Category Archives: maps

Live ocean mapping in the South Pacific

Just today I learned about NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer current trip in the Pacific. Apart from the live (and previously recorded) narration that I’m finding mesmerizing, I can’t stop watching the “live” mapping taking place on one of the media feeds.  For someone who has spent her entire professional career accessing geospatial data to use in mapping projects, that fact that I’m watching new digital data being produced – LIVE – where there was no data before – is blowing my mind.  About 8 or 9 yrs ago, I actually watched people buy shoes from Zappos in real-time. We’ve come a long way, baby.

That time of the semester again

This week we’ll broach the topic of datums, coordinate systems, and map projections in the GIS class that I teach at Cornell. It’s week 5+ of the semester, just enough into this stuff so that there’s some sustained knowledge growing and they now have enough of a framework onto which to hang the obvious-but-abstract-and-necessary-but-confusing-and-powerful topic.  I used to be more GIS-traditional about this stuff and dive in during weeks 2 or 3. Not any more. Much more and deeper learning taking place now that students are more confident and competent at managing and manipulating spatial data. T

Just in time, XKCD has come up with another inspired projections example to share with the class.

Most popular stories are MAPS!

It turns out that what readers of the (online) New York Times looked at more than anything else in 2013 was actually a series of maps.  An interactive webpage that generated maps when people responded to a series of dialect prompts.  Why so popular? People like to answer simple, online, multiple-choice questions, especially about themselves. People like to reminisce about their childhood places, where their pronunciations of words were first fixed.  People needed a distraction from the end-of-the-year activities in chaotic December.  People had more unstructured and free time to hang out online over the holidays.

It doesn’t really matter why. I just like the way the application’s developers describe the statistical patterns, and the way that geography and language are naturally linked. And I love every chance available for people to become aware of geographic patterns.

 

Maps as Organizational Templates

There’s a hip trend going around, making simple maps with labeled spaces. At least one or two a week have been crossing my computer screen lately. I’ve always referred to this approach as using maps as organizational templates. In most cases the map-makers don’t go into telling a story about why the data are where they are. They’re just labeling a place with its information, and leaving the rest up to us. The map is serving as a way to represent data by virtue of its geographical location. That is, we start with some data, and that data happens to have a 1-to-1 relationship with some location, like a state in the US, or a country in the world.

We could use a spreadsheet as an organizational template instead. In fact, many of these maps started that way. Start with a spreadsheet with an alphabetical list of all 50 states (plus D.C., which often gets overlooked), and then another column in the spreadsheet has some information about each state (let’s call it an “attribute” of that State).  And maybe we know different attributes for different years.

Problem: looking at an Excel spreadsheet is boring. And it’s virtually impossible for us to envision a “pattern” from a spreadsheet. States or countries arranged alphabetically tells us nothing about the geospatial relationships among those places. Did I already mention it’s boring. Our eyes glaze over. Who wants to have glazed eyes?

Instead, by labeling each state – or country – or region – with the attribute, we can appreciate the geographic pattern of said information.  When the data are categorical or nominal, you might get a map like what the most popular boy’s name has been in each state over the last 60 years, or the girls’ names, or surnames in Europe, how the Russian language engenders the names of world countries, or what each world country is “best at” (which is a wonderfully subjective way to begin a discussion), with the label being a word or a phrase.

Such data can often be represented pictorially or through icons, like the “most famous book” in each State (again, who gets to decide that?!), or the Food of the States. At least they remembered D.C.!

I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. But I’m seeing these maps all over the place these days.

Documenting Slum Space in Kenya

A great story this morning on NPR about mapping projects in urban slum areas of Kenya, both involving collecting data on roads, housing, community structures, open spaces, and where people are conducting their activities of daily life.  One project using GPS, the other traced over a satellite image to make a draft map.  I liked how he referred to the “rectangles” of houses; as he said that, my mind instantly translated to “polygons.”  Like those instantaneous translators working at the United Nations.

The story made for a driveway moment for me.  So great to have these mapping stories becoming more common.

What’s the value of geographic memorization? Practiced and applied, towards geoliteracy.

In my online Foundations of Spatial Thinking class, we’ve been discussing the relative merits of having students memorize places and locations. The 50 States, their capitals, countries around the world and their capital cities too. For me this type of “place name geography” is necessary but not sufficient. Yes, we should be expected to know these attributes of our own country, and (at least the general) global locations. We should begin to memorize them early, in elementary school, just the same way that by 3rd and 4th grade we are memorizing our multiplication tables, how to spell difficult words (handkerchief, neighborhood, independent, committee), and distinguishing among words commonly confused (their/there/they’re; its/it’s).

Mastering these basics are the building blocks for later “literacy” – in math, in writing, and in geographic thinking. The trick is that with our times tables and with spelling, we have countless opportunities to continue to practice and apply these basics, year after year. If we mistakenly calculate the product of 8×7, for example, we will reach the wrong solution in a math equation or hand somebody the wrong amount of change from a cash register, and we’ll be reminded of our error. When we misspell “disseminate” now, our computers will remind us by underlining the word with a squiggly red line.

But there are precious few opportunities to practice and apply the geographic knowledge that we manage to accrue during our early years. And if we never practice recalling and applying those “facts” again, they will, eventually, or even immediately, just slip from our mind, like all the other scraps of minutiae that our formal education presents us with. So isn’t it really part of a much bigger problem, really, that many later forget which one is Iraq and which one is Iran?

There are no “map” checkers built in to our computer programs.  Copy editors are paid to check for careless mistakes before written material goes to press, but there are no such skilled people employed by many media outlets. Mistakes are common (CNN and Fox both make fairly regular errors), and usually more amusing and inconvenient than damaging.  Of course it’s Apple’s maps that are the topic du jour.

So, memorization is necessary but not sufficient. Our geography education should not neglect this process, but it should also and then expect teachers, and students, to master this step and move beyond it to the applied knowledge part. Asking, understanding, and answering questions about our human and environmental interactions, without having to spend precious hours returning to the basics.

One more note on memorizing our States. Peter Gould and Rodney White, in their studies of our mental maps, found that some States are more difficult to learn than others. Shown below are the ones more likely to be confused, at least by college students in Pennsylvania in the early 1970s. Maybe these are the ones for which we just need to practice more. Just like to, two, and too.

an idea worth supporting: an innovative, well-designed, and community-sourced Food Atlas

New to me: the current project being undertaken by “guerrilla cartographers” to create a food atlas. I love the premise, I love the process, and I know I’ll like the product. Go mappers!