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Cartographer delivers keynote for GIS Day

| Thursday, September 24, 2015

It’s an exciting time to be a cartographer.

Tim Wallace, a graphics editor and cartographer for the New York Times and Ph.D. candidate in geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, delivered the keynote speech, titled “Newsroom Geography,” at Notre Dame’s Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Day. The speech, given Wednesday afternoon in Carey Auditorium at Hesburgh Library, was part of Notre Dame’s second annual Digital Week and explored the design process and applications of cartography in journalism.

GIS Day is an “annual salute to geospatial technology and its power to transform and better our lives and the lives of those around us,” according to the Center for Research Computing’s website.

Wallace said his design process is influenced by the belief that the best graphics are those that facilitate reader comprehension by making complex stories accessible.

“A really good graphic will immediately give you the story,” Wallace said. “You don’t want to overburden or overwhelm your reader. A good principle that I work with would be, ‘How can I strip this down, or design this thing, so that the person who I’m communicating with knows what I’m talking about immediately and fully understands the concept that I’m trying to convey when they finish reading it?’”

In reports of investigations of disasters, such as the Malaysian Airlines flight that disappeared in 2014, Wallace said geographical graphics can be especially useful in transmitting complex data to readers.

“People were really craving information when flight MH370 went missing,” Wallace said. “We’re always looking for reliable data to show what’s happening, and it doesn’t always come in a very friendly, mapping-ready format. We have to find the pattern in the data, the signal in the noise. We find the visual to support the story.”

Comparative geographic visuals also help to make areas all over the world accessible to readers, especially through graphical juxtaposition of familiar locales with distant ones, Wallace said. And while most of his cartography work is done from within an office, creating graphics of spaces worldwide engenders passion to visit those places, he said.

“It’s a job that inspires wanderlust,” he said.

Interactive maps, he said, are a favorite of readers because they allow sophisticated spatial mapping of information, such as chronological maps that show stories visually developing in time. Advancements in technology have transformed the industry, as mapmakers can now use more precise data and more high resolution satellite imagery than ever before.

“I would say that nowadays we are experiencing ‘geo heyday,’” Wallace said. “If you compare it to past times — people have always been making maps and doing geography, but the tools for visualization have changed.”

Cartography at the New York Times has been impacted by recent trends toward readers consuming news online rather than in print, he said.

“One of the foremost things we think about when we’re making our maps is not just to show the geography but also to think of the scale of the display that people are consuming information on,” Wallace said. “More recently in the last few months we have started creating graphics that are really designed to be mobile first.”

Wallace said he was excited about the possibility for geographical content to continue to create and support journalistic storytelling on the cutting edge.

“Nowadays, it seems like the sky’s the limit. We can do a lot with interactive data. We can do a lot with colors,” he said. “But maybe we’ll find over time that that sky wasn’t the limit.”

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