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Cartographer Chronicles: Dan Cole

When it comes to map-making, Dan Cole is a true master. A passionate academic, Dan has designed maps for research and academia for over 40 years. As the GIS Coordinator and Chief Cartographer of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC., Dan has created maps and cartographic pieces for museum exhibits enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. As a researcher, Dan has authored scholarly publications in several renowned academic journals, and co-edited the book “Mapping Native America: Cartographic Interactions between Indigenous Peoples, Government, and Academia.”  

For Dan, his interest in maps began when he was a child. He often enjoyed being the “navigator” on family vacations and building off a natural fondness for exploration he developed hiking trails as a Boy Scout. In his freshman year at the University at Albany – State University of New York, Dan first became interested in a career in cartography while studying under esteemed cartographer Dr. Michael Dobson. The opportunity to turn a genuine interest into a full-fledged career was too good to pass up, and Dan soon found himself enrolling in every cartography, geography, and remote sensing course he could. In the final year of his Bachelor of Geography degree, Dan became a cartography teaching assistant, providing him his first opportunity to act in a teaching role. 

Immediately after graduating, Dan was recruited to an assistantship position at Michigan State University (MSU). Here he published his first research paper, which was co-authored alongside Richard Groop, now a professor emeritus in Geography at MSU. Completing a Masters degree in Geography in 1979, Dan moved to Oregon State University (OSU) and began collaborating with cartography professor Jon Kimerling, first as a TA, and later to run the Cartographic Lab there.

“Were there Dinosaurs in your backyard?” – One of Dan’s maps on display in the Deep Time Hall at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Leaving OSU in 1981, Dan took on a variety of roles at several recognizable institutions across the country. Some of these roles included; leading the Cartographic Lab at the University of Maryland, working as a cartographic technician for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), contract cartography work for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and taking on a course instructor position at Montgomery College. In 1986, Dan began working at the Smithsonian Institution (SI) and was able to pursue his passion for research full-time. Some of his earliest mapping pieces with SI became an integral part of the “Handbook of North American Indians”, a series of scholarly reference volumes documenting the culture, language, and history of all indigenous peoples in North America. Through a cooperative arrangement, he was also responsible for researching the changes to the Bureau of Indian Affair’s “Indian Land Areas” map in 1987 and 1989.

“My first five years there mostly involved cartographic research, doing both manual and computer-based mapping for the Handbook of North American Indians—at the time we used Adobe Illustrator 88!”

Later, Dan moved to a role as the GIS Coordinator with the Smithsonian’s IT Department. There, he was exposed to the entire breadth of cartographic projects spanning the Smithsonian’s impressive list of research disciplines. He worked on projects related to biodiversity and species ranges, created maps documenting climate change, and contributed to interactive map exhibits showing the impacts humans have on the environment. From volcanology and mineralogy to prehistoric studies and even the study of dinosaurs, Dan became involved in most of the Smithsonian’s major subject areas. Several of Dan’s map creations even feature in the permanent exhibits at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Pathways and origins of invasive marine species, one of 40 maps created for the Ocean Hall exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Although each unique exhibit and area of study came with its own specific objectives, from a cartographic standpoint, he found that most still shared a few key concerns. He noted that one of the biggest challenges for almost all museum researchers is to geo-reference the vast number of artifacts and biological specimens that are contained in the museum’s collections. Such a process is crucial to analyze where specimens were found in the past and to provide insights on where they could be found in the future based on changes to the environment.

“Collections for nearly all museums around the world, including the Smithsonian, have environmental characteristics documented with the collection site. But most, by far, do not have coordinate locations for artifacts and specimens collected before the GPS era; rather, the majority of their collections have descriptive locations. So we must use Natural Language Processing—a computer science-based technique—to process coordinates from the written descriptions.”

By the mid-1990s, digital mapping processes had become an integral component of map creation. Dan became one of the first adopters of MAPublisher, using the first version of the software to work with maps and geographic data in the Adobe Illustrator environment. Today, MAPublisher continues to play a crucial role in map production at SI, and Dan still uses MAPublisher to produce maps for some of the museum’s most popular exhibits.

Since obtaining MAPublisher in the 1990s, I have been involved with over 20 different exhibits and multiple publications. All of these required importing shapefiles to Adobe Illustrator, PDF, or EPS formats so that publishers or exhibit staff could work with them. While other digital mapping software has improved over the years, I find the placement of typography is still handled more elegantly with MAPublisher.”

One of five maps that form part of the “Narwhals: Revealing an Arctic Legend” exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (now a travelling exhibit!)

The museum environment presents some unique challenges for a cartographer. In a museum setting, maps need to be designed to communicate with the general public, synthesizing and presenting complex information for an audience that may be unfamiliar with the subject matter. This differs from research-focused work, which typically requires static printed maps that adhere to the strict guidelines of academic journal and book publications, and is typically viewed by experts in that particular field of study. For museum exhibits, cartographers need to employ careful design techniques to make maps informative and engaging to diverse audiences of all ages. These techniques result in maps that vary widely in format, from traditional static poster maps to animated and interactive maps that tell dramatic stories or serve as learning tools. Commenting on some of the unique challenges in today’s “pandemic era”, Dan notes that virtual online exhibits have made the use of web-mapping and interactive maps more commonplace.

“For the immediate and long-range future, I see greater use of static, animated and interactive maps online for public education on a variety of topics, with less interactivity in-person.”

Dan continues to oversee GIS support and teaching for staff at SI. He greatly enjoys the opportunity to work on diverse projects from a variety of interesting areas of study. As the GIS Coordinator at SI, he now covers over 400 GIS and satellite image processing users, plus over 500 story map writers and developers, including staff with very little knowledge of geography, cartography, or GIS. His passion for map-making remains to this day, and his maps continue to be enjoyed by visitors from around the world. An educator at heart, Dan has some parting advice for any students or young professionals seeking to break into the wonderful world of cartography;

“The advice that I give to nearly everyone interested in a cartography or GIS career is: while you’re still in school, plan to get a minor or double major in the field that interests you. Get a broad-based education that enables you to serve your clients in any field and join professional and academic organizations to expose yourself to others’ work. Most importantly, even once you are employed, never stop learning!”

“The Great Inka Roads” – One of 15 maps created for the exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

Mapping Class: Efficient Map-making using Templates and Stylesheets, with Steve Spindler

Welcome back to another edition of Mapping Class! The Mapping Class tutorial series curates demonstrations and workflows created by professional cartographers and expert Avenza software users. Today we have Steve Spindler, a longtime MAPublisher user, and expert cartographer. Steve has put together a 15-minute masterclass on creating maps from start to finish using templates and stylesheets. This video is jam-packed with useful tips and tricks that show how Steve uses templates, stylesheets, and a host of MAPublisher tools to design a beautiful map in minutes.

Steve has produced a video to show the complete, un-cut, map-making process. The Avenza team has produced video notes (below) to help you follow along.

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Efficient Map-making using Templates and Stylesheets
by Steve Spindler (video notes by the Avenza team)

Readers of the Avenza resources blog will recognize Steve Spindler as a recent feature of our Cartographer Chronicles spotlight article. Steve has also been a frequent contributor to the Mapping Class blog series, where he has shared his tips for using MAPublisher to make eye-catching maps. Some of his recent contributions cover his techniques for using attribute expressions to edit street labels and working with OSM data in MAPublisher

Today, Steve is doing something a little different. Instead of focusing on a specific tool or technique, he has put together a complete 15-minute masterclass showing how he creates a map from start to finish. In this uncut demonstration, Steve discusses his tips for importing data, using MAP views, applying stylesheets, and even labelling. Steve shows how using templates and preconfigured MAP themes can make map creation a breeze.

Using a Template

In this demonstration, Steve will be creating a congressional district map showing the municipalities of Pennsylvania District 17. Steve discusses how using a template to create your map can significantly improve the speed of map creation. Templates can be used to configure standardized design elements that can be recycled across several different map projects. Templates are especially useful in situations where different maps form part of a series with shared design components and colour schemes.

For this tutorial, Steve uses a template that includes some basic stylistic elements he typically includes in all his congressional district maps. The template comes preloaded with custom borders, Titles, subtitles, an inset map, and a scale bar. His template is already configured with custom fonts and colours that will give some uniformity across his different map projects.

Steve has also set up swatch groups for his template. This ensures each map created with the template uses the same colour groups. Setting up swatches in the template also makes it easy to swap out or change the colour of different map elements. As an example, Steve uses the drag and drop functionality of the swatch panel to automatically adjust the “core colours” of his map template (text, border, and scale bar colours) from brown to green. 

Steve’s template comes preloaded with an inset map containing all the congressional district boundaries for Pennsylvania. Using the drag-and-drop functionality of MAP Views, he can place a “District 17” data layer into a new MAP View that will contain the main body of his map project. Using the MAP View editor, Steve can assign a custom scale and choose an appropriate projection. This will ensure any new data layers he brings into the MAP view will be correctly aligned and accurately projected. 

Import and Prepare the Map Data

With his template configured, Steve now brings in some new data. He wants to access municipal boundary polygon data found on a PostGIS database stored locally. You can specify the specific data table within the database he wishes to add using the Import tool. More importantly, shows how he uses spatial filtering options to specify the region of interest. The spatial filter means that only the data relevant to the map extent is loaded in (very useful when using large datasets).

Using the Crop to Shape tool, Steve cleans up the imported data layer by removing any polygons that fall outside his district boundaries. Next, he uses the Simplify tool to remove extraneous vertices, with that his data is ready for stylization!

Apply Styles with MAP Themes

MAP themes are one of the most powerful tools in the MAPublisher toolset. MAP Themes allow you to configure rules-based stylesheets that work with attribute information stored in map data layers. Using pre-coded attribute values in his municipal boundary layer, Steve can assign colour fills to each municipality. Using colour in this way is a bit more eye-catching than using generic boundary lines, and makes it easy to see the shapes of each municipality.

MAP Themes can not only set the stroke and fill for each polygon, but also apply graphic style effects such as “inner glow” to give each shape a more defined appearance. Since MAP Themes are entirely rules-based, it’s easy to modify and apply styles across the entire map without needing to adjust appearance settings for each vector layer individually. 

Labels and Details

With his MAP Themes applied, Steve needs to finalize the scale bar that appears in the bottom right corner of the map. Since the template he uses comes pre-configured with a MAPublisher cale bar, it’s only a matter of dragging and dropping the scale bar layer into the appropriate MAP View. If you recall from earlier, Steve set up this new map-view with its own map scale and projection, meaning the scale bar will automatically be adjusted to fit the map data once it is placed in the new MAP view, creating an accurate and informative scale for viewers.

Lastly, Steve uses the MAPublisher LabelPro add-on to apply labels to each of the municipalities in his map. Similar to MAP Themes, the LabelPro tool allows Steve to configure rules-based label layers that manage label placement and style. The labelling engine ensures that labels are placed to avoid collisions, eliminate label overlap, and reduce label clutter. Finishing the map with a few minor touch-ups and voila!, Steve has finished his Pennsylvania District 17 Map in less than 15 minutes!

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About the Author

Steve Spindler has been designing compelling cartographic pieces for over 20 years. His company, Steve Spindler Cartography, has developed map products for governments, city planning organizations, and non-profits from across the country. He also manages wikimapping.com, a public engagement tool that allows city planners to connect and receive input from their community using maps. To learn more about Steve Spindler’s spectacular cartography work, visit his personal website. To view Steve’s other mapping demonstrations, visit cartographyclass.com