Workflow and the Experienced Professional

I’ve been thinking lately about how my workflow has changed since I started out in GIS 12 years ago. One obvious change is that I no longer take copious workflow notes in spiral bound notebooks and Word documents like I used to. It used to be very important that every step was recorded for every intermediate dataset created and analysis conducted so that going back to a previous iteration after going down a wrong path would be less painful.

In basic terms, this meant that if I was currently working on ForestConversionStats6_clip (!) and discovered that going back to the non-clipped, unresampled, data from yesterday was necessary, that this could be done by looking in the notes and finding the dataset labeled, say, ForestConversionStats2 and starting again from there. I’m not kidding, I had MANY notebooks with dataset names and processes.

I still take notes, usually just in Notepad and saved to the project directory that I’m working in, but they focus more on specific parameters or perhaps long selection strings that I can just copy/paste when needed. Over the last five years or so it’s been nice to finally feel like the steps to create a good analytical result are second-nature (not for every single possible thing that can be done, but for many of the common tasks) enough to not need to back-track or write everything down.

With specific regard to cartography, this type of professional growth manifests differently. The cartographic workflow is very often not written down and not revisited. In fact, it can be difficult to tell if the end result (the map) is even meeting the original needs. Or at least it is harder to discern than the end result of an analysis. Either an analysis works or it doesn’t. You might even run some error tests on that analysis to test if it works, if you are a good scientist. But with cartography there are two barriers: #1 you don’t know if the map is as good as it could be and #2 even if you realize it isn’t as good as it could be, you don’t feel like going back and starting from a previous step.

The seasoned cartography professional is much more adept at those two steps than the novice. The seasoned map maker, though this may come as a surprise, is more critical of the end result and more knowledgeable about how that product should look. They will do the equivalent of error-testing analysis: they will send it out for peer-review, whether formal or informal. Also, they will take the time to change things based on that self-critical assessment and that peer-review, even if it means completely changing one of the key first decisions that had been made.

For example, let’s say that a map needs to be made to display at a public meeting about a proposed nature area. The cartographer makes a key decision at the beginning of the project to zoom out quite a bit from the nature area so that a nearby city is shown. The cartographer reasons that the overall context of the nature area in relation to the city area is important. However, when the map is done it is apparent that the map is too busy and the nature area has wound up not being the central focus as it should be. The experienced cartographer will go back and start over again. The novice may just keep it as-is.

I suppose you could argue that a seasoned cartographer doesn’t make bad choices to begin with. It may be that design decisions like that become easier and better with experience. However, no matter how experienced we are, there is always a chance that we will make blunders. It’s if we fix them that matters.

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