Cartographic omissions

The land itself, of course, has no desires as to how it should be represented. It is indifferent to its pictures and to its picturers. But maps organise information about a landscape in a profoundly influential way. They carry out a triage of its aspects, selecting and ranking those aspects in an order of importance, and so they create forceful biases in the ways a landscape is perceived and treated.

It can take time and effort to forget the prejudice induced by a powerful map. And few maps exercise a more distortive pressure upon the imagination than the road atlas. The first road atlas of Britain was produced in 1675 by John Ogilby. It was a six-volume work, which claimed to be the only ‘Ichnographical and Historical Description of all the Principal Road-ways in England and Wales’. Ogilby’s maps showed a scrupulous attention to landscape detail: they depicted not only roads, but also the hills, rivers and forests that the roads ran round, along, through and over.

In the centuries since Ogilby’s innovation, the road atlas has grown in ubiquity and influence. Over a million are sold in Britain and Ireland each year; twenty million are thought to be in circulation at any one time. The priorities of the modern road atlas are clear. Drawn by computers from satellite photos, it is a map that speaks of transit and displacement. It encourages us to imagine the land itself only as a context for motorised travel. It warps its readers away from the natural world.

Robert Macfarlane (The Wild Places, pp. 8-9) discusses how maps can impact the way we perceive a place. This goes well beyond the map not being the territory. A map, like any good model, is wrong, but useful. For driving one place to another, a road map is a useful model. But maps are also a sort of language, and the language we use can influence the way we think.

Road maps are designed to be task-focused. They allow you to plan a route from Point A to Point B. Turn-by-turn navigation does this job even better. Road maps and turn-by-turn navigation are successful because leave out a great deal of information, but what is left out changes our perception. Instead of being aware of the surrounding landscape, we’re aware only of our own route through it, focused only on the blue line that draws us forward toward our destination. Everything else drops away.

The road map is only one way of representing a landscape. For the traveller who merely wants to move through the landscape, it is probably the right tool. For the traveller for whom the journey is the landscape (perhaps this is an explorer, not a traveller), there are other maps that show what road maps have left out: the topography, the history, the ecology, the geology. Of course, there is also everything that no map shows, and that’s where things start to get exciting.

All models are wrong

Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.

From George Box and Norman Draper’s Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces pp. (p. 424). I came across the quote during a discussion of the merits and weaknesses of personas on the AnthroDesign mailing list.

Yes, it’s obvious, but I constantly need reminding; I fall all too easy into the trap of confusing the models I’ve created to understand a problem for the problem itself.

Related posts:

A question for New Yorkers (and others)

There are at least two New Yorkers that read this blog (I have a very large audience ;). So I’d like to address a question to them.

You may have seen my two posts about the removal of zones on the new Tube map.

A quick bit of background: the London Underground network is divided into nine zones. If you know the zone you’re in and the zone you’re going to, you know how much you have to pay.

So, here’s my question. I noticed that the New York Subway Map has no zones. How do you know how much you’re going to pay for a subway journey? Or do you just buy a MetroCard and not worry about how much each journey costs?

Actually, this question could apply to anyone who lives in a city with an urban railway. Does your transport system have zones? If not, how do you know how much each journey will cost?

New Tube map: no zones, no Thames

The new Tube map is significantly less cluttered than the previous version, presumably in an attempt to address some of the criticism the Tube map has received lately.

Most of the information that has been removed isn’t essential for most commuters; however, as Londonist points out, the removal of zones might cause issues. Personally, I don’t need zones on my day-to-day commute. However, this is crucial information if I’m travelling to some far-flung Tube station. How do I get this information now? I’m not sure. Do I have to wait in the ticket queue just to ask a TfL employee what zone Station X is in? At the moment, I can download the old map from the TfL site, but I wonder how long it is before it disappears. Of course, if I plan my journey in advance, I can always get the zone information from Wikipedia.

This raises some interesting general questions: Is less clutter a good thing when vital information has been removed? Is designing for the 80% always the best idea? When removing rarely-used features, what alternatives should be provided to ease the transition to the new, simpler version?

I should add that I really do miss the Thames, even though I can see that it doesn’t add any useful information.