Category Archives: maps

NYC Streets in Chinese AND English

Yesterday I heard an intriguing and amusing story on This American Life about the multiple names and nick-names used by native Chinese speakers for NYC streets, all informed by cultural and linguistic know-how. My favorite bit was how Thaddeus Kosciusko Bridge is known by the dispatchers and customers to be “the Japanese Guy Bridge”  – because its numerous vowels and consonants are suggestive to them of a Japanese name.

The dispatchers – and their clients – are taking ownership of the geography in order to make it work for them.  I crack up trying to imagine how I would relish this same help when I’m spending time in places where I’m completely lost in the language. In Vietnam, Jordan, and China, I did my best to memorize the letters and shapes of words to help me find the (correct) bathroom.  These ad hoc strategies and solutions that people create on a larger scale are fascinating.

The story is only 6 minutes. Listen for yourself and enjoy.

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!

more examples of linking geography and history via maps, some digital

My friends at the UVa Scholar’s Lab shared with me their new Neatline project earlier this week. I don’t know much about Omeka, but I always trust these guys to do good work with a wide range of OS tools. I do like the interface, the rapid loading of georeferenced maps, and the additional interactive functionality on the main screen. If I can figure out more about this, I have a stack of projects ready to try!

In Time & Place is oriented to secondary school learning. This will be a good resource for my Spatial Literacy students, and I’ll see about modifying things for my higher ed students too.  Not sure how I wandered across this site this week. I need to click on fewer windows to make h/t’ipping easier.

Conflict History is a Google Maps mashup. I like the timeline and the thorough “info” available.  This interface and collection really highlights the disparity between how few military conflicts we’ve had on US soil versus the rest of the world, and how relatively high Europe and Asia are. Not news, but interesting to see it in this way.  H/t to Google Maps Mania.


Connections between hazard mapping and outcomes

Time Magazine reports on a study (pdf) that considers the connections between hazard maps and recent natural disasters.  Are “bad maps” to blame for greater-than-expected damage, death, and destruction?  Among other issues, the study authors suggest that mapmakers may lack adequate “humility and caution.”  Of course that may be true, but it’s so much more complicated than that.  Map makers rely on the data they have, not the data they want. They are required to generate maps that rank risk based on models that necessarily have fragmented, incomplete, sampled, and uncertain data.  The cartographic symbology necessary to communicate this uncertainty is often lacking.

Which for me gets to the interesting set of questions. Understanding the connections between a map maker, the representation itself, and the decision makers on the other end.  Few map makers set out to create a map that leads to poor decisions. What happens along the way?  How can we do better to reduce confusion and re-align intentions? How can we improve feedback mechanisms so that the next generation of maps is “better”?  Really, no map is inherently “bad” – so we need a better set of terms, and expectations, and practices, so that effective maps help support the best decisions.