Category Archives: Maps

Mapping Twin Cities Neighborhoods

Drawing a map of the city based on how we live in the city

What makes a neighborhood? Many things may come to mind… including the people you live with, the places you frequent, and the locations you call home. Neighborhoods are the physical locations in which people connect with the city in which they live. They are dynamic and changing, yet static, they are unique and individual, yet universal. They are the living rooms of the city, where residents live, work, and play. Neighborhoods become part of your identity.

A collection of local hubs – Between Minneapolis and St. Paul, there are over 100 unique and distinctive neighborhoods, and more if you start to count the surrounding suburbs. Officially, Minneapolis has 81 neighborhoods, 72 of which are represented by organizations operated by the residents and businesses that live and operate within their boundaries. St. Paul has 15. St. Louis Park has 27. Edina has 45!

The city is a sum of its neighborhoods, both the official ones and unofficial ones, and each is defined by the people who live, work, and play in them.

What are the Neighborhoods of the Twin Cities?

Help make the most accurate map of Minneapolis and St. Paul yet.

You draw the neighborhood.

You draw the neighborhood.

This project creates a crowd-sourced map of the Twin Cities Metro Area representing the city through the eyes of the people. In the application, no neighborhood names or boundaries are here to start with. You make the map. Real or imagined, within a city, or crossing municipal borders. Names, extents, and descriptions are up to you. After mapping, be sure to View Maps to see other people’s contributions.

North Loop Neighborhood - Minneapolis

North Loop Neighborhood – Minneapolis

Draw your City

Visit the Application. Map your neighborhood, Twin Cities!

The Technology Behind

“Map your neighborhood, Twin Cities!” is built using LeafletJS and CartoDB. This project is coded on top of projects in Portland by Nick Martinelli (Thanks Nick!) and Boston by Bostonography (Thank you, Andy Woodruff and Tim Wallace).

Visit the Application. Map your neighborhood, Twin Cities!

The Lost Art of Critical Map Reading

In a world of budding novice mapmakers and shares, likes, and retweets, we have never seen maps and graphics appear, circulate, and educate as much as they do right now. Maps are an engaging way to visualize data and gain knowledge.  Geovisualization, cartography, and analysis are not only relevant, but highly visible to the mainstream, and it is great for the field. The New York Times and Washington Post, among many, lead the way with excellent, high quality, and reputable maps and graphics. We’ve all seen the forty maps that change your view of the world.

There is another side to this though, that of the mapmaker, specialist, or blogger that catches or creates a map, and in a whim of ‘This is cool!’ and with knowledge that they have a listening audience, relays the map into the internet universe. Little regard is sometimes taken in the validity or interpretation of the map and its data, or how it should be framed to the greater public. ‘Bad maps’, they could be called, are not new, but they now exist on an widely accessible mainstream level, and are fueled by Twitter retweets and Facebook shares.

least favorite

Obviously. (via Business Insider)

The ‘bad maps’ exist in multiple forms, starting with those that could be considered ugly (or graphically undesireable); those that might mislead readers; and then those that are just plain wrong. Maps that are simply ugly are not ‘bad maps’, per se. They communicate a message, convey a story, and serve to educate many. The quest to identify and improve these maps or even defend these maps, is emerging. Many talented and experienced cartographers and designers have initiated some great discussion on the topic, and poked plenty of fun at the issue. Virality of maps has become an important topic. Awareness of the issues will only improve cartography and data visualization in the long run.

That said, more troubling are the latter maps that are wrong or misleading, yet still gain the aforementioned viral steam and exposure. This discussion exposes a greater, more concerning problem that needs to be discussed – a pervasive lack of critical map reading skills.

Critical map reading takes the greater pedagogy of critical reading and applies it to maps and visual graphics. It is a form of map reading that does not take a map at face value, but instead examines the data, authors, sources, presentation, and prose of a map, investigating the claims those components assert. Maps are a unique medium in which every part of the composition is data. Given their inherent ability to relate specific topics to the earth we live on, maps are often viewed as truth and fact, and are rarely challenged. However, at the same time maps are storytellers, providing rich illustrations and the ability for interpretation. Cartographers mix these ingredients in a powerful and compelling manner, and many in the general public are largely blind to the concept that maps and visual graphics can be disputed.

Part of the allure of a map is that it encourages the ability to interpret and explore. All maps contain a message, the practice of map reading is discerning and resolving that message. It is the questions that now become important. What makes this map “the most accurate”? Why is this map “incredible”? What methods where used on the data shown? Is a map the best way to show this data?

The route to critical map reading might not be clear, but awareness is perhaps the best place to start. Here are five simple habits that will improve map reading abilities.

Read all textual components and prose on the map carefully

Maps use both visual and textual communication methods. Even the most well designed map is nothing without context. Textual communication assists the reader in better understanding and interpreting the product. This content includes source information, titles, authors and affiliated organizations, and cartographic prose. Critical reading of this information will inform on how to properly intepret the product and relay it to others. Martin Elmer writes a well done piece on map prose here.


Note the ‘Please Note’. It will probably have a note that helps you understand the map. Or what the map isn’t.

Learn as much as possible about the data being shown on the map

Know the limitations of your data, and the constraints of the it’s graphical representation. Ask about the methods that acquired the data, and whether or not it has been summarized or simplifed in some form before being displayed. Data sources and original links can usually around the fringe of the map. Focus here on collection methods and manipulation tactics. Determine for yourself whether or not these are the best data sources to show the information, or whether or not the methods used are appropriate. Ask yourself, is the data qualitative or quantitative? Categorical or nominal?


This is not showing every state’s favorite band. The data and sources will expose this. (via,

Note that everything on a map can be considered data

Falling close in line next, maps are unique in that not only the subject matter is data, the entire presentation can be considered data. A basemap of the United States is just as much ‘data’ as the points and colors scattered across it, along with the areal enumeration units. Sample case, some counties in California are the size of Massachusetts, yet national maps distilling information by county are common place. Consider how else the data could be shown, or what other options might be available.

election results

I don’t think Romney won, but it looks like he did. (via

Be aware of what the map is NOT saying

Just as everything on a map can be considered data, critical map reading involves consideration of what is not shown on the map. Ask what data could be shown in complement with the data being displayed, or what additional variables or regions could be shown to improve the output of this map. Here lies the concept of ecological fallacy, in which information about individuals is deduced from the inference for the group to which they belong. Derive for yourself the strongest statements you can make from the data presented. 


This might not represent ‘your’ favorite football team. This map isn’t wrong, its just also not necessarily… right. The Broncos sure are important though! (via Deadspin and CommonCensus)

Notice that graphic representation and color encode bias and implied meaning

Maps visually communiate through a handful of variables. Perhaps the most quickly interpretable is the use of color and emphasize and exclamate points. Dark, bold colors imply importance, while washed out, desaturated colors imply the opposite. The chosen colors are a conscious (or unknowing) design decision made by the map author, and strongly affects reader interpretation. Envision changing the color scheme, or categorization method, and seeing how that affects the gravity of the map.


So Mississippi is the best? It’s the darkest. No, wait, is having a passport good or bad? What kind of color scheme is this? (via

Getting into these habits will help distill the the true message of the map, improve ability to gain knowledge from the map, and assist in interpreting a greater meaning about yourself and your surroundings. More reading abounds on this topic, and goes into much greater depth. Notably, Mark Monmonier’s How to Lie with Maps is perhaps the proverbial work on this topic, along with great reads by Denis Wood and Jeremy Crampton. Even the best designed maps require context and a critical eye. 

In an era of information overload and retweets, critical thought of what is posted to and passes through our feeds is often overlooked. As maps and big data go mainstream, and visualizations become more prominent, educating map readers on critical interpretation becomes more important.

This is all almost as important as educating budding map makers on another thing… critical map making.

A Better Bike Map: Reimagining Your Design

Creating a map geared towards bike transportation is a challenging task, but a relevant one. With an urbanizing, mobile population and a growing need to find fast, efficient, and cheap alternatives to automobile transportation, effective communication of bicycle routes and associated bicycle-friendly infrastructure is becoming more important. The major problem is that most bike maps, due to the nature of their content, easily get crowded, cluttered, and hard to read. This requires a paradigm shift, and finding where the happy medium of effective content and supplemental information exists. This post is the first in a series that will discuss what cartographic characteristics make an effective bike map. We will ask and attempt to answer a number of questions, and then provide a high level survey on the state of bike maps while suggesting some optimal solutions.

On the vast spectrum of viable transportation choices, a bicycle is one of the few options that is not a motorized vehicle but still allows for a large amount of personal mobility and freedom. Less intrusive than a scooter or moped, more practical than a skateboard or rollerblades, a bike fits somewhere in the vicinity of half car/half pedestrian. A bicyclist can go just about anywhere with only a handful of limited restrictions, but can also effectively flow with automobile traffic down major roads, and when doing so must follow the rules of the road (Ever gotten pulled over for running a red light on a bike?). But a bike is not a car, and the flexible nature of biking and lack of exclusive bicycle infrastructure in most urban areas make creating an effective bike map a challenging task that remains open to much interpretation and subjectivity. You can see this in the handful of bike maps in the illustration below, where as opposed to a traditional road map, it becomes very hard to intuitively distinguish what each feature is.

citysamples-01So this begs a number of questions. Does a holy grail for how to create the “perfect” bike map exist? What kinds of wayfinding tools can address this and direct bikers towards efficient and safe navigable routes? With the large amount of interpretation, subjectivity, and non-exclusive use bicycle infrastructure, what criteria can be defined that will refine content and make the ideal bike map?

From a design perspective the best way to address these questions is to simplify them, and of course ask a few more. What is important to a cyclist? What do they need to navigate? What features on a map are necessary to facilitate the most efficient bike transport? Where are they trying to go? Are riders commuters or recreational? The following are three important considerations in bike map design that help answer these questions, each important in its own right. They include knowing your community and its infrastructure, rethinking your design hierarchy, and awareness of technologies that might provide the most effective ways to convey your map and its content to the user.

1. Know your community and it’s infrastructure

2013-05-05 13.52.16

Midtown Greenway “Bike Highway” – Minneapolis

Perhaps the most important component of effective bike map design is knowing your local community. Specifically, knowledge on the extent, location, and quality of the physical bicycle infrastructure in the region, along with familiarity on the users of that infrastructure (commuters? recreation? both?). Spatial data on bike routes and trails, if it exists, is rarely kept in a single central location and is often maintained by a number of different organizations, ranging from local park board websites to state natural resources offices. Collecting it and customizing it to your needs and the needs of the cycling community is not a simple task. Physical bicycle infrastructure can include grade-separated routes, off-street bike trails, on-street bike lanes, designating cycling streets, and bike boulevards. In addition to these features, the designer must be also be aware of features that may not be clearly distinguished in existing spatial dataset. Determination of other bicycle-centric features, such as service stops, bike shops, and parking locations, will require some subjective distilling of information from existing geographic data. To complicate things a bit more, many cities around the world are diligently investing in bike infrastructure and facilities are changing at a rapid pace. Ensure the map is easy to update, and note where new and future bike infrastructure exists or is under construction.

2. Redefine your visual hierarchy

Portland, OR - Lesser important roads de-emphasized, but color scheme still unclear.

Portland, OR – Lesser important roads de-emphasized, but color scheme still unclear.

Bikes are not cars. A biker does not want to be riding down a major thoroughfare, nor does the rider want to be biking in areas with many natural, physical obstacles that may be irrelevant to those in a car. This requires reimagining your city and viewing it from the paradigm as if the major car-centric features are not there, or exist as notable landmarks and navigation points rather than a network of routes. Certain features that are important on a road map lose importance, for example, you cannot bike down an interstate. The interstate however will likely remain an important feature to include as it will give your readers context and a benchmark for navigation. Redefining the cartographic hierarchy will perhaps radically change the appearance of maps of the region, as different features than are normally called out are made to look more important, and defining features on other maps are given lesser emphasis. Krygier and Wood provide a well written summary of intellectual and visual hierarchy here.

3. Determine the map capabilities and means of distribution

Cyclopath: OpenStreetMap for Biking

Cyclopath: OpenStreetMap for Biking

Also important is the means by which the user consumes the map, for example, a cyclist likely won’t use a map that only works effectively on his desktop computer at the office. This of course makes either mobile device based maps or paper maps the optimal means of conveyance. It must be considered that most bikes don’t have on-board navigation nor will they using their cell phones while they ride (I’ve tried, doesn’t work out well…), but many users will still have cell phones with them or have backpacks or pouches for clean, clear paper maps. The user won’t have constant access, but instead require sporadic access on demand. Turn by turn navigation is an interesting topic here, and some mapping giants have attempted this (see Google maps). They have had varying success, due to scarce standardized data and the lack of addressing a true means to reach the rider while he/she is biking. As mentioned above, making the map easy to make changes and update is important, as data changes rapidly as infrastructure grows and changes. One interesting attempt to address this, as well as collect an incredible amount of data, is community sourced biking mapping, a method used in projects like Cyclopath, which could be viewed as an OpenStreetMap exclusively for biking. Compare and contrast it to the Google bike maps.

There are a growing number of resources on bike maps out there, and most cities now maintain, or plan to maintain, bike maps for commuters and recreational riders. This post is the first of a short series on creating effective maps for bike transportation that will focus on design criteria and methods of a good bike map, survey, evaluate, and categorize a selection of bike maps, discussing what works and what doesn’t, and finally outline the creation of a new but perhaps familiar style of bike map from concept to completion.

The Minneapolis Bike Freeway System - (c)2013 Graphicarto

A snapshot of The Minneapolis Bike Freeway System map – (c)2013 Graphicarto

Happy Mapping,


Mapping Urban Growth: A Cartoanalysis

randMcNallyA catalog of maps, large or small, is a treasure trove of information. A collection that when sitting static is still always growing and always changing. Everyday its value as a temporal benchmark of human growth and innovation increases. The map itself is a snapshot of place and data (or at least a window into the mind of the cartographer) at any given moment in time, but over time the assembling of maps can unveil an incredible subject matter timeline. Alot of cartographers and collectors have commented on this and, in fact, celebrated this.  Personally, I find historical road atlases to be particularly of note in cartographic historic analysis, and one of my favorite days of the year is when the newest annual Rand McNally road atlas is released. In the past I’ve spent hours, days, probably weeks, poring over each page, comparing new to old, observing the changes and progress of the past year. New highways completed, routes renamed, new stadiums, air force bases repurposed to civilian use, two lane roads upgraded to large expressways.

These Rand McNally atlases I speak of have changed over the years, both through design and layout (worth a whole other post in itself), but there are certain consistencies from page to page that have lasted through the years. The consistencies provide the potential for a fascinating qualitative and quantitative temporal analysis of urban progress and growth. What features come onto the map over the years? What fall off? What infrastructure is important, what is superseded?

I began by locating the newest and oldest atlases I had in my library from the annual Rand McNally series. The oldest that would work was the 1986 edition, with a nice Rodeway truck emblazoned on the cover, and the newest (that wasn’t all wrinkled up out in my car) was the 2011. They just happened to sit a quarter century from each other, perfect. With the two subject maps identified, I had to pick a subject area and outline the criteria to do so.  The most important of the criteria, the selected map extent and design style had to be largely unchanged from 1986 to 2011. Many stylistic and scale differences were implemented over the years, so the mapped extent had to be at about the same detail throughout. And finally, the mapped extent had to be a region of extensive urban growth, with many new communities, growing infrastructure, and new points of interest, such as shopping malls and airports.


The subject winner: the massive metroplex of San Bernardino, Ontario, and Riverside in the beautiful San Bernardino Valley in Southern California, known colloquially as the “Inland Empire”. After some edge matching, layer mashing, georeferencing, and a small bit of rubber sheeting… the pictorial results.


This first snapshot is of San Bernardino and the immediate vicinity.  Notable changes include the establishment of San Bernardino International Airport on the old Norton Air Force Base grounds, and the massive growth and establishment of community assets (ballparks, shopping centers, civic centers) near the large interchange at Interstate 10 and Interstate 215.  Also noticeable is the completion of the CA-210 Loop around the north and east of the city.  Population of San Bernardino in 1986: 140,000 – Population of San Bernardino in 2011: 205,000


This second snapshot is Moreno Valley, California, or simply known as Sunnymead in 1986.  This is one of the most extreme examples of urban growth and suburban sprawl in the entire United States during this time.  Moreno Valley was incorporated in 1984, and grew by 70,000 people in the 1980s alone.  The arterial roads remain the same, but quite noticeable are the upgrade of Interstate 215 to freeway standards and the establishment of many community resources, parks, hospitals and centers. Population of Moreno Valley in 1986: 40,000 – Population of Moreno Valley in 2011: 195,000


A third snapshot focuses on the Interstate 15 freeway corridor.  Notable is the establishment of Interstate 15 south of Mira Loma, and superseding of Temp 15 (Hamner Avenue) along that stretch.

Any conclusions or theories drawn are clearly illustrative, but the exploration in itself is engaging and revealing.  A more thorough time series over the 25 year period, maybe a snapshot every two years, would be a fascinating addition, and reveal individual years of rapid growth, precise establishment of points of interest and civic features, and interesting regions of urban expansion (or lack thereof).

Of course, I only picked out three notable areas among many, the growth of the entire region is remarkable. Explore the map yourself!


(A Graphicarto/Mapbox/QGIS Creation)

Happy Mapping,


PS I highly encourage anyone to go lose themselves for a day in David Rumsey’s vast historical collection, you won’t regret it.

Hey guy, that’s my island!

In an attempt to answer a somewhat random trivia question on National Parks the other day I found a book I received a few years ago. Flipping through, it’s a National Geographic coffee table book on America’s National Parks, and is chock full of amazing pictures and maps. My roommate and I were perusing and happened to stumble across these two curious and remote islands deep in Voyageurs National Park, located on the U.S./Canada border.

Mine and Yours

Many authors, academics, and cartographers have written about the idiosyncrasies and quirks in our maps, and even more have written about place names, geopolitics and their associated controversy, notably Mark Monmonier’s book “Drawing the Line: Tales of Maps and Cartocontroversy“, or Miles Harvey’s “The Island of Lost Maps – A True Story of Cartographic Crime“. Place naming and map design give cartographers immense power in defining place, and those designs and place names have fantastic story telling power and an incredible way of telling the history and character of a region.

What happened here?  Why are these islands named this way?  My Island is in the United States, Your Island is in Canada. Were two early voyageurs on this lake, one American and one Canadian (probably both French), standing on each island yelling and claiming things?  The American was clearly dictating right?  That’s why his island became “My Island” and the other became “Your Island”.  But this is an American publication, right?  What does this say about the time?  Or the broader culture?

Maps take you on journeys without ever leaving your desk, office, bedroom, or couch. Much like music, actually.  I find this to be incredibly well stated by Miles Harvey and the following specific excerpt from his book, “The Island of Lost Maps”.

“A map has no vocabulary, no lexicon of precise meanings. It communicates in lines, hues, tones, coded symbols, and empty space, much like music. Nor does a map has its own voice. It is many-tongued, a chorus reciting centuries of accumulated knowledge in echoed chants. A map provides no answers. It only suggests where to look: discover this, reexamine that, put one thing in relation to another, orient yourself, begin here… Sometimes a map speaks in terms of physical geography, but just as often it muses on the jagged terrain of the heart, the distant vistas of memory, or the fantastic landscapes of dreams.

I use a map to get from one place to another in my mind in the same way that someone else might use it get from Omaha to Oskaloosa. It’s a peculiar kind of travel, I admit, but I suspect many others embark on similar journeys”

-Miles Harvey, “The Island of Lost Maps”

What journeys have you gone on?  Happy 2013!

Why Apple Maps is a Good Thing (and you should use it)

ScreenshotIn recent weeks, a lot has been said about Apple Inc.’s leap into the mapping world.  In an effort to free itself from a rocky reliance on a primary competitor, Apple decided to create its own mapping and navigation application.  Smart move, one might think, integrate a proprietary mapping application to complement its robust operating system, that would be great.  However, it didn’t work (… yet).  Negative reviews, generally citing a lack of substance and utility, have been scathing, and shockingly mainstream.  The underlying network and database have years of development and construction ahead of them.  Stadiums, theaters, and even entire islands, are out of location, or completely omitted.  Uncharacteristically, Apple publicly apologized, promoted use of other applications, and has even fired designers and programmers. Kind of a mess, but this mess exposes a couple of important things, especially important to the mapping industry.  And with that, I am offering a rare positive review of Apple Maps, from a different perspective.

Four Reasons Apple Maps is Good:

1. Our societal dependence on maps is exposed.

The release of the application, followed by the magnitude of outcry, exposes our societal reliance on mapping applications in 2012.  Consumers have become so used to mapping applications (Google, Mapquest, Bing, etc.) giving them directions and information with extremely high accuracy that when this capability is reduced, it becomes stunningly disabling to complete some of the most simple things we take for granted.  A mapping application can’t find me a freeway exit with a McDonalds?   The bar I’m going to for Happy Hour is a block away in the wrong place?  These are things we take for granted in 2012, and expect perfection from it.  This is remarkable in itself, and when Apple Maps couldn’t do this the outcry was stunning.

2. Competition is introduced into an important modern day amenity.

Apple entering the mapping world brings another huge player into the mapping game.  This only stands to benefit the public in the long term, as I foresee and “arms war” of sorts taking place between Google and Apple.  Another player in the game, especially the size of Apple, will force Google, Bing, and others to not fall into complacency, and continue ambitious goals aiming to catalog and map the entire globe.  Expect to see mapping applications to improve at even more rapid rate, with increased real time data, improved navigation networks, and better landmarks and points of interest.

3. The difficulty of creating, maintaining, and keeping a good geographic dataset is displayed.

Geographic datasets are dynamic and huge, yet remain one of the more understated achievements of modern society.  Mapping and maintaining data on roads, businesses, public spaces, hospitals, etc. is an extreme challenge to even the most robust organizations and individuals.  In many circumstances, the second a geographic data point is collected, it is already out of date.  People move across the globe all the time, new businesses open and close, buses come and go, rivers meander and flow, and wetlands and forests grow and shrink along with the development around them.  Building a comprehensive “map” of everything on Earth is an impossible task, yet many people demand it, not knowing the effort required to provide such services.

4. Even with the best design, you need good data.

I admit, I like the design of Apple Maps.  (see Bing… and you’ll agree)  The 3D buildings are great, the navigation application looks very slick, and maps themselves look sharp.  However, the good design is quickly lost when you can’t find your way to the nearest bar for a drink, or stadium for a game.  Good design is paramount, it brings people in and turns eyes, but you have to keep the map relevant once the admiration of all eye candy fades.  An equilibrium between flash and substance must be achieved, or in the end all you have is a nice piece of art to hang on a wall.

All this considered, Apple screwed up and frustrated a lot of people, but everything might be a blessing in disguise.  The emergence of another force in the mapping field will only benefit all of us in the end.  Keep using Apple Maps, force them to get better, and in effect force the whole field to improve.  Just remember, while I say this, if it’s really important to find what you’re looking for, keep using Google.