynamics or visual information design that modern cartography actually practices. Cartographer is a word that even as it gains some greater exposure in our society is losing its meaning in the sense that few outside the profession understand exactly what it does and how it contributes to things they see and interact with every day.