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Update:  Just got an email from Barb (Drew’s wife) with details of the upcoming publication of Drew’s book, Red Ink:  Native Americans Picking up the Pen in the Colonial Period.  Feel free to buy it as soon as you can.


At this stage in my life, making a map has become very much like writing or driving – it’s something I largely don’t think about.  These are all tasks that I usually just sit down and do.  Only rarely do I actually have to think about the process involved in what I am doing.  Recently, though, I made a couple of maps that I really thought about, beginning to end.

An old friend (Drew) stopped by for a visit a short while ago (by ‘old friend’ I mean one of those few who has been a good friend through thick and thin since high school and still seems magically blind to my faults).  He asked me to put together maps for a book he’s authored that’s heading for publication.  I assented, of course.  Hell – I would have done so even if we hadn’t been drinking.

Anyway, I anticipated questions about the maps, so I spent a lot of time thinking about the choices I was making and why I was making them.  The questions never materialized (I should have realized that someone who’s been a friend this long would know enough to just get out of my way and let me do what I do), but anticipating them forced me to articulate my creative process in a fashion I haven’t experienced in years.  I thought I’d share it with you all.

Disclaimer:  As a Map Dork, I am almost completely self-taught.  Those of you who have actually taken classes and/or earned degrees in this stuff may find this to be painfully obvious or stupidly off base.  My only response to this is:  “Hey – it works for me.”

As you may have guessed, I spend a lot of my time looking at maps.  All sorts of maps.  These days, I see a lot of ugly maps.  And you know what, kids?  Ugly maps don’t work.  Allow me to explain.

A map is a document.  Like any other document, the point of a map is to convey information to an audience (the audience being whoever is looking at it).  In order for this to occur, the audience actually has to look at the map long enough to absorb whatever information the map is intended to convey.  Since the overwhelming majority of humanity does not particularly enjoy looking at ugly things, chances are an ugly map will fail in its purpose.

Part of the problem (I’m sad to say) is the advent of geographic information systems (GIS).  GIS has taught us that maps are, in fact, collections of data.  While it is a good thing to know this Basic Truth, sometimes it leads to the erroneous conclusion that the map is about the data, rather than the other way around.  When this occurs, bad maps happen.  In an army hygiene film sort of way (“Men – don’t let this happen to you!”), allow me to demonstrate:

This hideous monstrosity is not something I cooked up just to make a point.  It’s a detail of a real map a company actually paid a GIS firm to produce.  It’s so damn ugly it’s almost beautiful.

Simple is good.  I cannot stress that enough.

I’m not entirely clear on the details of Drew’s book (I haven’t read it yet), but I know it has a lot to do with 17th- and 18th-century New England, specifically in regard to English settlements and Native ‘Praying Towns’ therein.  I know this because he needed me to produce maps that depicted these things (a lot of e-commerce has bounced back and forth between here and Texas as of late.  That’s right – Texas.  Poor Drew and his family are Liberals In Exile).

Luckily, the sort of maps Drew wanted are the sort I like to make.  Maps of landscapes.  Coming to GIS through archaeology and history, I’m particularly drawn to maps that depict things as they are (or were) on the ground.  It may (but probably won’t) surprise you to know that maps do not always depict a physical landscape.  This is as it should be – not all maps are trying to convey physical information (such as maps of the internet or mind maps), while others only loosely refer to actual geography (like the annoying red/blue maps we Americans are stuffed into every four years or the iconic London Tube map).  Personally, I’m most comfortable when dealing with the actual face of the planet.

Drew wanted maps of two specific landscapes: one of the Boston/Cape Cod/Rhode Island area (Map 1) and one of the eastern New York/western Massachusetts and Connecticut area (Map 2).  The only restrictions being that the maps needed to be black and white (greyscale, technically), and they had to be easily readable at a size typical of a scholarly work (let’s say 8” x 6”).  I approached them the same way I approach any area I want to map.  I first looked for the Big Reality.

Every location has the Big Reality.  It is the single enormity that pervades life in a specific location.  The Big Reality is often a geographic feature of some sort (a volcano, a river, a mountain range, a desert, an ocean), but oft-times is of a different nature (making paper, the hostile neighbor to the south, winter, tourism, growing corn, jazz).  Every place has the Big Reality, though (some have more than one).  It is huge, and it affects almost all aspects of life, but usually not overwhelmingly so.  Generally the Big Reality runs in the background, as it were.

Living in close proximity to both areas (as well as having gotten a degree in history from a New England university) made determining the Big Realties for both maps a cakewalk.  For Map 1, the ocean.  Map 2, the mountains.

The problem with the Big Reality is that it can be rather tricky to map (this is especially true if the Big Reality is less tangible than a geographical feature).  It needs to be pervasive but not overwhelming.  Unmistakably present, but not hitting you over the head with its presence.  In a word, the Big Reality should be the background.  In Map 1, this was achieved with a simple drop shadow.  In Map 2 with a slight bump.  It pays to spend a lot of time thinking about a map before you begin to actually produce it.

Both maps needed clear distinctions between British settlements and Native ones.  The looming pitfall here was the lure to overdo it.  We often underestimate the human brain’s ability to notice subtle differences.  For Drew’s maps, I made the distinctions through slightly different symbology and separate fonts.

Which brings me to another point I cannot stress enough:  choose your fonts with care.

For these maps, I used two fonts – one for the English settlements and one for the Native settlements.  For the English settlements I chose a font I use often: Souvenir.  Souvenir has a few things going for it – it’s clean, it’s easy to read and (important for these maps) it has serifs.  In this case Souvenir has an added bonus that caused me to use it for the titles and other miscellany.  It is a font used regularly by the U.S. Geological Survey on their quadrangle maps.  Because of this, when many Americans see this font they automatically think ‘map’.  Also, it serves to lend a certain air of legitimacy to a map, which never hurts.

The second font I used to label Native settlements and spheres of influence.  To make a clear distinction from the British settlements, I wanted a font without serifs (sans-serif).  I also wanted a font that was more organic/natural looking.

A quick aside – many white people have funny ideas about Native American peoples (or any other aboriginal group, for that matter).  There is this tendency to think of them as Tolkein’s Wood Elves – living in an idyllic state, completely in tune with the natural world around them, at peace with all living things.

Crap.  This way of thinking presumes the existence of the ‘Noble Savage’, which is, in fact, a myth.  The truth is that Native Americans were and are human beings, and you know perfectly well that humans tend to be annoying, stupid and downright mean.  Put another way, there is absolutely nothing, then or now, stopping any particular Native from being an asshole.  In fact, if you compiled a list of the meanest people in human history, the Mohawks would clock in pretty high on it.

However, the simple truth is that most Native groups at the time lived considerably ‘greener’ lives than their European contemporaries.  Even more important – they did so by design.  In general, Native American peoples did not view the natural world as something that needed to be beaten into submission.

What I was really looking for was a font that would appear more as a part of the landscape than stamped over it.  Something rounder and smoother.  There are a ridiculous number of fonts to choose from, but my decision became easy when I stumbled across a font called Pigiarniq.  It’s a font adopted by the Government of Nunavut that allows for all of their spoken languages to be represented uniformly.  This isn’t the only Native font out there, but it’s the only one I’ve seen that includes English characters.

Yes – pretty much any clean, sans-serif font would have gotten the job done.  But using Pigiarniq has style.  Don’t underestimate it.

Giving the Native labels a ‘natural’ feel was enhanced on Map 2 due to the added bump.  By adding the labels before applying the bump, it gives the labels a subtle appearance of being ‘draped’ over the landscape, as opposed to the British labels which were applied flat after the fact.

At the end of the day, I have to say I’m pretty happy with the way these maps turned out.  Drew is very happy, which is even more important.  Here’s a detail from each:


Appendix: The nuts and bolts (for any of you who care):

The data used for these maps came mostly from just a few sources – MassGIS, USGS and Google Earth (because I am who I am, I endeavored to place the English settlements in as historically accurate a manner as possible.  The easiest way to do this was to locate the town hall, town common, or original church.  Searching for a town hall, though, often gets you directed to a structure that was built in the 1990s.  I got around this by using Street View in Google Earth to get a look at the building in question.  In New England, it’s a pretty simple matter to identify the structure that’s three or four centuries old [I told you I found a use for Street View, Bill]).  Other data came out of Drew’s brain, based on extensive research.  I filled in a gap or two myself.  The projection used was NAD83 Stateplane.  Software used was QuantumGIS, Bryce and Photoshop.  No British or Native American settlements were harmed in the making of these maps.

internet When I attended Oxford about a decade ago, I took an amazingly interesting  class called ‘British Perspectives of the American Revolution”.  The woman who taught said class was fond of pointing out that the United States of America is really an experiment, and a young experiment at that.  Whether we can call it a successful experiment will have to wait until it reaches maturity.

I think of that statement often when the internet comes up in conversation.  If the United States is a young experiment, the internet is in its infancy.  For some reason, people today don’t seem to realize this.  Even people who were well into adulthood before the internet went mainstream somehow manage to forget that there was life before modems.  While this circumstance always makes me laugh, it becomes especially funny whenever a new Internet Apocalypse looms on the horizon.

Like this latest crap about Google/Verizon and net neutrality.  I’m sure you’ve heard about it – the interwebs are all abuzz and atwitter about it (I’m sure they’re all afacebook about it as well, but I have no way to verify it).  In a nutshell, it’s a proposal of a framework for net neutrality.  It says that the net should be free and neutral, but with notable exceptions.  You can read the proposal here.  First off, don’t let the title of the piece scare you.  Although the word ‘legislative’ is in the title, here in America we don’t yet let major corporations draft legislation (at least not openly).

Anyway, the release of this document has Chicken Little running around and screaming his fool head off.  In all his guises.  Just throw a digital stone and you’ll hit someone who’s whining about it.  One moron even believes that this document will destroy the internet inside of five years.  Why will this occur?  Ostensibly, the very possibility of tiered internet service will cause the internet to implode.  Or something like that.

Let’s put that one to rest right now.  The internet isn’t going away any time soon.  It won’t go away simply because it is a commodity that people are willing to pay for.

Allow me to repeat that, this time with fat letters: it is a commodity.  The problem we’re running into here is the mistaken belief that a neutral net is some sort of constitutionally guaranteed human right.  We’re not talking about freedom of expression here (except in a most tangential fashion).  We’re talking about a service – a service that cannot be delivered to us for free.  Truth is, net neutrality is an attempt to dictate to providers the particulars of what it is they provide.

A neutral net would be one in which no provider is allowed to base charges according to site visited or service used. Period. It’s not about good versus evil, it’s not about corporations versus the little guy, it’s not about us versus them. What it is about is who pays for what. Should I get better access than you because I pay more? Should Google’s service get priority bandwidth because they pay more?

Predictably, our initial response to these questions is to leap to our feet and shout ‘No!’ (and believe me, kids – I’m the first one on my feet).

But should we?  Seriously – what other service or commodity do we buy that follows a model anything like net neutrality?  Chances are, most of you get more channels on your TV than I do.  Why?  Because you pay for it.  I probably get faster down- and upload speeds than many of you.  Why?  Because I pay for it.  Many people today get data plans (read: internet) on their cell phones.  Why?  Because they pay for it.

Doesn’t this happen because the service provider dedicates more resources to the customers who receive more and/or better service?

And then there are the fears about the corporate end of the spectrum.  As one pundit put it:  What would stop Verizon from getting into bed with Hulu and then providing free and open access to Hulu while throttling access to Netflix?

The short answer is:  Nothing would stop them.  The long answer adds:  Net neutrality wouldn’t stop them either.  Does anyone really believe that net neutrality would stop Verizon from emulating Facebook by forcing customers to sign into their accounts and click through 47 screens before they could ‘enable’ Netflix streaming?

And I may be missing something here, but Verizon getting into bed with Hulu and throttling Netflix sounds like a standard business practice to me.  I’m not saying I agree with it, just that it doesn’t strike me as being unusual.  The university I attended was littered with Coke machines.  Really.  Coca-Cola was everywhere on that campus.  Like death and taxes, it was around every corner and behind every door.  But Pepsi was nowhere to be found.  It simply was not possible to procure a Pepsi anywhere on the grounds of the university.  Why was it this way?  Simply because Coke ponied up more money than Pepsi did when push came to shove.  Oddly, nobody ever insisted they had a right to purchase Pepsi.

Why – exactly – do so many of us think that the internet should be exempt from the free market?

Gather ‘round children, and let me tell you a story.  It’s about a mythical time before there was television.  In the midst of that dark age, a Neanderthal hero invented the device we now know as TV.  In those early times, the cavemen ‘made’ television by broadcasting programs from large antennae built for the purpose.  Other cavemen watched these programs on magical boxes that pulled the TV out of thin air.  Because TV came magically out of thin air, it initially seemed to be free of cost.  The cavemen who made the programs and ran the stations paid for it all through advertising.

Eventually, TV became valuable enough for everyone to desire it.  This led to the invention of cable as a means to get programs to the people who lived too far away from the antennae to be able to get TV out of the air.  Because putting cable up on poles and running wire to people’s houses costs money, the people at the ends of the wires were charged for the service.

It wasn’t long before the cable providers hit upon the idea of offering cable to people who didn’t need it, but might want it.  To get more channels, or to get their existing channels at a better quality.  Unsurprisingly, there was much yelling of “I will not pay for something I can get for free!”, but as you know it didn’t last long.  In short order cable went from ‘luxury’ to ‘necessity’.

Does any of that sound familiar?  Can you see a pattern beginning to emerge?  Let me give you a hint:  It’s about money.  The internet has never been free.  It just appeared to be so because someone else was largely footing the bill (or at least it seemed that way.  Truth is, you’ve been paying for it all along, and the coin you’ve been paying with is personal data).  The internet – like so much of our world – is market-driven.  Don’t kid yourself into thinking otherwise.

And I hate to say it, folks, but it looks as though the market is moving away from net neutrality.  The simple fact that it’s being talked about so much is a clear indication that its demise is imminent.  To be honest, I’m not so sure this would be a bad thing.  In the short term, a lack of net neutrality would pretty much suck.  In the long term, though, it could very well be the best thing for us, the average consumers.

You see, while money drives the market, the market drives competition (as well as innovation).  If our Verizon/Hulu scenario actually came to pass, it wouldn’t be long before another ISP appeared in town, one who wasn’t in bed with Hulu and was willing to offer Netflix (providing, of course, that there was a demand for such a thing).  Eventually, we get to reap the benefits of price and/or service wars (much like cell service providers today).  In fact, this could help solve one of America’s largest internet-related problems – the lack of adequate broadband providers (you’d be surprised how many Americans only have one available choice for broadband).

I don’t think we really need to fear losing net neutrality, even if it is legislated away.  If enough of us truly want to have a neutral net, sooner or later someone will come along and offer to sell it to us.


The Road I came across this post the other day, and it made flashy things go on and off inside my braincase as normally underused neurons woke up and stretched lazily (do click on the blue letters and read the post).  While I agree with the crux of the above linked post, the light show inside my skull was actually related to (mostly) other ideas.  In my usual, intensely dull, Map Dorkish manner, I was thinking about data.

Really.  It’s something I think about.  A lot.  It’s a sickness.

Anyway, I got to thinking about a discussion I had with a fellow Map Dork on Twitter a short while ago, about data and GIS.  About how the majority of the GIS community spends the bulk of its time thinking about what to do with data, and not enough time thinking about the quality of the data itself.

It’s like this – whenever I make a map, there are two primary components involved in the process.  The first is the software that produces said map.  The leader in the field is far and away Esri, the company that produces ArcGIS (which used to be known as ArcView).  Esri does not produce my software of choice, for a variety of reasons, none of which should be taken as a comment on the software itself (okay – some of it should, but not a lot.  Maybe 30% or so).  Truth is that Esri wins Best In Show when it comes to proprietary software.

In Map Dorkia, though, proprietary software doesn’t carry the kind of weight it does in other fields.  You see, a fair number of Map Dorks also happen to be coders (maybe even most of them).  Because of this, the market has been flooded with a vast number of good, stable, working, free and open source alternatives.  I can’t begin to mention them all, but I will point you to this site, where someone better informed than myself has put together some good overviews (even if parts of them are bit out of date).

At the end of the day, my go-to GIS application is Quantum GIS (although it’s far from the only one I use).  Like the Esri offerings, Quantum GIS is a good, all-around GIS package (but not as feature-packed).  Unlike EsriWare, Quantum GIS has a huge, talented support base.  Everyone who’s working on Quantum GIS is doing so because they care, not just to get a paycheck.  Think about that.

The second component of any map I make is the data with which I make the map.  This data comes in many shapes and sizes, as well as different formats and/or projections.  The lion’s share of what I actually do involves taking all that crap and turning it into an accurate, useful and (hopefully) visually pleasing map.  The problem that Map Dorks run into at this point is:  Where to get the data?

Often, we turn to the federal government.  The USGS has been producing quality maps almost since the Boston Tea Party, so we tend to think of them as a pretty safe bet.  However, it’s wise to check the fine print on the quadrangle you’re looking at.  Around these parts, they generally date back to the sixties, although many of them were updated in the eighties or nineties.

Our government also provides census data, also known as TIGER (Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing system) files.  TIGER data comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, and is of varying accuracy (see below).

These days, most state governments have some sort of GIS department, as do many cities and towns.  These tend to be more accurate than federal sources (although not always) due mainly to the fact that they have a much smaller area of focus.  And, of course, some are better than others.  Here in Massachusetts, we are lucky to have MassGIS.  While MassGIS can be rather quirky (their file naming conventions leave a bit to be desired), they freely offer a wealth of data that tends to be pretty accurate (I know because I’ve checked a fair amount of it on the ground).  They do have a budget, however, so some of their data gets a little old between updates.  And while they offer tons of data via WMS, their servers – well – suck.

For my money, the most accurate data around (besides the data I go out and gather myself, of course) is that which comes from OpenStreetMap.  Steve touched upon this in the post mentioned previously, but it bears repeating.  Because data sources are many and various, it is often difficult to assess the accuracy of the data in question (especially if it’s data depicting an area geographically removed from your own location).

What makes OSM (OpenStreetMap) unique among data providers is the workforce that acquires the data.  The OSM workforce isn’t comprised of people looking only for a paycheck.  The OSM workforce doesn’t daydream about something else while they’re gathering data.  The OSM workforce is extraordinarily focused on the job at hand because they are only doing it because they really want to do it. They also really want the data to be accurate.

Possibly the most important aspect of the OSM workforce is their proximity to the area they provide data about.  In the majority of cases, OSM data is collected by people who can vouch for the accuracy of their data because they can see it out their window or because they walked by it on their way home from work.  When it comes to the OSM workforce, the person who mapped any given road has most probably walked down that road.

Because of the nature of the OSM workforce, I tend to trust the accuracy of OSM data more than most.  To my mind it’s just plain common sense.  And in my experience, OSM data is at least as good as any other source, usually better.  Here’s a comparison of road data from three sources:


You can see the obvious shortcomings of the TIGER data.  You will probably also note the similarity between the MassGIS data and the OSM data.  This is because MassGIS (bless their little hearts) handed a bunch of data to OSM many moons ago (I don’t know exactly when this occurred).  While this is a great thing for Massachusetts, not all of America was so lucky.  And in my experience, even here in Massachusetts OSM data tends to be more up to date than MassGIS’s (the primary reason for this, I think, is that MassGIS dedicates the lion’s share of their budget to flashy projects.  For instance, they just finished gathering new, state-wide aerial imagery – most at 30cm/pixel, some at 15cm.  While the imagery is very cool and very useful, OSM will probably get around to utilizing it before MassGIS does).

As luck would have it, you don’t have to take my word for this.  Bing maps just rolled out a new feature:  an OpenStreetMap layer.  I did a quick comparison:


This pretty much speaks for itself.  Not only is the OSM data more accurate (note the British Rail lines on the left, as well as the placement of the Oxford Canal), but OSM provides far more information than the Bing data (without overcrowding the map).  In pretty much all ways, it’s just plain better data.

And before anyone points to the fact that OSM started in Great Britain (so of course OSM data is better over there), here’s a section of Boston I visited just the other day:


Kudos to Microsoft for including the OSM layer.  By all means head on over to Bing maps and check it out.  It’s nice to see that they’ve finally figured out what many of us Map Dorks figured out long ago:

Always use the best data you can get your hands on.


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