Category Archives: Geography

The 2014 GOOD City Index

Very interesting perspective from the good folks at GOOD.  I very much appreciate the perspective of cities from the stand point of potential.  It does focus on the momentum of the cities towards improvement, not resting on laurels of past achievements.  It also addresses a (for me) nagging issue with city benchmarking with respect to scoring based on environmental and historical context.

The 2014 GOOD City Index.

Connected: Jack Dangermond, president, Esri

I feel very conflicted about this article.  On the one hand it’s great to see a mass business media publication like Forbes writing about the importance of GIS to business, on the other hand, I am saddened to see that Jack, and the article refer to the business applications as “emerging”.  I’d argue they are not emerging, but have been there.  I have spent the better part of my career establishing the use go geographic or spatial analysis in the business context, and some very large companies are known for deploying GIS.  ESRI has, admittedly been late to that game (MapInfo – now part of Pitney Bowes – was the dominant player for a while), but the work the truly disruptive force in the space are MapBlast (acquired by MSFT), Google, and MapBox.  They all share in common the fact that they truly democratized the use of maps in business by a) injecting new ideas/approaches, b) becoming active contributors to an open (source/data) movement, and c) embracing a diverse ecosystem of players.

Connected: Jack Dangermond, president, Esri.

Cartograms are evil!

Cartograms are evil…

I recently engaged in a pretty heated debate with a senior researcher at my company about the merits and drawbacks of various data visualization techniques.  This particular person used mapping as a great example of visualization techniques, unfortunately started to focus his attention on cartograms (insert image here) as the best example of data visualization out there.  I nearly choked…  There is a fascination with cartograms that is bordering on fanaticism.  As we continued our conversation, I tried to articulate the pros/cons of cartograms (mostly cons).

What are cartograms?

There are many variations on the concept of cartograms, but in general the idea behind cartograms is to adjust the size of the shapes or objects on the map, using a pre-determined set of rules or algorithms to provide a new visualization of the world that we know.

The problems with cartograms (or why they are evil).


There are three problems with cartograms that make them evil and (IMHO) useless and dangerous as a means of communication.

  1. Assumption of geographic knowledge:  The most common cartograms deform the underlying geography so that the areas end up representing the proportions in the numbers.  For example, you could resize all states to represent electoral votes they have in the electoral college, and create a new map of the US where Alaska is tiny, California huge, the East coast fairly dominant, and the middle of the country fairly small.  These areas in the middle of the country have a lot of land, but not a lot of people, and thus have (generally) fewer seats.  This, as the example shows, is often used in showing national information in the US, but is also used to show global trends like the share of global GDP that every country has, etc…  The first problem is that most people don’t have a good sense of size and geography.  Do you know (at first reaction) how many times larger Alaska is then California?  If you did, do you get a sense of the impact of the electoral college is?  Most likely you’ll answer that you don’t know the relationship, but seeing California blow up like a balloon is a sign.  However, I’d argue that there this map does not give you anything more than a table that shows bar graphs for each state.
  2. Projection issues & education: The second issue is that most cartograms are based on one form or another of cartographic project, and most people have been brought up on the Mercator project which renders areas closer to the pole much larger, and areas around the equator much smaller.  So our basis for comparison is often biased to start out with
  3. Arbitrary Algorithms: I realize that this is an oxymoron, however, the algorithms prioritize relative scale, and physical proximity (i.e. New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine need to be side by side, and need to be above Massachusetts, which needs to be above Rhode Island and Connecticut.  As a result you got odd ballooning and squeezing effects which poorly reflect the reality of the underlying information.  For example, if you choose to represent something that is worth 100 units, you could choose to represent as a 10 by 10 square, or a line that .1 of a square wide, and 1000 units long.  This line could be barely perceptible at the same overall scale, and would then create the perception that the 10 by 10 could be larger.

Hope in Cartograms:

The biggest hope in cartograms, I believe, is with those that use a known shape (a 1 by 1 square, or circle of radius of 1), and scale them up.  You can still keep the alignment mostly right, but then ensure that you are a) free of project, b) don’t have to assume that people know geography too well, and c) can be sure that two geographies worth 100 units are equally represented.

So why are they used so frequently:

In short – sex appeal.  They are sexy, and make people pause for a second.

What do you think?

(link for more info on cartograms: )

The efficiency of trains

Hello again friends!  I’m back stateside, and wanted to follow up on this note from a couple of months ago.  At the time I talked about how I took the train from Boston, Massachusetts to Syracuse, New York.  The train ride was about 10 hours, about 5.5 hours longer than the equivalent car ride.  As I reflect back on the experience, I can’t help but admire how efficient a mode of travel the train is.  Below I try to articulate this.

Taking the train is more expensive than driving or flying, but

The simple cost equation:

Travel by car: My car needs premium gas, and it takes about a full tank to make a one way trip.  The total cost of that (in November 2011) would be about $55.00 for one way, $110.00 for the round trip

Travel by train: Amtrak’s tickets were about $80.00 for one way, or about $160.00 for a round trip.

So far, taking the train is costing me more by $50.00

However the benefit of the train is that I could work during part or most of the ride.  What does that math look like…

Assuming that I was able to work seamlessly for 75% of the time, and that had I taken the car, I would have been able to work for those extra hours that I would have been in Syracuse instead of the train.  So basically it comes down to how many hours in between the two.  Let’s say I was productive for 7.5 hours out of those ten, and had made it to Syracuse I would’ve worked for about 5 of those hours (assuming a small break).  So basically we are talking about a difference in productivity of 2.5 hours, and assuming.  Assuming an hourly rate of anything above $20 per hour, then it’s worth taking the train.

I can report that my hourly rate is greater than $20.00 therefore it makes a lot of sense for me to take the train.

It doesn’t stop there…

The reality is that after driving 4.5 hours (especially during the holiday season).  It is virtually impossible to work for 5 hours.  In addition, the stiffness and stress that you develop from driving, I find, only tires you more, and makes you stiff for a couple of days.

Finally, one of the most amazing parts of taking the train (well from Boston) is that it literally took me 30 minutes to get from my house to the train using the MBTA.  So effectively I was able to pack my bags, head out, and arrive at the train station 20 minutes before the train left the station, and thus was able to hop on board immediately and continue working (no stowing of electronic devices as we taxi and take-off).

Overall, the train is a fantastic means of transport, something that I look forward to doing more.  From Boston there are a number of cities around that I could easily visit, and am hoping to experiment with this more of transportation more.

Moving towards a sustainable life!  What do you think?

Western Massachusetts – Birthplace of Horror Movies?

Hello again friends! A very quick update as I am traveling for work.

I recently (Thanksgiving 2011) had the opportunity to take the Amtrak Lakeshore Limited from Boston to up-state New York.  As we left Boston, we went through the suburban landscape of Eastern Massachusetts.  This landscape is quite nondescript and similar to what you would see in around many of the East Coast cities.  Town after town of mills mixed in with borderline nondescript retail chains. Were it not for the over-index of Dunkin’ Donut stores, you would not be able to tell that you are in Massachusetts.  So far, nothing out of the ordinary.

About an hour or so after Springfield, as the sun started to set, the landscape started changing quite dramatically.  To contextualize ourselves in time, remember that this is a few weeks after the major Halloween snow storm that rendered a lot of Western Massachusetts power less, and a few months since Hurricane Irene ( devastated many areas along the Hudson Valley, and the Connecticut rival valley.

As we progressed along the corridor that leads us to Albany, Utica, Syracuse and Rochester, the train entered an area of Western Massachusetts littered with broken trees, abandoned mills and buildings, and general destruction and abandonment.  It seemed like the perfect place to film a horror movie.  In addition, some areas were still covered in snow, and the warmer weather made it even more dreary, and foggy.  Adding a new layer of mystery to the area.  What a contrast from the suburban landscapes we had just seen…  It felt like I suddenly landed on the set of Evil Dead (the original).

What do you think?  Other areas we could characterize as the birthplace of horror movies?