Regrets

I used to run another map blog, before this one.

It’s an effort that I look back upon with regret, and prefer not to think too much about. After leaving it fallow for years, I finally took it offline a year ago and hoped nobody would notice, or remember it even existed. However, I think it’s time that I more publicly own my mistakes.

Cartastrophe was a map critique blog, in which I took other people’s maps and pointed out their flaws. There was a lot of sarcasm. I’ll spare you any quotes because I think you know how it goes; there’s plenty of similar content out there in social media right now.

I started Cartastrophe because complaining about the work of others was easier. See, I’d originally planned to run a blog like the one you’re looking at now — discussing my designs and my thoughts on cartographic processes. But, as a post on Cartastrophe recalls:

it quickly turned out that I didn’t have much to say on the subject. So, instead, I closed [somethingaboutmaps] down and started Cartastrophe, because I had plenty to say about other people’s maps.

Apparently, just not blogging wasn’t an option for me. Fortunately, I eventually found that I had actual constructive thoughts to share that didn’t involve criticizing other mappers, and so I resurrected somethingaboutmaps and posted less and less on Cartastrophe; it was mostly quiet by the end of 2012.

It’s worth mentioning that I did try to make Cartastrophe more than a place for simply complaining that some mapper had done a bad job — I wanted to use these examples to teach. As with any good critique, I tried to explain my rationale: why I thought certain things should be changed, and what this person’s “mistake” could teach us about design and human perception. I also required myself to say a minimum of one nice thing about each map, and I occasionally posted analysis/critique of maps that I really liked. I learned, however, that for me, it is a lot harder to clearly express what I like about something than what I don’t. Finally, I tried to show that I and others were not immune to mistakes: A few colleagues and I posted critiques of our own work.

In the end, though, most of the site was me posting what I thought were “bad maps,” and telling people how I thought they should have been done better.

I took people’s maps, uninvited, and publicly stamped my thoughts on them. I did not ask the authors about their goals or process; I made assumptions, instead. I did not ask them if they were comfortable with a public critique. I did not ask them what they thought about the work — maybe they didn’t even like it (my maps sometimes feature parts I don’t want to claim credit for, as clients push me to make decisions I disagree with). I did not invite them to be a part of the process of improvement and learning. They never had a chance to explain themselves before I passed judgment.

Now, I’m not suggesting there’s absolutely no value in looking at other people’s designs and trying to learn what we might want to avoid, nor do I suggest we stop having negative thoughts about the works of others. But it’s all about the approach and context: my good and/or educational intentions did not matter as much as the importance of including the original map author as a partner in public critique, which I rarely did.

Now, someone’s going ask, “should we never publicly call out a grossly misleading map without the author’s permission?” That’s not what I’m saying, and that’s not what Cartastrophe did. I wasn’t looking at maps that were serious threats to public knowledge and warning readers about them. I was nitpicking the design choices of innocuous maps that were perhaps confusing or difficult to read. It’s one thing to say “The public must know that this particular map is incorrect about something important,” and quite another to say “this map about tectonic plates has an illogical color scheme.”

I ran Cartastrophe because it was an easy way to get attention when I was in graduate school. It was easier for me to point out flaws than cogently praise excellence, and it was easier to write quips about the failings of other people than to form coherent thoughts about my own cartographic practice. And it was easier to feel I was a good designer if I could break down ways that other people were not. That’s the core of it. I am certain I’m not the only one to offer a critique for such reasons. I, and probably some others, learned a lot through the process (again, I won’t deny that this stuff had pedagogical value), but my approach was rarely one of partnership, and instead one of “I’m the expert and I’m here to school you (but I’m making jokes so it’s all OK, right?).”

Also, I don’t even like puns. I have no idea why I liked the name “Cartastrophe.”

I hid the site last year, without fanfare. I didn’t really want to draw attention to my mistakes — perhaps I wanted simply to avoid the public criticism that I had given others. I was content to bury that whole embarrassing business. But today, I saw an excellent and quick talk by Amber Bosse, in which she discussed cartographic gatekeeping. I remembered that, in Cartastrophe, I had once been a full-throated gatekeeper. And so I thought it was time to say that I should have done better; I likely hurt people, and I am sorry to have done so. I will surely continue to make mistakes (hopefully different ones!), and I can only hope that my colleagues will be kind enough to continue showing ways that I can be more positive in my contributions.

Addendum: I thought of one more point, about a day after I posted this.

Lessons Learned: How to do Map Stuff

Friends, I was very pleased (and overwhelmed) to have hundreds(!) of you join us during the How to do Map Stuff event yesterday. If you missed some or all of it, no worries! Most everything was recorded. You can find most links in this YouTube playlist.

There is one other recordings that isn’t on that list yet:

I had never done anything like this before, and neither had most of the presenters, so here, I want to share some loosely organized reflections and lessons learned.

This whole thing was pretty ad hoc. It came from an idea I had in the middle of the night: I already do occasional map livestreams, so maybe if a group of other map people did them on the same day, that would be fun? I announced it without much ahead planning, and made things up as I went along.

Things quickly grew beyond my expectations, Originally, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to get more than one or two other people to present, and that we wouldn’t have more than a dozen people in the audience (which I would be fine with, but I worried would make the other streamers feel bad). But I decided to give it a go, nonetheless. We ended up with audiences in the hundreds, and 26 streamers, which was amazing, but also offered some challenges, as you’ll see below.

Time Zones

When you’re planning an in-person conference, you can safely assume that your presenters and attendees are all in the same time zone. But How to do Map Stuff presenters came from around the world, from Hong Kong to Louisiana to Munich, and so they were all awake at different times. When it came time to arrange the schedule, I had to scramble around on Twitter and other sources to figure out where people lived, so that I didn’t ask them to present during a time when they should be sleeping. When presenters signed up for the event, I didn’t think to ask them what time zone they were in, but I would certainly do so now.

During an in-person conference, your presenters are usually available for the entire duration of the conference; they’ve taken time off from work to be there. But, most people aren’t going to take the day off for your virtual event, and so one other thing I didn’t plan for was that people need to fit in work alongside their presentations. Fortunately, I didn’t run into too much trouble there, but I did make a couple of rearrangements to fit people’s work schedules.

In sum, my advice to you is: when presenters sign up, ask them what time zone they are in, and when they are available. Having that information in advance would have allowed me to schedule everyone with much less hassle (both for me and for them).

The distribution of my presenters pushed me to think about the time zone of the event’s audience, as well. I mostly know American cartographers, and so I figured that they would be the only people who might hear about it (again, I didn’t expect it to generate so much enthusiasm). So, the schedule is centered on time zones in the US/Canada. But, I made the event longer than I had originally planned, pushing the schedule to start earlier and end later. In this way, folks in Europe/Africa would be able to catch a few hours of presentations before going to bed, and people in East Asia and the Pacific could wake up and see some of the event as well. I think the long schedule may have contributed to some audience fatigue, but I’ll talk more about that later.

International Date Line

This is really an extension of my comments about time zones, but it’s important enough that it gets its own header. Due to the International Date Line, your event may be on a different day depending on where people live. I live in Wisconsin, where How to do Map Stuff was on April 29th. For a person in South Korea, though, it was on April 30th. I tried to be very clear, on the schedule, on tweets, etc., to indicate both days, so that no one got confused.

To keep everything fairly clear, with an audience scattered around the world, I listed six time zones for each presentation in the schedule, as well as some date indicators, so that people would have some reference points.

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Google Sheets

Speaking of scheduling, I made an ad hoc decision to publish the schedule on Google Sheets, which turned out to be a bit of a problem.

During the initial sign-up phase, someone on Twitter asked if I could post the list of talks that had already been submitted. So, I linked a Google Sheet into the Google Form I was using to accept submissions. And people started circulating the Google Sheet link, and it became one of the main places people learned about the event. So, I decided to just formalize it and make that link the go-to place for the schedule.

However, it turns out that only 100 people can look at a Google Sheet at once before it starts to lock people out. And at times, more than 100 people wanted to see the schedule. Fortunately, someone on Twitter mentioned that they could not access the schedule, and I looked into it. It turns out you can hit a button to “Publish” a Google Sheet, which makes it so that more people can view it, while reducing some of the features (no one was going to edit it except me, so this didn’t matter). But it also moved the schedule to a new URL, so I had to scramble to circulate the new link one day before the event. Also, the “Published” version of the sheet can take up to 5 minutes to display updates that I might make, which can be a bit of trouble when making last-second updates to people’s video links.

Gender

It’s no particular secret that, when looking at conference speaker lineups, women are underrepresented. At a large conference like NACIS, women typically deliver 35–40% of the presentations. About a third of the presenters at How to do Map Stuff were women, which, while in line with other events, is certainly not great. At first it looked like that percentage might be even lower; as speakers began to sign up, there were almost no women among them.

I wondered why this even might attract proportionally fewer women, and my colleague Meghan Kelly suggested that it might be because women disportionately are tasked with childcare and other household management, both of which are in high demand now that schools are closed and families are home more. I also came across this tweet thread which points out how the same phenomenon is affecting journal submissions.

Now, I mentioned that, while things started slow, How to do Map Stuff eventually reached about the same percentage of women speakers as a conference like NACIS. I think this is partly because I tweeted out an appeal asking specifically for more women to sign up, and the folks at the Women in GIS and Women in Geospatial+ Twitter accounts, among others, were kind enough to help spread the word among their contacts. But, in hindsight, I’m not sure about this approach. If women are volunteering to present because they’re much busier than usual during quarantine, is it fair to then make a special appeal to them to do more work by presenting at an event?

Once I had my speaker list in hand, I tried to amplify (or maybe not de-amplify) women’s voices a bit in the schedule, by making sure they were never scheduled to go at the same time on adjacent tracks. I’m not sure if it helped at all, but I thought it was worth a try.

Breaks

I initially only built one break in the schedule, about halfway through. A few others eventually appeared due to presenters dropping or shuffling around. Since all of the audience was operating on different sleep/eating schedules around the world, I could not really plan a “good” time for breaks. So I left it to them to wander off and come back, as needed.

However, more breaks would have been good to have in the schedule, because they offer slots for on-the-fly rescheduling. Due to technical problems, one presenter could not make their original time slot (and some others had close calls). But, that presenter eventually figured those problems out and was able to move to a break later in the day, with enough time to spread the word about a schedule update. We could also have just had a third track, but I wanted to avoid splitting the audience too much, and so it was nice to have a space in the existing track for these sorts of emergencies.

Even though they might not have been ideally timed for the food/sleep/bathroom/email needs of every audience member, I expect viewers might have welcomed another break or two in the schedule, as well. They would have offered a bit more time to catch up, digest, and ponder.

Timing

All presentations were back-to-back, with no gaps. So, viewers needed to immediately switch over to another presenter. I’m sure some viewers started tuning out when a presenter was nearly, but not quite, finished, as they prepared to move to the next person. None of this was ideal, though it wasn’t a huge problem.

I went with this schedule because there’s an easy-to-remember appeal of having every presenter start on the hour, or the half-hour. Television shows keep this kind of back-to-back schedules (though they have commercials for padding). I figured it would be more cumbersome to tell people, “This person starts at 1:05, and this other person begins at 3:20, etc.”

Probably in the future I’d just ask presenters to conclude 5 minutes early. This keeps the even scheduling of 30- and 60-minute time slots, but still gives audiences time to refocus and move on to the next person.

Overlaps

As in all conferences, some people ran out of time, or ran over their time. One nice thing about doing all this online, with separate video feeds from each presenter: if one person exceeds their time, they don’t prevent the next person on the schedule from starting on time. The audience can switch over if they choose. Of course, it also means the two speakers are competing for audience, which isn’t ideal, but at least it’s not quite as bad a situation as when this happens during an in-person conference, where the audience has no choice and the subsequent speaker just has to wait. I wasn’t able to catch the end of everyone’s presentations, but I did hear a few people pushing themselves to wrap up on time so that the audience could move on, which I appreciate.

Zoom vs. YouTube

Let’s get to the big one. Most people who’ve done screensharing and web presentations have done so through Zoom, or Skype, or a similar video-conferencing program. I’ve also seen some in-person conferences select Zoom when switching over to an online conference. Zoom is familiar to a lot of people. But instead, I encouraged presenters to do an entirely different workflow: livestreaming on YouTube. There are some good reasons for this, as well as some disadvantages.

To a certain extent, it’s about choosing the right tool for the job. Zoom/Skype/etc. are designed specifically for peer-to-peer conferences. For meetings between you and your friends/colleagues/etc. where more than one person is expected to speak, and where interaction needs to be close to real-time.

Professional (or at least frequent) livestreamers (of games, crafts, etc.) rarely use those programs. Instead, they use special software (like a program called OBS) to capture video of their desktop, and then send that video feed to YouTube/Twitch/etc., where it’s distributed to an audience via a website (vs. Zoom, where you need to run an external application). This workflow is designed for presentation from a single person, rather than Zoom’s peer-to-peer interaction.

Zoom is familiar to a lot of people, and it’s fair to say it’s easier for presenters. I think the audience experience isn’t as smooth, though. Audiences have to download Zoom and leave their browser, instead of skipping from one simple YouTube URL to another. The chat isn’t as clearly integrated into the presentation; on the Zoom presentation I watched, I saw less chat interaction from the audience than I did on YouTube streams. These bits of interface may seem like tiny thing, but an extra click or two really matters in terms of audience experience and engagement, as UI designers will tell you. YouTube makes it just a hair easier on audiences, and I think that’s important.

YouTube also offers one nice archiving advantage as well: once your stream is done, it stores the video recording of your presentation at the exact same link. So anyone who misses the presentation doesn’t need to find another link to watch the replay. Another small way the audience experience is smoother.

Streaming via livestream software also allows for fancier setups than just a simple screenshare. As we saw with some presenters, they overlaid their camera feed onto their desktop, or switched to static images, or even had cool animated transitions between scenes. So, there’s more opportunities to get creative, or make a more engaging audience experience.

There are no audience limits on YouTube. Zoom only supports 100 people for free, and we had a couple presentations were people couldn’t get in. Of course, that was also because we didn’t realize that so many people would want to show up to the event (I clearly remember telling one presenter, weeks ago, that the audience limit would not be a problem).

Zoom allows audience members to ask questions via audio (and video, if you like), which is more like in-person conferences, and that is nice to have at times. YouTube will only let people type in the chat window. But on the other hand, a chat window lets people ask questions without interrupting the presenter (and lets audience members answer each others questions), which is a different sort of advantage. Zoom has a chat window, too, but again, it’s not utilized as much. Also, since Zoom defaults to letting the whole audience have audio, you also have issues where someone’s unmuted. During one person’s presentation, an audience member had music going on in the background while they were unmuted, and so the presenter had to ask them to mute themselves (or track them down in the list of dozens of participants and mute them).

So, in sum, I’d say: Zoom is generally easier on presenters, but a bit less smooth for the audience, and streaming via YouTube and broadcasting software is harder on presenters, but gives a nicer audience experience. They each have their upsides and downsides (some of which I haven’t covered here), but having presented on both of them, and been an audience member on both of them, I’d much rather use YouTube for something like How to do Map Stuff. Zoom et al. still have their place (and I use them for other things).

So, that’s why I asked presenters to go the YouTube route (also, it’s because that’s what I was familiar with, and I was only familiar with it because when I started streaming last year, I just looked at what other people were doing, and it seemed to be the way to go). And I must emphasize that the presenters did a lot of work to make that happen. Most of them had never livestreamed before, and they took the time to learn new, more complex software, and work through technical problems.

Technical Problems

And there were technical problems. There was the online equivalent of “my laptop doesn’t connect to the projector,” which was people’s feeds not quite starting. One person’s computer crashed in the middle of the presentation.

What was encouraging, though, was to see the support from the audience during these times. There were various messages of “we believe in you!” or “we’ll wait for you!” as people worked through issues. We are fortunate to have a supportive community, and that’s something that makes me feel more comfortable when I do my livestreams. Because things will certainly go wrong when you have this many people presenting.

And sometimes there’s not much you can do about it. But I emphasized to the presenters that if all else fails, just tell the audience to go get a sandwich and enjoy the next set of presentations. Because, in the end, we’re all just casually coming together for free presentations, with no pressure. I think the audience comments demonstrated that. Also I will now use the phrase, “sandwich time” to describe a problem where you have to give up on what you were planning to do.

Some presenters had problems with video/audio quality, which surprised me. One person mentioned that they had shared their screen very often through other applications and hadn’t had any issues, but when they streamed to YouTube, suddenly their framerate was poor. I’d not run into that, but several people did. I couldn’t think of a reason for streaming to YouTube to be worse than doing a Zoom call, but I ran this by someone who’s been livestreaming for years, and she said:

One really needs to actually dig into the stream settings and tweak the max bitrates to accommodate their connection, but that’s definitely a steep learning curve for a first timer and requires multiple streams to dial in.

So, it sounds to me like maybe Zoom/Skype/etc. are more generous/forgiving in their settings, while OBS (the broadcasting software people were using to stream to YouTube) requires a little more fine-tuning to get right. It’s something I never thought about, and thus didn’t prepare presenters for, because my streams have always gone fine with the default settings OBS had suggested for me.

Latency

One thing that presenters and audience members noticed was the latency: the time delay between when the presenter said something, and when the audience heard it. That’s not actually a bug, but a feature. The latency seems to be a little larger nowadays than it used to be (I saw 15 seconds on my stream, vs. about half that last year), but in any case, it’s meant to buffer the video for the audience. We’ve all been on Zoom/Skype/etc. calls where the video gets fuzzy or the audio cuts out. Sometimes that’s due to issues with the person sending (see above about fine-tuning OBS settings), but sometimes that’s also due to your internet connection. If you remember the early days of internet video, they would sometimes pause and stutter as your incoming data stream caught up. So now, videos are buffered, and YouTube handles this for you by introducing a delay between the presenter and audience, to prevent this particular form of quality reduction.

It can sometimes be a bit awkward to communicate with your audience on delay, but I’ve found you (and they) will get used to it quickly.

Audience Fatigue?

I noticed, as the day went on, fewer people were tuning in. We had 300–400 early on, and by the end of the event, we had about 75. Some of this is likely due to time zones. Europeans were asleep by this point, and as evening approached for Americans, many of them probably switched off to focus on dinner and family time. Folks in East Asia & the Pacific started tuning in, but I think there were proportionally fewer of them, especially as it was a conference broadcast in English.

Some of it, though, could simply be audience fatigue. It may have been fun and enlightening, but it’s still a lot of content to absorb, and our brains become full and I expect some people just got tired and decided to catch the recordings later on.

So, instead, it could have been good to split this into multiple days. However, I would want to change around the hours of the presentations each day, so that there was still content easily accessible (time-wise) to folks outside of the US. So, maybe one day that starts early in the United States (for people in Europe/Africa to watch), and one day that goes later (for people in East Asia/Pacific).

Again, I was just hoping to get 3 or 4 presenters, so I never planned to accomodate this idea. Once I had to schedule over 25 presentesr, I did consider expanding the event, but I figured it was too late. I had already advertised the day, and presenters were planning on presenting on that particular day, and I didn’t want to ask a bunch of them to move. It would be something to plan in advance, next time.

Again?

I’ve seen some people on Twitter saying they hope this sort of event happens again soon. That’s a nice thought, but it could be a long while before I’m up for organizing an event at this scale. This turned out to be more work than I had anticipated. I thought at first that I would just collect presenter names, put them in a schedule, and then everyone would do their own things. And, certainly, the presenters did shoulder most of the labor burden; they deserve a lot of praise for their effort.

Nonetheless, organizing was still more of a challenge than I bargained for. Before the event, there was scheduling and re-scheduling, and there was a lot of advising of presenters as many of them prepared to livestream for the first time. Once the event started, I didn’t catch most of the content — I was switching constantly between

  • monitoring Twitter,
  • answering questions on my blog and by email,
  • monitoring the start of everyone’s presentation to make sure they got started correctly,
  • helping troubleshoot when they did not,
  • making last-minute schedule adjustments and announcements,
  • watching streams for problems (rather than content), and
  • being a ball of stress and nervousness (I’m a nervous presenter, and so I was empathetically nervous for most people going live).

I do not recite this list for your praise or pity; this is mostly for the benefit of future planners of such events, so that they have a sense of what they might encounter.

So, I definitely need a break =). But, it’s important to note that such events in the future don’t have to involve me at all. My hope is that the presenters will all keep going with livestreaming on their own, and perhaps inspire some of the event’s audience to do so, as well! Even before the pandemic, I felt that livestreaming was a good fit for cartography, and we could use more of it. We can share planned demos, or even just turn on a feed for a few hours and let people drop in to watch us work.

Worth It

Despite the stresses, it was certainly worth it. I hadn’t really anticipated the response we would receive. Hundreds of people tuned in, from Egypt to Brazil to Indonesia to Sweden. That still seems crazy to me.

More important than audience sizes though, was the emotional impact. I had thought people would find How to do Map Stuff interesting, and fun, and maybe just a little bit connective. But the response was emotionally deeper than I had expected. More than one person shared with me the great joy they felt, how they were buzzing with adrenaline, and how, importantly, it lifted their spirit during a rough time. That means a lot to me to hear.

Odds and Ends, Part 2

I do a lot of mapping for fun and exploration. Sometimes these projects get their own blog posts and end up in my portfolio. But other times, they’re little things that don’t really have anywhere to live; they’re not worth blogging about on their own. Instead, I generally scatter them on the winds of Twitter, and move on to something else.

However, I want to give some of these cartographic trifles and doodles a more stable place to live, and so I’ve gathered several of them here. I browsed through the last several months of my Twitter account, and here’s what I’ve come up with.

Pink Things

I don’t get to use colors in the pink family very often, so I made a couple of maps to just enjoy that part of the palette.
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You can click those images to have a look at larger versions. I simulated two-color halftones for each one, as I’ve been fairly obsessed with halftoning lately.

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For the map of Alaska, and the relief, I just recolored maps I had previously made.

Cartographic Efficiency

I make a lot of maps of Michigan, and it’s a weird-shaped state that doesn’t really efficiently use a rectangular page layout. So I decided to see how it ranked vs. other states, assuming that we mapped them with north towards the top of the page (but remember #northisasocialconstruct).

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I did a little scripting to just quickly put each state on a Lambert azimuthal equal-area projection, tangent to that state’s centroid. Then I looked at the minimum bounding rectangle, and compared its area to that of the state. That just gave me a table of values. Then I spent a long long time actually making the graphic. And to answer your question: that’s Colorado in position #1, with Wyoming very close behind.

The Upper Peninsula

This isn’t quite a cartographic doodle, but it doesn’t have anywhere else to really live in static form. I made it so that viewers could watch me label it in a YouTube video. In the end, the video (somewhat not-smoothly) pans around the map, but I wanted to put it here in its final form.

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I halftoned it (again, a current obsession). Only yellow, cyan, and black inks here; no magenta. I used my giant Michigan landforms map as a reference to know where to put some labels. In the context of this map by itself, some of them probably don’t make sense, because the coarse hypsometric tinting just doesn’t make them apparent.

My Apartment

Early in the COVID-19 lockdown, people were making joke maps about their daily commute, showing things like transit maps routing people from bedroom to bathroom to home office. I didn’t make one of those, but they reminded me that I’d never seen an actual floor plan of my apartment. So, I made one.

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Ice Hike

Every winter I lead folks from the UW Cartography Lab on a short hike across a small part of Lake Mendota, and I made a little flyer promoting it.

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This year there were two of us hiking, which is not unusual, but I have had groups of six or so.

Map Layers

In most people’s workflows, maps are made from layers. I just wanted to do a little animation that showed how that worked. It was a good way to learn some new stuff in Blender, and get more animation skills under my belt. I’m still quite the novice, but this one turned out nicely.

 

So this concludes our tour of some of the random stuff I’ve put on up Twitter since mid-2019. There’s more, but I think these are the most worth collecting into one place. I’ll try to do these every once in a while. As the post title suggests, this is not my first such collection; I wrote one up many years ago. But I’ll try not to let so many years pass until the next one.

An Atlas of North American Rivers

Around a decade ago, I started making river maps, in a style reminiscent of transit networks. I made a lot of them, and had the idea of compiling them into an atlas. I wrote about them, and even sold prints of them.

And then I stopped. My atlas sat, 99% complete, mostly untouched, for about eight years. But this is a time for finally finishing things, and so I finally buckled down and wrapped up something that has lingered far too long.

I present to you An Atlas of North American Rivers.


Click on that image to download a PDF. It’s designed for print (so there are some spaces in the middle of spreads to account for the gutter), but I’ve rotated some of the pages so that you don’t have to crane your neck when I switch between landscape and portrait layout, and I’ve split up multi-map spreads. So: expect some changes in page dimensions as you scroll through.


I’m making this project free to download; if you enjoy it, you’re welcome to make a donation to support my work.


There are two reasons it took so many years to finalize this project. One is that, the longer it sat, the more I changed as a designer, and the more “outdated” these felt. I still think they’re fine, but I would quite likely the whole project differently now (though I’m not sure how). But, I did not wish to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and so I am letting them go into the wild, as-is.

The second reason is that, after some of the early maps went briefly viral in 2011-ish, I was confronted by many people who were unhappy with my choice to not include certain rivers or towns that were important to them. It was a stressful situation. However, I’m more comfortable ignoring those people now. In truth, though, that experience also offered a valuable lesson. Cartographers are comfortable and familiar with the generalization and abstraction that maps offer. A lot of the public isn’t, though; they don’t take it for granted the way that we do, and that’s useful to remember.

Interested in a hardcover version? I’ve got a form for you to fill out! If I get enough people to make it economically feasible, I’ll look into getting some printed.

Update: demand was extremely low, and though the book was designed for print, I am not able to offer a print option at this time; print-on-demand services were also generally too expensive to meet the cost that people said they’d be willing to pay.

However, you can still purchase prints of most of the individual maps. They vary a bit from the book layout, both in typography, and in some cases in format. For a few river systems, I designed standalone posters, but for the book I split them up.

2020 Cartographic Freelancer Survey Results

Several weeks ago, Aly Ollivierre and I posted a survey on pay and business practices in the freelance mapping community. Fifty-six of you were kind enough to take the time to answer our questions; our thanks to all of you for helping bring more transparency to freelancing!

If you’d like to see the survey results, including the questions asked, you can download the data here. The results of certain questions have been removed to ensure anonymity. If you have any questions, or find any interesting insights, feel free to contact us.

Below, we discuss the results in the same conversational format that we used to present the findings of the 2018 edition of the survey. This time around, Molly O’Halloran was kind enough to join us and bring her insights, as well. And thanks to Aly for making all the graphics!


Daniel Huffman: Ok, so, let’s start with the big number, which is: what’s the median income for freelancers right now?

Aly Ollivierre: We should first note the average, since that’s what we used last time: $65 for 2018 and $70 for 2020. Since we decided to use medians this time around:

Daniel: Right, we had one outlier rate that was raising the mean a fair bit, which would have been $79 otherwise. Median is less susceptible to outliers, so it might be a good comparison going forward in these surveys.

So, the good news is that it looks like rates are going up, whether you slice it by mean or median. And I like to think the survey in 2018 is a part of that: we asked people if their business practices were influenced by 2018’s survey, and we separately asked if they’d given themselves a raise recently. Of the 11 people who said they’d been influenced by the last survey, 10 (90%) of them also said they’d given themselves a raise. That doesn’t explicitly mean correlation, but it seems anecdotally strong. Of the 13 people who saw the last survey and said they hadn’t changed practices, only 5 (38%) gave themselves raises.

Molly O’Halloran: I was just going to say that. Information sharing, and getting each person to consider their business, is so valuable.

Daniel: Agreed! It was valuable to me personally. I raised my rates after seeing that I was often charging below average.

Aly: I also became more diligent about ensuring that I wasn’t undervaluing myself when I gave clients quotes.

Molly: Yes! Or bringing down the value of our market in general. If some people are charging rock bottom, that hurts everybody.

Daniel: It’s hard to do, I think. I always have a fear that I’ll lose business if I aim too high. You have to hit this hidden magic number. Molly, that also reminds me of what one of the people said in the survey comments:

“A rising tide lifts all ships! Everyone charge more!”

Molly: What do you do to educate the client about the value you’re delivering? Have your communications changed during the negotiating/estimating phase of potential projects?

Aly: Honestly, I’ve just found that I spend an extended period of time re-reading and stressing over the wording of the email with estimated rate/cost and try to remain firm with myself that this is what I should be charging for this work! (It’s hard.) I’ve found that being confident in my prices hasn’t resulted in anyone questioning them … usually questions instead arise from what can be done differently to fit what they’re looking for into their smaller budget.

Molly: Aly, I feel that so much. I’ve been working for years on convincing myself of the value of my work. It’s as much an internal struggle as it is a market problem, I think. This is probably an aside, but I’ve been trying out the advice I learned in a webinar and book by Emily Ruth Cohen, Brutally Honest. I used to hedge and fuss over estimates: this map will cost, say, $380. Her advice is to round up, as it projects confidence and is likely a more accurate number anyway. So that map is now estimated at $500.

Daniel: I don’t know if it’s a bad idea, but I usually hedge a bit in my emails and let them know that it can be negotiated if it’s outside their budget.

Aly: I always hedge in my first draft and then try to edit my email to find that perfect balance of showing them I’m flexible, but that I also know my worth.

Daniel: This subject brings us around to a couple of other survey results that tie in: experience and education.

Aly: I combined 2018 and 2020 results into one graphic, which I think simply demonstrates that a different crew took this survey more than anything specifically related to the market.

Daniel: In 2018, we didn’t see any correlation between someone’s rate and their experience or educational qualifications. I didn’t see any correlation this year between education and rate, either.

But, experience was different. Last time we asked how many years of experience people had, and this time we tried to get people to think more about their general experience level. Because making maps occasionally for 10 years might be equivalent to making them full-time for a year or two. So this time there was a clearer pattern:

Given the low sample sizes, I wouldn’t read too much into the dip for “expert” level, but I think we can basically say, people just starting out charge less, and then rates rise quickly and plateau.

Aly: I think this is a better way of looking at things than we did in 2018, and follows pretty well with my hourly rates throughout my freelance career (starting at $20–30 early up as an undergrad student and recent grad, raising and sticking around $40–50 for awhile, and then moving up into the $60–70 range).

Molly: Are those numbers how much one actually takes in per hour spent mapping, or the hourly rate? Maybe I’m the only one who routinely spends more time than I estimated for each map, but I reckon not.

Daniel: This is what people answered for the question “In 2019, how much money did you typically receive per hour of time spent on freelance mapmaking work?” — so, people were encouraged to think about how much time they actually spent, and what they actually earned.

Aly: I definitely want to chat more about flat rates vs hourly rates, Molly! So instead of just three categories like we did in 2018, we did 5 categories. This gives a little more of a breakdown, but honestly it’s not a big difference between the data we received in 2018 and in 2020.

Daniel: The question was turned into a score of 1–5, with 1 being hourly and 5 being flat, and I just ran a quick average and it’s 2.9, so there’s still not a dominant approach. Looks like most people do some of each. I keep trying to push myself to do more flat rate, though, because if I do a job too efficiently, I get paid less.

Aly: There are pretty strong pros and cons for doing hourly and doing flat-rate. I often find myself with clients who want a lot of back and forth which ends up eating up time and hurts me in the long run if I do flat-rate. I generally prefer hourly because then I know all of my time is paid for, but I have also started warning clients when I do flat-rate that they’re getting to the end of the finances set aside and that we will need to renegotiate the contract if they want a lot more edits.

Molly: I always do flat-rate that includes one or two rounds of revision (negotiated in the estimate phase), then bill hourly for revisions beyond that. Clients should be paying for your expertise as well as your time. It took years for you to be able to make that map so well so quickly. It’s true, though, that I often spend waaayyy more hours than I need to and then, since it’s flat rate, my effective hourly rate goes way down. Aly, your approach sounds smart.

Daniel: As one participant said:

“You’re not paying for the two hours it took me to do the map, you’re paying for the years it took me to learn how to do that in two hours.”

Aly: That point by both of you about expertise = faster mapmaking is definitely why I struggle to force myself to do more flat-rates, I just have such a hard time estimating accurately from step one!

Daniel: I am terrible at estimates. Getting better, but I sometimes bounce them off other people first to see if they make sense. And I usually am secretly thinking hourly, so my flat rate is just “I think it will take X hours at Y per hour,” plus a bit of padding in case it goes wrong.

Aly: That’s how I try to estimate my flat rates as well.

Molly: Same! Though I tend to think in half-days or days rather than hours. How many days would I be working on this?

Daniel: It’s comforting to know that we all use similar methods. It’s one of those little things that you make up and never seems worth asking about, even though you wonder if you’re doing it the best way. But that’s what the survey, and this conversation, is for.

Aly: I feel like this topic rolls well into whether or not people use contracts.

Daniel: Like the hourly vs. flat rate question, we changed this to a 1–5 scale, but in the end saw roughly the same result when compared to 2018, it looks like. The average of everyone’s results was a score of 2.75, with 1 being “never have a contract” and 5 being “always.” So, people are leaning a little toward no contract, but they’re still pretty common.

Molly: Yeah, pretty even split, too.

Aly: I rarely use a contract (usually only when my client provides it), but I feel like I really should and just don’t know where to start with it! Especially since it adds a level of intensity to conversations with clients that I usually don’t have.

Daniel: Almost all my contracts are provided by clients, on big projects. For a lot of my work, it’s some small one-off thing (a typical example is a retired history professor who wants a quick greyscale map for a book they’re writing), and it feels like overkill to write up a contract for it. But in truth, it’s probably a good idea. Some people have boilerplate ones ready to go.

Aly: Exactly, I mostly work with smaller scale clients as well where it feels like overkill. I’d love it if there was a common, simple, contract template that cartographers generally used/built upon as necessary. One respondent noted:

“I recommend flat-rate contracts with X free revisions, subject to per-revision fee of Y after the cap’s met. Add strict payment dates and a deposit of at least 25%.”

Which really seems like something good to keep in mind!

Molly: I don’t think that was me … but it could’ve been. Agree completely with the above.

Daniel: My guess was going to be that people who are more full-time might be more likely to have a contract prepared and use it a lot, while people who map occasionally would let these things slide and be more ad hoc, but it looks like that’s not the case. I grouped people by their answer to the contract question, and averaged what % of their personal income was from freelancing:

  • Score 1 (never a contract): 30% of their income comes from freelancing
  • Score 2: 51%
  • Score 3: 45%
  • Score 4: 29%
  • Score 5 (always a contract): 15%

Molly: Do you ever consider usage in your negotiations? If you were making a map for commercial use for a real estate developer, that is a very different market than a map for an academic book. The price should be different even if the number of hours spent is the same.

Aly: Interesting question! I don’t think it specifically applies to much of the work that I do, but I definitely do think about if the client I’m making the map for will be using it for publication, or if they will be turning it around and selling it.

Daniel: I do a little. It’s mostly a gut calculation of how much money is worth to that client. Some people clearly have tight budgets, and others value money less and would probably be willing to pay more. I guess that’s more about the client than the usage, though.

Molly: Totally. Sometimes larger potential clients want to think of cartography as hourly work, whereas we’re more like illustrators on some projects. Making beautiful, informative works that help them reach their market. I feel like considering usage is one way to place more value on our work.

Daniel: Since I mentioned the percent of income freelancing question above, maybe now would be a good time to look at that.

I’m surprised there aren’t more people who are in the 90%+ bracket. I guess, looking around, I thought there were more freelancers who did this for most of their living.

A question that I’ve seen several people ask is: “Do part-timers charge less than full-timers?”

There’s not really a correlation here to be seen. Last survey there wasn’t one either, I don’t believe. When I see people asking that question, I get the sense that they feel that part-timers are underbidding full-timers, but I don’t think we see any evidence of that in either version of the survey.

Molly: When I freelanced on top of a full-time job, I leaned on so many assets of that full-time job—health insurance, namely, but also software and hardware. (Sorry!) It’s kind of crazy how much overhead is involved. Something to consider carefully when you go out on your own.

Aly: Absolutely, Molly, I assume many of us part-timers don’t have the flexibility to leave our full-time jobs because we so heavily depend on the benefits, primarily health insurance (for us Americans).

Daniel: One interesting thing I found, and for which I can’t figure out an answer: I looked at some differences by gender across some of the questions we’ve been discussing. Women and men were similar in their rate of using contracts, whether they were hourly or flat rate, etc. But, there was a difference in the percent of income question. Men received less of their income (13% mean, 28% median) from freelancing than women (48% mean and median).

Aly: Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if that had to do with inequality in (full-time job) salaries that meant women had to make up for more in their part-time work.

Molly: Interesting, Aly, about full-time salaries. I also suspect that women strike out on their own if they feel like opportunities for advancement aren’t equally open to them at their workplace. I would loooooovvve to hear from women about their interpretation of these numbers.

Daniel: Or even, if a man and a woman earned the same amount from a freelance project, it would represent a higher percentage of the woman’s total income if she were earning less at her day job than the man.

Aly: Exaaaactly.

Daniel: Which brings our attention to the table you have there about the pay gap, which unfortunately persists in the freelance mapping realm, too. And it appears to have gotten a little bigger than 2018, though the samples sizes are small enough that maybe that’s just noise. Definitely not getting smaller, though.

I took heart in one anecdote from the survey, though: of the six women who said they saw the 2018 survey results, five gave themselves raises (and one didn’t answer either way about a raise). The pay gap thrives on secrecy, and hopefully this survey will continue to bring some light.

Also, as a side note: 56% of respondents didn’t see the previous survey. So, audience: share with your freelance friends!

Molly: Data for the win!

Daniel: In 2018, we found, not surprisingly, that people who charge more are also more likely to say they are paid fairly. And at that time, women were generally less likely to feel they are paid fairly than men. Which made sense given that they were also earning less than them. This time, the pay gap persists, but it looks like overall satisfaction is up.

On a scale of 1–5, with 1 being “Never paid fairly for my time” and 5 being “Always,” women on average answered 4.1, and men 3.9. This is much closer than 2018, where women answered 3.1 and men 3.6. So, while the gap in pay hasn’t closed, the gap in satisfaction-from-pay seems to be smaller, to the point where it could just be noise in the data. And this whole batch of respondents for 2020 is happier with their pay.

Aly: Can we correlate any of that data with the people who gave themselves raises?

Daniel: For people who haven’t given themselves a raise in the last year, their average satisfaction score was 3.9. For those that had, it was 4.1. So, close, again. I wonder if people who see the results of the survey will change their opinion on whether they’re being paid fairly?

Aly: Here’s the median hourly rates broken down into different types of mapping:

Molly: Sighing, but not surprised, to see hand-drawn maps at the bottom of the barrel. I don’t know that there’s much to say about it though. I’m trying to re-frame it for potential customers: it’s a boutique service, not a hobby. (I don’t actually say “boutique service” out loud! It’s just something I repeat to myself when talking myself through an estimate.)

Daniel: That was very surprising to me. I feel like hand-drawn maps feel more elegant and bespoke. I was expecting them to command the highest price. I make custom maps digitally, but something hand drawn feels more obviously custom.

Aly: I agree, interactive maps require a separate “advanced” skill set so I wasn’t surprised to see them come in at a higher hourly rate, but I also consider hand-drawn to be a very specialized skill (I couldn’t do it!).

Daniel: Aly, I agree there’s a mindset that interactive mapping is “advanced,” certainly in the minds of clients, too, who are willing to pay more for something with cool animation, interactivity, etc. But I don’t want to sell short static mappers (which, I suppose, the three of us here are). I think we deal with different circumstances than interactive mappers, with different skillsets, but probably on average we spend the same amount of time acquiring those skills and thinking through how to apply them. I don’t have to figure out how to grapple with d3.js, but an interactive mapper doesn’t have to grapple with the challenges of getting something to look right on an offset press.

Aly: Very good point, Daniel!! I wonder how hand-drawn maps would fare against freelance illustrators, maybe that’s more comparable?

Molly: Great question. I do find myself relying more on the advice of illustrators when pricing and negotiating. There’s a lot more info out there re: illustration than cartography. Part of why you all created this survey!

Here are some illustration-oriented resources that I go back to again and again for advice on pricing, negotiating, etc.

  • Graphic Artists Guild — Guild membership gets you access to free webinars that can be helpful in running your business, and more. (This one by Emily Ruth Cohen on Advanced Pricing Strategies was particularly helpful to me.) Their regularly updated Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines includes charts of comparative fees for map design and illustration, as well as lots of information on contracts, negotiation, general practices, etc.
  • Whenever I need a pep talk on pricing, I revisit lettering artist and illustrator Jessica Hische’s The Dark Art of Pricing. It’s written with illustrators in mind but is so smart, borne from experience, and can help cartographers as well!
  • Map illustrator John Roman walks you through the business considerations of a project, from schedule through usage and credit.
  • Illustrator Anita Kunz gives great advice, especially for those newly in business. Her emphasis on keeping overhead low but also accounting for it in pricing makes for a great chat. (6 minutes)

Daniel: The cost of living was a new topic this time around, to get at a common question I’ve seen freelancers ask. If someone lives in an expensive area, I’ve seen them wonder if they could be underbid by someone who lives in an area where the cost of living is lower. So we asked people where they lived and then I looked up a bunch of those cost of living calculators online that people use to compare salaries between cities. I averaged several of them together to get a cost of living index.

There is no particular correlation here that I could see. There’s a slight incline to that trendline, but the R-squared is pretty low. So it looks like the two most common reasons I’ve seen cited for why a colleague might be able to underbid someone (living in a less expensive city, working only part-time) aren’t borne out by the data. Everyone’s rates are all over the place, without much regard to where we live, our education level, or other factors you might think have a role.

Molly: We should survey who is receiving coaching or mentoring. I swear that having a business therapist would really help me—but I can’t afford it!

Aly: There are business therapists?? That sounds amazing.

Daniel: I’ve never heard of those!

Molly: I don’t know but I want one, right?! So much of this is about learning to value one’s work and speak up for oneself.

Daniel: Sounds like many of us could use some help from one. I have been fortunate enough to have some colleagues to bounce ideas off of (like project rates), and who encourage me to charge more.

Aly: Which is the lovely thing about our cartography community, we have people who are always willing to share their expertise (not to mention sending projects your way!). I’m still always impressed how much of my work is word of mouth through the cartography community.

Daniel: A fair bit of mine has been, too! When people ask me about freelancing advice, I don’t have a lot of good specifics to share, but I do tell them to get connected into the community, because they’ll learn stuff to make better maps, and they may also get leads on work.

Molly: Oh! That might be a good question for the next survey: what percentage of your work comes from where? (e.g., word of mouth through friends/past clients/other cartographer; via website; via NACIS list, etc.).

Aly: Definitely! New freelance cartographers always ask me how I get clients and I don’t have good advice outside of getting connected to our community. If I did this full-time I’d have to do a lot more work putting myself out there.

Molly: Did we get an overall result for who has given themselves raises since 2018?

Daniel: Of the 54 people who answered the question, 26 (48%) said they’d given themselves a raise. That’s actually more than I might have expected.

Most people’s answers of how they determined when to raise their rates were either based on external factors (based on what they make at their salaried job, or what their regular client negotiates), or were more ad-hoc, as best summed up by one respondent:

“Whenever I think I can get away with it.”

It’s something I don’t do often enough, but since the 2018 survey, I’ve been thinking about. I raised them after that survey, and am keeping it in mind more in the future.
Thanks, both of you, for taking the time to chat about all this stuff! I feel like it makes it more interesting than just dropping a bunch of numbers and charts on people. Gives some context and interesting side points.

Aly: Absolutely, thanks team! This was great!

Molly: Thank you for the chance to join you! I loved it. Feel free to edit me liberally.

(Note: all of us were edited liberally)

Returning to my Roots

Years ago, I began crafting a love song to my homeland. I worked on it for weeks in 2014, and again for a while in 2015. And then I laid it aside, very nearly finished, for several years.

I have trouble finishing big projects sometimes, as I get distracted by some new interesting thing. And the more time that passes, the more effortful it feels to return to the headspace I was in when I was deep in the creative process of that project. So, instead, I just let things sit for years, or maybe forever. But, despite the interval, this particular project has long been important to me, and so this week I finally overcame my inertia enough to finish it.

I present to you Landforms of Michigan.

Labels Draft Six

Click to view a pretty large JPG

I never knew much about the shape of my surroundings when growing up, and this project offered me a chance to learn the grammar of a place that is dear to me. I hope you will share it with the Michiganders you know; they will understand what it means.

I had hopes at one point of ordering an offset print run of these, and maybe even seeing about getting them in Michigan schools, but this is not the economic time for such ventures. For now, if you want to print it out yourself, contact me for a full-resolution file on a pay-what-you-want basis. I have also put a (36 by 32 inch) print up for sale on Zazzle.

Brief Notes

  • I’ve previously written and presented about this project, when it was in its mostly-finished state, so I don’t have too much to add here about its construction. Check out this old blog post to learn more about how it was made.
  • I spent many, many hours tracking down names for features from a variety of sources, and in some limited cases coining my own, when I thought it wasn’t too much of a stretch. I’ve documented my rationale and my specific sources here.
  • There is one other big challenge in resuming an old project, besides trying to remember how you were thinking years ago: resisting the urge to extensively revise. In the past five years I have gained new knowledge, skills, and tastes, and there are things I would do differently if I started this project over, though none of them would probably make as much of a difference as I think.
  • When I had completed a first draft of the map years ago, I circulated it to a few people for feedback, which proved quite valuable. I want to thank Randall Schaetzl, Leo Dillon, Liz Kwicinski, and Eric Doornbos for taking the time to look things over.

If you derive some value from projects like these, you are welcome to make a donation to support my continued work.


How to do Map Stuff: A Live Community Sharing Event

Friends, many of us are stuck at home during this pandemic, and will be for a while (and we’re the fortunate ones, vs. those whose jobs force them to regularly risk infection). It’s a stressful, anxious, and isolating time.

So here’s an idea I had at 1:00 AM, one random night:

“How to do Map Stuff”: A series of live online mapping workshops — Wednesday April 29th (or April 30th, if you’re in the Pacific), 2020

Many of you know that I do occasional map livestream events, in which I casually take people through some project of mine, or show off some technique. So, my thought is: let’s just have a bunch of people all do those on the same day. I imagine a daylong event consisting of 30–60 minute live tutorials. Each person hosts their own stream on YouTube, and the audience can move from presenter to presenter throughout the day. And then, once we’re done, those videos reside on YouTube for future folks to find and learn from.

The Event

When I first posted the call for volunteers in mid-March, I had no idea it would get so big. I’m very excited that over two dozen people offered to give presentations! Now that the event is over, you can catch the presentations here:

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLF-xwVTEFobPaLdmE41iPMX8rQVW8TF1e

I’m so grateful to all of you who presented, and all of you who tuned in from around the world. Thanks for making a special day possible! And if you weren’t there for some or all of it, the videos remain a gold mine of information. Make sure to let the presenters know you enjoyed the knowledge that they had to share.

(This post was last updated May 8, 2020 to reflect the end of the event.)