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Talking with... Keir Clarke

Exclusive interview with the man behind Google Maps Mania

February 18, 2014
Keir Clarke
Photo: Keir Clarke

It’s time to start our 2014 series of exclusive interviews, in which we have the opportunity to ask a few questions to notable figures in the data visualization world. And we open with one of those persons that has inspired us in many different ways, and is often quoted on our weekly compilations of Digital Cartography and Data Viz News: Keir Clarke, the man behind Google Maps Mania.

Now, if by any chance you’re not familiar with Google Maps Mania, you’re missing one of the top resources about interactive maps in the entire Internet.  Since 2005, a non-stop stream of posts (around four or five news per day) reviewing the latest digital and interactive maps being published. We strongly recommend it – and that’s why it’s on our top 30 data visualization blogs special page.

In this interview, Keir shares his thoughts about the state of digital mapping, projects that have impressed him, mistakes to avoid – and even a little secret.

Hope you enjoy it!

 

Visual Loop (VL) – Keir, you receive tons of interactive maps to review. What are the most common mistakes you see being done when developing this type of visualization?

Keir Clarke (KC)- Heat maps are a very popular type of cartographic visualization. One of the most common mistakes seen in heat maps is when the developer does not normalize the data, for example by not accounting for the differences in population between different areas.

HeatMap, by XKCD
HeatMap, by XKCD

I see a lot of heat maps of the USA where California glows brightly on the map, simply because the developer hasn’t accounted for the fact that California is the most populated state. Why is there more crime in California than there is in Wyoming? Well the main reason is that it has a lot more people.

Another bugbear of mine is the missing map legend. Map legends don’t seem to have made the transition from paper to digital maps very well and many developers just seem to leave them off their maps. This results in users having to try to guess what the data on the map is meant to be visualizing.

VL – And could you please tell us a little bit about your background, and where did the passion for cartography came from?

LC – Ah – I have to reveal my big secret now. I actually have no background or training in cartography. I spent 15 years as an English teacher in London. During my teaching career I gradually built up my programming skills and found myself more and more involved in what was then called e-learning.

When the Google Maps API was launched in 2005 I was immediately hooked. The ability to be able to easily just plug-in and visualize data on a map opened up a whole new world for me. So you could say my love of cartography owes everything to the invention of Google Maps.

Map legends don’t seem to have made the transition from paper to digital maps very well and many developers just seem to leave them off their maps. This results in users having to try to guess what the data on the map is meant to be visualizing.

VL – What about Google Maps Mania, how did it became part of your life?

KC – Google Maps Mania started almost immediately after the launch of Google Maps, back in 2005. It was started by a Canadian, Mike Pegg. Google was obviously impressed with Mike’s blog and with his in depth knowledge of what it was possible to create with the API – so they offered him a job with the Google Maps team.

When Mike started working for Google he was keen to pass on the blog to someone else so that Google Maps Mania remained independent. It just so happened that Mike’s employment at Google coincided with my own career change. I had just given up teaching to start my own web development career. Mike knew me through my own ‘Google Maps mashups’ and asked me if I wanted to take over the blog. I obviously jumped at the opportunity (thanks Mike!).

VL – Back in 2010, you gave an interview for Arek Drodza’s All Things Spatial, where you talked about  digital mapping trends and shared some facts and numbers of Google Maps Mania. Four years later, a lot has changed, right?

KC – In the interview with All Things Spatial I talked about the trend towards real-time visualizations. It is interesting how real-time maps of transit systems, which visualize the live movements of ships, buses and trains, have become almost commonplace since then.

In just a few years we seem to have seen a huge democratization of data. Governments and companies have made huge strides in opening up data (although they still need to make more effort in this area). At the same time we have seen the development of tools like the Google Maps API that allow just about anyone to create meaningful and interesting visualizations of that data.

It can still be really impressive to stick a lot of data on a map and say ‘Wow, look at all this data’. I think however we have now reached a point where developers are beginning to move beyond simply visualizing data and are beginning to look at the stories and narratives hidden in the data. I think we now realize we need to be able to be making more of an effort to analyze the trends and stories hidden in the data.

We have now reached a point where developers are beginning to move beyond simply visualizing data and are beginning to look at the stories and narratives hidden in the data.

VL – And among those new trends, how do you see the increasing use of interactive maps by news portals, as part of their storytelling projects?

KC – The recent growth in what people are calling ‘long-form journalism’ or ‘narrative journalism’ is what really interests me at the moment. Over the last year I’ve seen a few really great examples of this kind of long form journalism, reports that use maps as a way to tell important stories.

The Jamaican Slave Revolt Map and Hussain’s Journey are great examples of this. As is The Guardian’s In Flight.

VL – I’d like to talk now about two recent posts you published recently on Google Maps Mania. The first one (Mapped Visualizations Just Grew Up) is, in fact, quite related to the previous question, about The Guardian’s interactive In Flight . What impressed you the most about this visualization?

KC – The Guardian’s In Flight interactive includes a really impressive animated mapped visualization of 24 hours of flights around the world. What really impressed me is how The Guardian took this map as the starting point to tell a bigger story. The map is used to convey the huge global scope of commercial flight around the world.

The Guardian uses this visualization of the global commercial airline industry to ask (and answer) the question of how in one century the human race went from the Wright brothers first flight to a huge global industry. The data visualization is therefore used as the starting point to tell an important historical story about the birth and development of flying.

VL – The second post (The Slow Death of the Google Maps API) was a bit provocative (and you wrote a follow-up post to that) , criticizing the fact that “the Google Maps API team has been completely inactive over the last two years”. What improvements would you like to see from Google, not only to Google Maps API but to the entire platform?

KC – ‘The Slow Death of the Google Maps API’ was in all honesty a bit of a ‘link-bait’ title for that post. However the post does raise some of my concerns with the recent development of the Google Maps API.

As an outsider looking in it seems to me that Google are focusing on improving the Maps API for mobile and tablet devices. I believe Google know what they are doing and have analyzed trends of how people are now accessing the internet. They therefore seem to be spending a lot of effort in developing the Google Maps SDK for iOS and the Google Maps Android API.

Perhaps as a result of this there seems to have been very few developments for the Google Maps API v3 over the last two years. Fortunately during that time MapBox and LeafletJS have emerged and have been creating really powerful platforms for mapped visualizations.

Where MapBox and LeafletJS win out on the Google Maps API in is in the control they give developers over the underlying look and design of the map tiles. Have a look at some of the beautiful MapBox maps at https://www.mapbox.com/blog/vector-tiles/.

I think Google could put a lot more effort into the Styled Maps feature of the Maps API. The Styled Maps feature does give developers some control over the look of Google Maps but it could and should be developed much more. For example, by giving developers more control over map labels.

However it isn’t just down to Google. Vizzuality are working on a really interesting library to help developers build story / narrative maps. You can view the progress so far on the Odyssey.js GitHub page. If I worked for a newspaper’s data visualization team I would definitely be working on creating a library along similar lines. A library that provides a template for creating long-form narratives, where maps are used to visualize data and at the same time develop an in-depth story around important issues.

Where MapBox and LeafletJS win out on the Google Maps API in is in the control they give developers over the underlying look and design of the map tiles.

VL – And what about future projects, what can we expect from you and Google Maps Mania in the upcoming months?

KC – Long time readers of Google Maps Mania will have noticed how over the last year I have opened up the blog to cover other mapping platforms. This is a testament to the great work being done by other mapping platforms, in particular MapBox, LealfetJS and Esri.

Google Maps Mania will continue to cover Google Maps but it is definitely moving towards becoming more of a general online maps blog. I guess at some point I need to think about dropping the ‘Google’ and becoming simply ‘Maps Mania’.

I’ve talked a lot about Story / Narrative maps in this interview. At the end of last year I developed a very basic story map about a ship called the Mary Celeste. The map uses the waypoints.js plug-in with the Google Maps API to create a story / narrative map. It doesn’t work perfectly at the moment. When/if I get the time I’d like to tidy that up and release it as a library – similar to the Odyssey.js library I mentioned earlier.

At the moment I’m also working on a project with Map Channels. I can’t say a lot about the project at the moment except that it should be an interesting platform allowing anyone to create interesting mapped data visualizations using Google Maps.

VL – Keir, thank you so much, and keep up the great work!

KC – Thank you and keep up the great work with Visual Loop!

 

We thank Keir for his answers, as well as for the amazing work he does in Google Maps Mania – again, one of those daily must-visit sites  for everyone interested in visualization. Follow him also on Google+ and Twitter.

Written by Tiago Veloso

Tiago Veloso is the founder and editor of Visualoop and Visualoop Brasil . He is Portuguese, currently based in Bonito, Brazil.

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