Static Maps

Some people say that the age of paper maps is past. Flashy, interactive web maps seem to be the status quo. Symbols, colours, arrangement and presentation have to be generated on the fly, directly from the underlying data. I remember learning in my cartography classes during my masters that the meaning of the word “dynamic map” has changed over the years – a map being “dynamic” once meant that it just showed information at two different points in time. Nowadays, of course, “dynamic”, at least in the world of cartography, is nearly synonymous with “interactive”. “Static” is the word typically used to describe the traditional, non-changing, non-interactive map.

But are static maps really dead? I don’t think so. They may have lost some of their “wow factor” in the age of slippy maps and data-driven story maps, but there is some kind of succinct elegance that comes with a well-executed paper map. The classical art of cartography may not be the career unto itself that it once was, but it is necessary to know the old rules and systems before you can extend them to the digital domain.

I thought I would share some of my own static map creations, most of which come from the beginning of my GIS career. Most of my maps are of the thematic variety – those are ones that tie information to geographical space in order to communicate a message. The first one I present is the first “real” map I ever created, as the final project for my very first cartography class inĀ  at Memorial University of Newfoundland, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada in 2012:

What story was I trying to tell here? Well, not much. I was still very new in the world of GIS, and fighting with ArcMap to make it look the way I wanted it to was a challenge unto itself. I had some data about forest fires and some demographic information. My goal here was to “colour within the lines” and just make a map that looked professional. I feel like it worked, because bringing it to an interview helped get me my first job as a GIS Tech. I blacked out my name because I posted it on some social media sites a long time ago and wanted to protect my identity.

Fast forward a few years and I was working full-time as a GIS Specialist at that same company where the first map got me hired. I has moved out to Calgary because oil prices were soaring and everybody needed maps. Environmental reports for pipelines still needed paper maps and that ended up becoming a big part of my job. The controversial and now-abandoned Energy East Pipeline project provided me with a LOT of practice in using ArcMap to make official maps. I couldn’t put a number on how many maps I produced during my time there, but since they followed the company, client and project standard, they mostly looked a lot like this:

I always liked the maps we produced on this project. I thought they looked clean, orderly and professional. They give you the relevant information up-front with little distraction, and just enough background detail to make the map feel balanced and aesthetically pleasing. My senior colleagues were very good at finding the right balance to make a static map look good, and I learned a lot from them during my time there.

As time went on, I enrolled in a Master program in Karlsruhe, Germany, in Geomatics. Even though ArcGIS is still considered the standard in the GIS world, here I found open source solutions and technologies abound, much more than I had ever seen up to that point. There was still a string anchor in the classic ways, but we were encouraged to push the boundaries of what we knew about traditional mapping. One particular course had us explore more recent trends in cartography, techniques that were only practically possible with a computer. One such technique is “Firefly mapping”. Using some data from the New York City Open Data Portal, I put together a map showing green infrastructure in the style of a firefly map in Quantum GIS (QGIS):

This is also around the time I began to incorporate graphic design software into my mapmaking workflow. As powerful as GIS software like ArcGIS and QGIS are, you sometimes find yourself hitting the glass ceiling when trying to make the map really pop. In this one, for instance, I had no way of making the legend look the way it does. The little firefly dots weren’t actually an option to use in the legend – I had to make them manually afterwards in GIMP. The leafy-looking Statue of Liberty was also done in GIMP.

My most recent static map creation was also done during my Masters. I was tasked with showing a time-dependent pattern in both a static and a dynamic map environment. The dynamic map is actually also an item in my portfolio – the Pine Beetle Infestation in Productive Forests in British Columbia webmap. Our professor, however, was a firm believer in learning the classic methods, and made us design the map from scratch – only the underlying base map showing the regions was allowed to be created in a GIS software. I found a spreadsheet showing the infestation rates of the mountain pine beetle in British Columbia, and after weeks of data cleaning, aggregating, experimenting, slaving, getting to the very end, then realizing something wasn’t just right, starting all over again, I eventually came to my final result:

The square symbols were generated by a Python script that I wrote, which would programmatically create rectangles with dimensions read from an excel table that held all the source data. After that, though, they had to be placed manually – that was the prof’s requirement. They wanted us to get a real appreciation for the old ways of making a map by hand, and even though the symbols were technically made by a computer, the hours of work that went into designing each symbol, then finding a way to fit them all together was a laborious, humbling but nonetheless enlightening exercise.

It actually feels quite fitting, that at the time of writing this, the last map I created was of the same area as my first ever completed map. When I look at the two I think of all the time spent learning new systems and methods and the road my career has taken since then. I may focus a lot more on development and data science now, but the truth is that classic cartography always finds a way to creep back into the vogue. After all, what good are your results if they’re not interesting to look at? Static maps may be old, but they never seem to lose their ability to captivate the viewer.

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