Cartography Philosophy


On my mind today were two little nuggets from Inc Magazine’s April 2014 issue that got me thinking.

Keeping Those Mapping Skills Fresh

The first is a question, or actually, part of a question that goes like this, “Which customers can’t participate in our market because they lack skills?” It struck me as both a very obvious question to ask yourself as a business owner and a completely novel concept. It should be obvious to ask this question but it just isn’t asked very often.

I wouldn’t normally even write about this question on a blog about cartography except for one thing: it’s a question that hits home to traditional cartographers. Do we lack a skill that’s necessary for making maps in the modern era? If I’m adept at finding data, analyzing data, using a GIS program, and perhaps even in manipulating the GIS output in a graphics software, shouldn’t that be enough? Why should I invest my time learning new tools, which are heavily focused on web design, that are being developed? Because if you don’t, you won’t be able to participate in the new cartographic market, that’s why.

Safe or Stifling?

Another bit in the magazine espoused the ideals of providing a safe environment for exchanging ideas within your workgroup. Two articles describe how to produce this “safe environment” and, surprise surprise, they contradict one another. One of the articles talks about never knocking down the ideas of others. Another article talks about making it so people know they won’t be taken to task for what they say. If you have a culture of never questioning ideas then you have a culture where nobody knows if something’s actually good or if your peers are simply putting on a polite facade. If nobody’s ever taken to task then things could get ugly.

And what does all that have to do with cartography? It poses the possibility that there are multiple ways to allow critical feedback on a map design, an analysis, data inputs, and the like. As a profession, we are in desperate need of critical feedback. Some of that happens in social media today, such as on twitter. (If you want to know how people really feel about that map, post it on twitter but have a thick skin.) What seems to the designer like a fabulous idea–renaming every U.S. state for a beer brand let’s say–might be met with derision from the crowd.

Some say that criticism kills innovation. If you have too many people telling you that beer map is terrible then you might never come up with another map idea in your life. But if we never allow criticism in the workplace then we risk putting out a bunch of beer maps. Is there a way to win here?

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