Category Archives: good maps

$50,000 worth of mapping for less than $10

Grab the deal while you can.

People who love maps love US Geological Survey Topographic Maps.  Sadly, an inexpensive, attractive, top quality detailed map for each and every place in the country, once taken for granted, even if out of date, is becoming another Nice Thing we can not have.

This unsentimental article tells why. The author estimated that compiling, drafting and printing the roughly 60,000 maps that blanket the conterminous 48 states cost $50,000 in recent dollars per map. No wonder they do not make them like they used to. The article ably presents the advantages and drawbacks of traditional printed topographic quadrangles and the new generation US Topo map. Here is what it says about “The Meaning of Quality.”

It is clear to most map users that the old topographic maps have higher visual quality than US Topo maps. The old maps show more features, have better text design and placement, better visual integration, and a more graceful overall appearance. A traditional hand-drawn map is a marvel of data presentation, facilitating human processing of large amounts of information quickly and accurately. US Topo maps, although superior in this regard to a typical GIS display or plot, fall short of traditional map presentation standards.

So, when it comes to Faster and Cheaper, the new technology wins spectacularly. Better? Well, the “Marvel” part now appears to be a happy accident, a mere byproduct of painstaking manual labor’s unavoidablity. There can be maps that make people actually want to own and read them and there can be technology that supplies essential geographic facts. For a long time these were one and the same thing. Then it became possible to avoid manual labor in mapmaking.

There are ways in which the new maps are better. Those ways would not suffer at all if the new maps were also marvelous. It is just a matter of money.

Imus Geographics Hits the Big Time

A paper map must be pretty remarkable to get a glowing review in Slate. The very idea of a “Map Review” is remarkable enough. The Map Center has been too busy selling “The Essential Geography of The United States” to blog properly about it so it is nice to see the kinds of things I have been trying to say all all along written where thousands (millions?) instead of dozens will read them.

For ages now, the first step to produce a “new” map has been to decide which existing maps to base it on. That will save a lot of time consuming work. However, things that have always been on the map tend to stay there and new things have trouble breaking through. If I took on the task of deciding from a fresh perspective what needs to be added to the standard reference map of the USA, and what has lost relevance, I am sure I would never finish.  David Imus took a good two years.

One of my favorite features, elevations in feet noted next to selected cities, actually revives an early cartographic practice.  On the other hand, three letter airport codes came into being long after the question “what belongs on the map?” seemed permanently settled.  There is a popular specialty USA map that spots colleges and universities, but Imus’s map properly recognizes that prominent colleges, the reason for so much travel planning and daydreaming, belong on a general reference map.

Best of all for map browsing pleasure is recognizing features you have heard of and wondered about: Bits of history and culture that will be less likely to float out of your mind after you have seen them on the map.  Fallingwater.  Trinity Site. Bluegrass Country. The San Andreas Fault (with arrows to show the directions of movement).  And now I know the Garden of Eden is almost right in the middle of Kansas.

I wonder if it was an easy or hard decision to omit railroads.  My only quibble.

The Slate article observed that “Specialty map shops are disappearing.” Ouch. By now, most people are surprised to know there ever was such thing as a specialty map shop!  One of those people wanders incredulously into the Map Center every now and then.

Better readers read better!

My ongoing complaint is how people allow gadgets to replace thought. I have never complained about how computers can be used to gather, analyze and present geographic data. Technology can serve thought. Geographic information systems make possible fascinating, informative maps that would have been unthinkable in earlier times. (I do complain that the aesthetics are severely lacking in most GIS maps).

Here is a wonderful example of someone taking a ton of data that was just lying around out there and compiling a map that like most good maps can tell a million stories.

Sites of photos posted by tourists are red, Locals blue.

Tourists red, Locals blue.

This was compiled from information about pictured locations and the homes of users who posted them, attached to images posted on Flickr. Clever work! It has gained jokey attention as a means for natives to avoid tourist infestations, but the comments on Flickr show there is plenty more to dig into here.

For instance:

“It’s like Queens and the Bronx have never heard of Flickr! Unsurprisingly, though, Williamsburg and Park Slope are fairly Flickr-friendly.”

“It’s interesting that tourists seem mostly to go to Yankees games, not Mets games.”

I was especially tickled to see that someone placed this label on the map: “5 pointz and/or views of the skyline from the 7 train.” And look how tourists, well represented on the Brooklyn bridge, have yet to discover the Williamsburg Bridge.

My point is the value of prior knowledge. In order to be able to look at this unlabeled yet data rich map and instantly grasp nuggets like these, you have to know the city as only a map reader can. The nuggets are endless.

Some nuggets are a question. What’s up with College Point?

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