Archive for category Cartography Profession

Cartonotes, random

I’ve been up to my eyeballs in map styling lately. There’s the project for GeoServer that is currently at 18 SLD styles and then there’s the project involving 50+ layers in a mapbox gl js style. Stuff I’m dealing with on a daily basis:

  • Knowing the data inside-and-out. For the two styles mentioned above, there’s a, shall we say, intimacy one must have with the data in order to get anywhere fast. For example, how are the roads broken down by type? Depending on the dataset it will be different. OpenStreetMap data can vary depending on how you’ve downloaded it but in most cases you’ll have motorways, trunks, primaries, secondaries, tertiaries, tracks, cycleways, links and tunnels and bridges. Do not forget to use the tunnel and bridge codes! If you’re styling in a rural area and get those roads looking just fine you may not have even thought that as soon as you zoom over to a place with tunnels and bridges–Manhattan is a great test-place for this–that it doesn’t look the way you want it too. There are differing strategies for those tunnels and bridges. You might use a bolder casing for the bridges and a dotted casing for the tunnels. This is just one example and you should know that I just deleted another couple of paragraphs that went on and on about road tunnels and bridges so you can only imagine all the things one might need to know for all the other data out there. Give yourself a break, it takes back-and-forth exploration to discover all the nuances. Be someone who enjoys delving into things. Also, the term “test-place” is something I would like to propose a clever phrase akin to test-case but specifically used by cartographers. A list of classic test-places and what to look for when you are styling them would be very nice indeed.
  • Knowing the software inside-and-out. I have made many an SLD in GeoServer in my day. By the way, do you know if nausea induced by continous xml scrolling is treatable? Anyway, it only just dawned on me recently that you can combine filters with “in” like this. Previously I would have split these into separate functions with OR between them. Basically the point here is that there always seems to be something to learn that can make code more readable or a style looking better.

<ogc:Function name=”in”>

  • You can go in and change the json code for an AGOL database by adding “admin” between the rest and services part of the url. 

There was zero rhyme or reason for this post really, except to keep in touch. And know that whatever you’re struggling with, you probably aren’t alone. And that there are zillions of ways to make maps these days and as a cartographer, the more of them you know, and the more data you know, the better your ability to find the right tool for the right map. And that it is worth it in any case. I see the making of a map as putting together a puzzle. It is difficult, time consuming and at times tedious, but you can’t stop and each time a new piece is found and fit you feel a little bit more whole.

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Tools for Making Webmaps


You call yourself an expert. You call yourself a consultant. And then you get a call asking how you would put together a web map for a small organization without much in the way of resources, that doesn’t know a lot about geo. And that’s when it hits you: sure, there are the big companies and products that come to mind like Esri’s AGOL, Mapbox, and Carto, but what else is out there? Could something new have popped up that I should advise they use instead? With an ever-changing landscape of products, both paid and open source, and all with varying nuances in terms of their limitations and strengths, how can we possibly know what the answer is with 100% surety?

Thanks to social media (not an oft-heard phrase these days, granted) I now have a great list of potential ways to make this map that I can pass along to the client. It seems this was a popular topic as the thread garnered quite a lot more discussion than most in the geo niche and as such, it feels like there is a need to put them all into one place in a post. Prefer to read the thread? Here you go:


Prefer a list? Here you go:


  • umap – open source and based on OpenStreetMap.
  • Google MyMaps – looks like it requires a google login. Upload a csv with latitudes and longitudes or addresses of up to 2,000 records. Or just plot straight on the map. Embed code provided.
  • Carto – make maps with on-the-fly analysis capabilities. Their site says they support educators (the field my client was in) with free plans.
  • Esri AGOL – you can probably do it all with AGOL and it isn’t too hard to get into even if you aren’t very familiar with geospatial technologies. The difficulty used to be in determining how much it would cost. But it looks like they may have changed their pricing plans to real dollars instead of points, so it might be easier. (Geoloket was mentioned as an example of an AGOL site that was built by one person for a small city.) Esri Story Maps were mentioned too, a sub-component of AGOL.
  • MapHub – upload via GeoJSON, KML, GPX and get embed code for the map.
  • MapMaker Enhanced – This is a WordPress plugin and hasn’t been updated recently.
  • mapzap – this looks pretty sweet. It provides a “builder” for making a map app and it is open source. Host on GitHub Pages for free.
  • QGIS – export from qgis to html, host on GitHub Pages for free. (Qgis2web was also mentioned.)
  • Someone who thought “doesn’t know much geo” meant that the person was a dev (they’re not) said “R, leaflet, and five lines of code.” But for a dev this is something to look into for sure. Someone else suggested the combination of Leaflet, QGIS, and json, which is along the same line in terms of needing dev expertise or at least geo expertise. While we’re mentioning these techs we should also mention GeoServer, OpenLayers, D3, Tegola, Maputnik, and Fresco! Again, expertise is needed for all of these (or a lot of time).
  • Astuntech’s iShareMaps (edited 4/26 to add info from Astun Technology) – aimed at local authorities in large, enterprise types of environments.
  • Geojson-dashboard – this looks pretty interesting. You need a GeoJSON file and I’m not sure what you do about basemap needs. 
  • Geopedia – this seems to be for satellite imagery?
  • Mapbox – you can definitely do everything needed with mapbox and they do have a free plan.
  • GitHub Gist was also mentioned.


Well, I’m exhausted. 


BTW: that list is in absolutely no order and I am not endorsing these or saying that any of them are better than any others. In fact, I know very little about several of these and it is very likely that good details have been left out. But it is always nice to have a handy list of potential tools to take a look at from time to time to keep the ‘ol consulting brain in tip-top order. 

Lastly, there is a wiki list of GIS software here. It does not contain all of the above ideas/options though and, indeed, a tool to make a webmap need not be a full GIS package and a full GIS package need not have the capability to create a webmap (it might instead do analysis and output static maps for example). So this list isn’t too helpful for the use case outlined at the beginning of the post but could be helpful to someone else with a different use case.


Artists make the best maps

When artists do cartography they get it right more often than when GIS people/developers/analysts do cartography.

We say, “but artists don’t know the cartography rules.” Then we are astounded time and again when artists create map masterpieces nonetheless.

The eye for design that artists have seems to be of utmost importance if a great map is desired. This skill CAN be learned!

To learn to be an artist, to have that designer’s eye, you must be immersing yourself in art! You must be experiencing art and practicing art. How many of us do this?

There are still many GIS people/developers/analysts who have made map masterpieces, yes. I have a hunch that those in this group who have been successful have some kind of art background, art knowledge, and/or great appreciation for art of all kinds.

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Color Critique Will Always Be There For You

A client warned me the other day: “I like the color schemes but just so you know these bosses have a way of changing colors, it’s the way we work around here.”

I said, “Right, that’s completely expected but thank you for the heads-up because it means that I will take a few minutes of extra time at our next demo to explain that these colors come from a previously published paper on the subject. That way if they do decide that the palette should be changed, they’ll be aware that it will be different from the published standard.”

I added, “Having been in the cartography business for 17 years, I’ve learned that debate over color is part of the career. Sometimes even for the better.”


Set designer: “Let’s make Beaker’s hair a little more orangish.”


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Fruitful and intense week in Manitoba

With a couple of hours free last night I was finally able to see the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

With a couple of hours free last night I was finally able to see the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

An all-day cartography workshop, a half-day workshop, and a 1-hour talk were on the agenda for me this week in both Winnipeg, Manitoba and Brandon, Manitoba. It was a jam-packed schedule considering the long drive to Brandon and back, but absolutely worth it for me and, I hope, for those in attendance at the cartography events.

Thank you to the Manitoba GIS User Group (MGUG) for hosting me for dinner Tuesday evening. Good conversation, good food. Thank you to the Manitoba Municipal Government for hosting the super constructive all-day workshop in Winnipeg, and the Manitoba Planning Conference and attendees for a fruitful half-day workshop and another talk the next day (attended by perhaps 150 people).

As often happens, there was a mixture of people in my workshops and talk, from absolute beginners to seasoned GIS and cartography technicians who make maps day in and day out. For an added interesting twist, my workshop and talk in Brandon also included a fair amount of municipal leaders who aren’t map makers but who commission maps, review the maps that their departments put out, and who generally are involved in the decision making.

While it can be difficult to tailor material for all these audiences I am hoping it was friendly enough for the beginners, and informational enough for the power technicians, while simultaneously giving the policy makers a good overview of the challenges we face and the user-oriented outcomes that we aim for.

The focus throughout was on planning maps. The main challenge is adequately presenting the sometimes dense zoning and planning development categories on small pieces of paper that go in the official by-law documentation. They’ve moved away from large fold-out maps due to their unwieldy size causing them to get separated from the original document, lost, or ripped. We discussed atlasing as a possible solution though there was some dislike of splitting up towns over multliple pieces of paper when they look better centered on a single page.

Color choices are always difficult because color is potentially the best way to depict the zoning and development plan categories, but in certain locations there can be a large amount of, for example, residential categories, that all need a slightly different yet related hue. And of course what then comes up is how can these be adequately represented in a pleasing way not only for normally sighted individuals but those with color deficiencies as well.

I brought up the usual tools for color deficiency such as vischeck and colorbrewer palettes but forgot to mention that Cartographer’s Toolkit also has deuteranopia simulations. Another method that I mentioned was running off the map on a black and white copier or printer to see if the shades are still distinguishable.

I mentioned that I’m not a fan of the most common zoning map style, which to my eyes appear as large blobs of color in tentacle-laden seas.

Examples of typical zoning maps with highway tentacles.

Examples of typical zoning maps with highway tentacles.

The highway lines are often left on the page to give a broader location context but there’s just a quality about them that appears off. I believe it is due to the low density of information. A few highways are not enough if you’re after spatial context. A better thing to do would be to increase the density outside the main focus area by also including faded parcel lines, an elevation surface, an ortho photo, or some other dataset(s) that provide a spatial continuity between the foreground information (i.e., zoning or development plan designations) and the background information (e.g., outside the town or city depicted).

An example of a map with visual continuity between the foreground and the background.

An example of a map with visual continuity between the foreground and the background.

In one of the workshops we used sets of GISCI contest maps from the 2014 and 2015 map contests to gain an understanding of the wide variety of methods people employ when making maps. We looked at them specifically from a typography and symbology point of view to determine what worked and didn’t work. Not only was it good to get up out of the chairs and walk around to look at the maps, it was also good to find out that there was a real variety of personal likes and dislikes among the workshop participants. There was no clear favorite when it came to typography or symbology, though there was some consensus on certain practices they’d like to avoid (e.g., too much text, circle symbology that gets hidden when points overlap, background photos that overwhelm the page, and so on.)

In all, I found that the cartographic technicians have great respect for those who will be reading and using their maps and they are keen to make sure that they’re doing everything they can to make that happen. At the same time, the policy makers were cognizant of the great deal of time that a cartographer needs to make all the little details come together in a coherent way.

Thank you to everyone who attended the workshops and the talk. I hope you learned a few new things . I’m grateful for the opportunity to dialog about these particularly important types of maps and I learned a lot of new things along the way as well.

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Plan to Attend FOSS4GNA 2016

Ever since the very successful FOSS4G conference in Denver 2011, the conference and its North American counterpart the FOSS4GNA conference, have been the go-to conferences for anyone involved in or interested in Free and Open Source Software with a Geospatial bent. My understanding is that the 2011 conference consisted of a veritable who’s-who of FOSS4G developers and power users. Despite the auspiciousness of the attendees the information exchange level was high.

I went to my first FOSS4GNA last year and can attest to the fact that the information exchange level is still high while also being inclusive of those who are new to FOSS4G with plenty of intro sessions for newbies. Of course we’re all newbies at one or more aspects of FOSS4G as it’s impossible to know all of the great things coming out of this community at an expert level. So this is the conference to delve deeply into your software of choice, dabble in libraries or packages that are entirely new to you, and swap great ideas for new possibilities with fellow attendees.

This year’s FOSS4GNA is in Raleigh, May 2-5. I plan to give a cheesy talk where I interweave bits of the Tony Robbins best-seller Awaken the Giant Within with a live demo of QGIS. Hope to see you there!

This slide may or may not be going into my FOSS4GNA 2016 talk.

This slide may or may not be going into my FOSS4GNA 2016 talk.

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