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Thoughts about Google’s Styled Maps announcement

At the Google I/O developer event this week, an impressive item was included in the announcement about the latest Javascript Maps API (v3).  Now you can use Javascript to change the style of Google’s base map, in effect creating your own CSS for Google Maps.

Yesterday’s Google Geo Developers Blog highlighted the new feature and capabilities, including a link to a style wizard – see screen shot below – so you can see in real-time what each change looks like (the wizard is kind of like ColorBrewer, without the helpful suggestions for good vs. bad color schemes and symbology).  Note that the Style Wizard won’t work in IE.

Google Maps Style Wizard

This step for Google Maps is big, no doubt, but I’m ambivalent.  On the one hand, it opens up myriad possibilities for using Google’s map API.  Before, some geoweb developers (our team at CUNY included) tended not to use the Maps API because each and every map looked the same.  It got to be boring, and from a cartographic perspective it was basically an acknowledgment that you took the easy way out.  And often the Google map style got in the way of other layers you wanted to add to your map.

As Google’s own blog puts it,

No matter which [Google] Maps API site you are on, every map looks the same. If you want your map to stand out from the crowd, your options are limited to customizing the markers and controls, and if your brand has a particular colour scheme that is reflected on your site, Google Maps may not sit well with it.

EveryBlock’s Paul Smith wrote about these limitations two years ago at his post about “Google Maps Fatigue”.  For our part at CUNY, if we wanted a basemap with our own style that didn’t conflict with other thematic layers and choropleth overlays, either we rolled our own.  Or if we used Google Maps, we used the Flash API so we’d have the ability to desaturate its color (following the New York Times and others) — our Census 2010 Hard to Count mapping site used this technique. 

On the other hand, I’m sure more of us will now use Google Maps as a basemap, but will that further undermine the diversity of locally-crafted and customized online cartography?  With the advent of Google map styles, our team is now looking closely at GMaps for our map applications.  I think we’ll likely only use Google’s basemap for nationwide applications where it’d be too difficult to assemble all the base map layers at that scale.  But … maybe we’ll use it beyond that.

There are still major issues, of course.  Modifying Google’s map styles is one thing, but it’s still the Google basemap with the Google logo.  Using Google’s basemap whether we style it ourselves or not still means we’re stuck with the underlying data — with all its errors, inconsistencies, outdated place names, etc.  Google is trying to fix the errors, and errors are bound to exist, but until the basemap gets to a high level of quality and consistency, in effect you’re endorsing the errors when you use their basemap.  And though we can use the GMap style options to turn on/off place names, for example, this is nowhere near as robust as setting layer-specific filters that display or omit only *certain* place names, or using different road label types for different types of roads, etc.

As I understand it, CloudMade gives you much more control over map content as well as style.  You need to use OpenStreetMap, but perhaps the openness of OSM is more to your liking than Google Maps.  This post at Programmable Web highlights some of the differences between GMaps map styles and CloudMade’s editor features.

Some critics also point out that just making a map look different doesn’t necessarily mean it looks good, or better than the standard Google look-and-feel.  The examples provided via Google’s Geo Developer blog are intriguing …

… but this one via the Javascript Maps v3 documentation is, well, not so much:

Perhaps one cartographic benefit in all this is that it will help the mashup neogeographers of the world realize that there are good and bad map styles — cartography matters.  Web map developers will need to make choices about symbology, it won’t just be on a silver platter from Google.

What do you think?

GIS and Census participation

It’s been too long since my last blog post. Have been quite busy with work, and even though Twitter is a microblogging service, sending a tweet now and then really isn’t an excuse to keep up my actual blog.

One of the projects keeping me (very) busy is our work to help boost participation in the 2010 Census. I thought I’d write about some of our interactive mapping and participation rate analysis along these lines.

In August I described how our team at CUNY’s Center for Urban Research was creating metro-scale maps showing where hard-to-count communities were located so local census advocates could target their outreach. Then in late January we launched our interactive version of those maps at www.CensusHardToCountMaps.org. Originally we designed the site to show hard-to-count areas, but these are only where it was expected there’d be low census participation. Then, on March 23, the Census Bureau started publishing the actual participation rates on a local and national basis. So a week later we updated our site to emphasize the latest participation rates (this link zooms in to Manhattan showing tract-level participation overlaid on a map of hard-to-count tracts).

Though the Census Bureau’s Take 10 map (and a related Google Earth application) display the daily participation rates nationwide, we decided to provide several features that the Census Bureau doesn’t. At our site you can:

  • type in a county and highlight the tracts below a certain participation rate (you can enter whatever rate you want);
  • sort the resulting list so you can see at a glance the highest and lowest performing tracts (this also will be highlighted on the map so you can see how concentrated they are); and
  • compare the 2010 rate map with the 2000 rate map (click the “More…” tab and check the box for “Participation Rate in 2000″).

(Of course, you can also click on any spot on the map to display the latest participation rate for that area — state, county, or tract — depending on how close in or out you’ve zoomed.)

These are the types of data analysis and spatial visualization tools that were requested by census advocates, so they can use the maps to focus on areas that need their help the most.

In order to provide some context for the interactive map, our Center also posted an analysis of the first week’s participation rate. It was a combination of basic statistical analysis and mapping. We examined the correlation between participation rate and hard-to-count scores at the tract level nationwide, and not surprisingly found that rates tended to be lower in hard to count areas. This should help bolster the work of groups who’ve been working in these communities, confirming that they’re focused on areas that need support the most if we want to achieve a 100% count.

We also examined county-level statistics on race/ethnicity using the Census Bureau’s latest population estimates from 2008. (The American Community Survey would provide a richer set of characteristics to examine, but any data from areas with less than 20,000 population are suppressed in the ACS — and this accounts for about 1,300 of the nation’s 3,200 counties.)

The county-level data indicate that race/ethnicity is strongly correlated with census participation (at least in the first week), with participation rates tending to be higher in counties with a greater percentage of whites while the rates tended to be lower in counties with a greater percentage of blacks and Latinos. Because we didn’t have other socio-economic data to evaluate, we weren’t able to disentangle the effects of other characteristics such as low educational attainment, poverty, housing conditions, etc. that may have a stronger correlation while cutting across racial and ethnic categories. An opportunity for further research. As a next step we may also examine county-level unemployment rates and participation rates, as well as evaluating how well the first week’s analysis holds up as time goes on.

Friday (April 2) we added another feature, information about the areas that will receive a second census questionnaire.  (The Funders Census Initiative sent out a news advisory highlighting this service on April 5.)  Now when you click on the www.CensusHardToCountMaps.org map or type in your street address, you’ll see a popup window that (among other things) tells you if households in your tract will be receiving replacement Census forms. We think this will help minimize confusion over people receiving another census form (even if they’ve already mailed their’s in!). This is a “just in case” thing from the Bureau — mailing another form to households in historically low response areas, and mailing another form to households in moderately low response areas who haven’t yet sent their’s in. But the geographic scope of the “blanket” and “target” replacement mailing areas are pretty extensive in most cities (see maps at CUR’s website), so lots of people may be confused. Our mapping site provides a simple way of clearing the air.

We’ve also mapped those second mailing areas. When you visit www.CensusHardToCountMaps.org, select the “More…” tab and zoom in to your area of interest. For example, here’s Boston, MA. Click either or both check boxes in the “April 2010 Replacement Questionnaires” section to map the tracts receiving replacement census forms.

Our hard-to-count mapping site still has its original functionality — such as visualizing the demographic characteristics that will make it difficult to achieve a complete Census count; overlaying ZIP Codes, mail return rates from 2000, recent foreclosure risks by tract; and seeing who’s tweeting about the Census in your area.

But we’re also planning for next steps, thinking of the mapping application as a platform for future Census-related efforts (tracking how successful census advocates were, displaying the 2010 results, enabling the general public to get involved in a meaningful way in the redistricting process). Any ideas? We’d love to hear them.

“Neo”, “Paleo”, “Geo”, what?

Just a quick note that the online journal V1 Magazine today posted an interview with me about the CUNY Mapping Service’s online mapping work.  I’m honored that Matt Ball asked to talk with me about our work — he has interviewed some pretty impressive people over the years and it’s a thrill to have our humble contributions included in the list.

We mainly talked about our experiences developing some big online mapping applications — the Long Island Index interactive map, the new version of OASIS, and an upcoming nationwide application for the 2010 Census.

I’m glad one of Matt’s takeaways from the interview is to think of our work as cutting through the debate/discussion/tempest in a teapot that’s been taking place lately about whether you’re a “neo” or “paleo” or some other type of geographer.  I can’t say that we have any definitive answers or better answers than anyone else.  But if our work helps clarify things or maybe even point the discussion in a new direction, that’d be a contribution I’m glad to make.

Btw, my slide presentation from the 2009 GeoWeb conference provides some background on how we decided on different GIS technologies/techniques for the Long Island Index mapping site.  And an earlier blog post discusses our cartographic decision-making for the new OASIS website.

Homage to the people behind OASISnyc

Last week’s UrbanOmnibus features an article I wrote about a new and completely revamped version of the OASIS mapping website in New York City — see “A new OASIS for New York“.  (Also see an earlier blog post about how we designed the cartography in the new OASIS maps.)

OASIS is the Open Accessible Space Information System.  The UO piece focuses on the site’s new mapping tools, richer data sets, and a new approach using “web 2.0″ techniques to encourage more interaction and engagement via the OASIS maps with urban planning in New York.

But equally impressive, though not the focus of the piece, is the part of OASIS that doesn’t directly involve mapping and web technology.  It’s the people and groups “behind the scenes” that make it all worthwhile.  Their work and the collaborative effort that OASIS has helped facilitate are really amazing.

OASIS was the vision of several people in the Forest Service (Jim Lyons, Michael Rains, Phil Rodbell, Matt Arnn, Robin Morgan to name a few), ESRI (especially Dave LaShell), and local greening organizations in New York back in late 2000.  The idea was to bring together a bunch of groups interested in sharing resources and ideas about open space stewardship, create an online mapping site to integrate all this info (way before Google Maps was on the scene), and see where that would lead.

The OASIS mapping site is powerful, but the website without the people and partnerships would just be one more (though impressive) map mashup.  The collaborative nature of the effort from the start — inspired and sustained especially by Matt Arnn — always seemed special.

Some folks who deserve special mention (though this is certainly an incomplete list) are:

  • Council on the Environment of NYCLenny Librizzi at CENYC is absolutely wonderful, and has a great vision of involving students and community groups in the greening of the city.  He trains high school youth to inventory street trees in a way that teaches ecology, math, science, and urban planning in an engaging way.  He’s also led the effort to map community gardens across the city, maintaining a comprehensive database of gardens for analysis, advocacy, and teaching.  It’s been great working with Lenny as we’ve integrated all that data into OASIS.  The maps are powerful, but in some ways it’s more important that they’ve been a vehicle to get to know him and to give his students invaluable hands-on experiences.
  • Open Road of New York  — Paula Hewitt Amram is an inspiration to untold numbers of city youth who want to change the world or are just looking for a better spot to play in.  (Here’s an example: Amy Poehler interviewing 11-year old Valentine about her community gardening work at Open Road.)  She’s brought that energy and spirit to the groups involved in OASIS, with a real passion for wanting the collaborative effort to endure so it will continue to be an educational and participatory resource. 
  • The greening groups involved in GROW (Grassroots Reassuring OASIS Works) – they coordinated a series of focus groups early on to make sure that whatever online mapping tools were created, were developed with an eye toward the neighborhood organizations and activists who needed the information the most.  Their insights continue to resonate with the OASIS participants, even as the GROW coordinators Wendy Brawer and Hugh Hogan have gone on to do other amazing things.
  • The Forest Service team at its Northern Research StationErika Svendsen has consistently pointed out that maps of buildings and park boundaries are nice, but maps also need to convey a sense of who’s doing what where: the people and their activities in any given geographic area are obviously and critically important.  This interest enhanced the Forest Service’s Living Memorials Project, and simultaneously was a key theme in discussions among OASIS participants about the need to understand local environmental stewardship (who’s doing what environmental work where).  Eventually Erika, Lindsay Campbell, and the Forest Service’s NYC Urban Field Station turned this concept into reality with the unique Stewardship Mapping and Assessment Project (STEW-MAP).  Erika and Lindsay and their colleagues provide a refreshing perspective to us online cartographers, and hopefully this will also become obvious to anyone using the new OASIS maps when they view the STEW-MAP “turfs” that are displayed.
  • ESRIDave LaShell helped develop OASIS early on and has been a consistent booster.  Though Dave works for a software company, I think in another life he’d be an environmental and community organizing visionary. ESRI has provided substantial software and technical support resources to OASIS from the beginning.  But Dave always saw far beyond that, understanding intuitively that bringing people together was the important thing, not any particular technology or software package these people happened to be using.  He also does that in his ongoing efforts at ESRI’s NYC office, and in extracurricular work — for example, he volunteers with the Academy for Urban Planning, which has the only high school level GIS program in the city.  Dave epitomizes what I said about ESRI when Matt Arnn and I accepted the Municipal Art Society’s “Certificate of Merit” award for OASIS in 2001, that it’s a private company with a public conscience.
  • Individuals like Jane Sokolow, Bob Alpern, and Jack Eichenbaum – I’ve known Bob and Jack for years, and more recently Jane, and it’s been wonderful and enriching working with them together on OASIS.  Also, my colleague Christy Spielman was involved with OASIS at the start, designing the maps and managing the data and website.  But she’s been critical at coordinating and facilitating the various organizational partnerships that have developed through OASIS; those contributions have been as important as her GIS & graphic design skills.  And Dave Burgoon, who’s a dream to work with, has used his programming skills to make the new OASIS website worthy of this recent praise from a financial blogger at Reuters: “This is the most amazing map of NYC I’ve ever played with. Just, wow.”
  • Last but not least, the Forest Service itself.  When I first heard that the Forest Service was convening a meeting in 2000 to talk about mapping the city’s “urban canopy” (i.e., trees), I was skeptical.  I was most familiar with their work managing land in the western US or fighting forest fires, not working in cities, let alone New York.  But even then they had developed a strong argument for caring about trees and open spaces in urban areas – both for environmental reasons as well as for the ability to relatively easily engage large numbers of people in these densely populated areas.  Phil, Matt, Robin, et al. provided great and consistent support for OASIS in its early years and still value the benefits that this collaborative effort has provided.  It’s been terrific getting to know them and work with them.

Of course there are too many people and groups to mention in detail, so please visit the OASIS participants page to see the full list.  (And even on that page we’ve probably missed a few.) 

Although active participation in the steering committee has ebbed and flowed (it’s probably at a low point at the moment, with most of the effort going toward the website redesign), you can still get involved.  Here are some links with more info:

All in all, OASIS has made its impact felt – in me and my professional and personal relationships, in the work of many people and groups across the city, and hopefully beyond all that to the city and metropolitan region at large.  I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to have been (and to continue to be) a part of it all.

Mapping “hard to count” areas for 2010 Census

UPDATED 8/21/09: Newsday (Long Island’s daily newspaper) reproduced an island-wide version of one of our maps in their article today (though the map only appeared in the print version of the paper).

People are gearing up across the US for the 2010 Census — not just the Census Bureau, of course, but organizations large and small who are planning myriad outreach efforts to boost participation, especially in typically “undercounted” communities.

It’s important in so many ways for everyone to be counted, but historically not everyone is (and not just because of statistical anomalies or poor street address data).  For various reasons, key constituencies are not fully counted — people of color, renters, recent immigrants, people predominantly speaking languages other than English, etc.  There’s a special effort underway – supported by major foundations, local governments, and spearheaded by advocacy and civil rights groups – to make sure the Census Bureau doesn’t miss these “hard to count” groups.

Our teamat the Center for Urban Research, CUNY Graduate Center is doing its part by mapping the “hard to count” (HTC) population in more than two dozen metropolitan areas nationwide, with the support of the Hagedorn Foundation.  We’ll also be developing an online, interactive mapping application for funders, outreach groups, local officials, the media, and others to easily zoom in on their metro region and create custom maps to help focus their efforts.

Where are the hard-to-count communities?  The Census Bureau analyzed 2000 Census data to:

measure census coverage and to identify reasons people are missed in the census (de la Puente, 1993). The variables include housing indicators (percent renters, multi-units, crowded housing, lack of telephones, vacancy) and person indicators (poverty, not high school graduate, unemployed, complex households, mobility, language isolation).

From this, the Bureau calculated an HTC score for each tract in the nation (on a scale of 0 to 125).  They estimate that any tract with a score of 60 or higher will be at the greatest risk of undercount in 2010.  Our metro maps for the 2010 outreach campaign highlight the concentrations of HTC tracts, as well as the 2000 Census response rate by tract.  Here are two examples, for Chicago and New York City:



Foundations are using these maps to help guide their grantmaking, and local groups are using the maps to target their outreach.  As an example, this month several Long Island-based foundations issued an RFPfor grants to local groups doing Census outreach.  The Hagedorn Foundation asked us to create a special set of Long Island maps to supplement the RFP – you can view the PDFs here and here(see below for a sample – these mapped the HTC scores relative to all tracts in Nassau, so some tracts with scores less than 60 — but still harder to count than others in the county — are shaded as hard to count).


Next step for us is to transform these printed maps into a nationwide online mapping website.  The site will enable people to: 

  1. Zoom to their neighborhood, county, city, or state to see the mapped patterns of hard-to-count Census tracts;
  2. Click on individual Census tracts to display detailed information about each one;
  3. Add other layers of Census demographics, 2000 Census response rates, related data from the 2005-07 American Community Survey, and recent foreclosure risks circa 2007-08 so people can see the interrelationships among multiple variables; and
  4. Display state- and local-level resources such as funding opportunities, regional Census contacts, contact info for groups participating in Census outreach, etc.  

We’ve been reviewing other projects that are similar so we don’t duplicate efforts.  These include:

A key question for us is which basemap do we use?  We’ll be serving the tract-level geography and attributes (probably as cached tiles) from our servers using ArcGIS Server on the backend, OpenLayers and ExtJS on the front end — a combination that has served us well (see here and here).  Likely we’ll use Google Maps (and/or their Hybrid or Terrain views) for the underlying street/reference geography.  But perhaps OpenStreetMap would be a better choice?  Or Bing Maps?  Advice from the GeoWeb community would be appreciated.

Timing? We’re shooting for a beta site in late September, seeking feedback from partner groups in the fall, and a production-level site by the end of the year.

Online cartography for richly layered maps

Several recent items have called attention to the growing effort to make really good-looking maps online – see Matt Ball on the coming “cartographic explosion” and Peter Batty’s posts highlighting the great maps from OSM and CloudMade and of course Stamen Design (hardly an inclusive list, but it’s already a long-ish intro sentence).

It’s an exciting time for all that.  We’re hopefully moving well beyond the ubiquitous pushpins of more map mashups than we can count (no dig against Google Maps, but the pushpins can get a bit old — see EveryBlock’s insightful post about “Google Maps fatigue” and FortiusOne’s original — and on-the-mark — blog title “Moving Past Pushpins“). 

From what I can see, however, most of the latest online cartography efforts are focused on road-centric basemaps.  This is great, but there’s a lot more mapped information out there that eventually will be either layered on top of these basemaps or provided online directly.  And we’ll need good cartography to display richly layered online maps effectively.

I wanted to add a note about our humble contribution to that effort.  Our team at the City University of New York (and earlier at the Community Mapping Assistance Project, CMAP) has maintained an online mapping platform for the New York area since early 2001 called OASIS — the Open Accessible Space Information System.  OASIS displays open space resources (broadly defined) to help sustain these resources and visualize the nexus between community greening and broader urban planning issues.  The project is guided by a collaborative partnership of almost 60 greening groups, educators, individuals, businesses, nonprofits, and public agencies.


We recently completely revamped the website (see above screen shot).  The old site is at www.oasisnyc.net.  The new one is at http://www.urbanresearchmaps.org/oasis/map.aspx (best viewed in Firefox but tested in IE 6 & 7, Chrome, and Safari).  Our cartographic challenge — as Christy Spielman, a long-time colleague who helped create the original version of OASIS, noted — was to create an interactive map that certainly included transportation features, but in a way that kept them in the background while emphasizing parks, gardens, housing, land use patterns, zoning, schools, and more – plus aerial imagery.

Also, the recent upgrade includes neat new data such as local environmental stewardship “turfs” (in partnership with the USDA Forest Service) and *very* historical imagery and data from the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Mannahatta Project — photorealistic imagery of Manhattan circa 1609 as well as layers representing eco-systems, soils, Native American trails, and the 1609 Manhattan shoreline (more on Mannahatta in a separate post — it’s an amazing project). 


So we needed to figure out styles and colors and scale dependency that would work together (we have easily more than 4 dozen layers with distinct map styles), allow room for more layers of data in the future, and potentially be able to integrate data feeds and user generated data on the fly.

I think we did ok, though there’s always room for improvement (feedback is welcome!).  Christy (and I, though to a lesser extent) spent many hours developing color styles and symbology to find the right ones that worked well together.  We used ArcGIS to develop the maps (we’re most familiar with that, and it was quicker than having to learn SLD customization, for example).  We relied heavily on ColorBrewer, an amazing resource for GIS color symbology. 

ESRI’s New York City office — in particular, Patrick Gahagan – also helped us by providing ArcGIS techniques to create the map of subway stations and routes, and providing a DEM mosaic that we used as a backdrop for the new OASIS map.


Cached tiles were key, but deciding which layers to cache and which ones to be dynamic was an involved process.  We wanted to preserve as much flexibility for the map user while of course trying to speed up performance.  We ended up caching most of the transportation data (with the option to turn on/off the entire transporation cache layer) as well as the land use information – lot boundaries, building footprints, and parcel-by-parcel color shading. 


The parcel and building footprint layers were the most cumbersome as dynamic layers, each of them with literally a million features, so the performance gain by caching them was huge.  But Dave Burgoon (who coded the site from top to bottom – more on his impressive work in a separate post) customized the “land use” section of the legend to enable our users to display either the entire cached land use layer or to display each land use category dynamically (see screen shot below). 


This was a good compromise between performance (showing all land use patterns at all scales) and user flexibility (showing one land use category at a time dynamically isn’t too slow, and enables people to see all the commercial property versus residential versus industrial at a time).

The tiles, btw, were generated with ArcGIS Server and integrated into the map directly via OpenLayers.

We also took a page from the O’Reilly book “Designing Web Interfaces” plus Axismaps (who helped design GeoCommons Maker!) plus MapTube – and created a “dynamic transparency” tool that can accomodate each map layer on OASIS. 


The ExtJS transparency tool allows for a smooth, real-time transition as you slide from fully opaque to 100% transparent.  It makes for a powerful user experience.  The relevant quote from Designing Web Interfaces

Things move smoothly in the real world.  They do not “pop up”.  Transitions smooth out the jarring world of the Web, making changes appear more natural. (p. 233)

… and from Axismaps:

The transparency control lets mapmakers decide what works and what doesn’t.

Hopefully the cartographic result works well.  We’d love to know what you think!