There’s a Map For That

For some time now, I have been planning to write an an article on my favorite map sites and mapping tools, but it was Hurricane Sandy that motivated me to push the project forward. Whether needing to find gas stations that still had gas or trying to plot my commute into Manhattan on public transportation, maps were of far greater value to me these past weeks than #nygas twitter hash tags or text message updates from the MTA website.  Maps also played a huge role in the news these past two weeks, helping people understand the extent of the damage in the Caribbean and the United States or who had won key “battleground” states in the presidential elections.

Maps are arguably one of the oldest forms of information visualization, and while there is much dispute over what would qualify as the oldest map in the world (do pre-historic petroglyphs count if there is a chance we might interpret intent wrongly?) there is no dispute that they have been with us for a long time (at least since 2,500 BC). And now, needless to say, most people expect instant access to interactive maps and directions  using such tools as HopStop or Google Maps.

Customization and Mapping API

What a lot of folks don’t know is, that with a little familiarity with Javascript (and the patience of master weaver) this mapping technology can be manipulated to fit their precise purposes – far beyond what can be done using standard versions of Google Maps or MapQuest.  Many companies offer mapping API – in fact, the API directory on the website Programmable Web lists well over 100 mapping APIs that are either open source or commercial enterprises.  One of the most popular and widely used is the API from Google Maps, of course, which you can learn more about at the Google Geo Developers blog.   If API is not in your comfort zone, however, there are services that offer menu-driven customizations.  For example, image to the right is of a map that I put together in about 5 minutes using a free MapBox account.

Racist Tweets Map

A college friend of mine, Matt Zook, and the team at recently created a map of post-election racist Tweets using a database they’ve developed called DOLLY and the menu-driven map building site, GeoCommons. Click here for interactive map and here for an explanation of how they did it.



Library Databases with Interactive Maps

Whenever I can, I like to mention the fantastic resources we have at the FIT Library, and it just so happens that a number of our databases come with map features of one type or another.   Opposing Viewpoints in Context offers maps that illustrate trends in current social and ethical issues facing the United States.  SRDS Local Market Audience Analyst and Passport GMID offer US and World maps that correlate to general demographics,

Singapore Map – WGSN City by City

pyschographics, and market forecasts. And WGSN has a section called City by City, which includes interactive maps of major cities that are tailored for those in the fashion, design, or retail industries. Here’s Singapore, for example.

By far the most powerful mapping tool we have in our possession, however, is found in the database Demographics Now.   With this database you can map data from the Census and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Consumer Expenditure Survey), and

Columbia, MO Book Expenditure Map from Demographics Now

display it by a wide array of geographic categories ranging from ZIP code to broadly defined metropolitan areas in the United States.  The image you see is a map of my hometown

displaying the current average expenditure on books by block groups (higher expenditure is indicated by a darker hue).


The Flat File and the Curio Cabinet

Buy Buy Baby/266 Seventh Avenue today and 1903

Technology has made it easier than ever to map data, directions, and locations, but what about personal narrative or history. One of my very favorite map sites, History Pin, attempts  do exactly that by allowing individuals and institutions to upload photographs of particular places to matching coordinates and street addresses, and to allow these photos to overlay the Google Maps “Street View” mode.

If history is your thing and you love the beauty and character of old maps, then you will also really enjoy the following two sites.  The first, simply titled Old Maps Online, is a portal to digital maps collections from libraries and archives around the globe.  One can search by place, as well as date. One of the digital collections whose maps turn up in the search results is the New York Public Library’s Map Warper collection, which is an incredible site all by itself.  NYPL Map Warper allows you to take historic maps from the the NYPL’s digital

West 27th and 7th with 1819 overlay depicting building plots

collection and layer them over and reshape them to fit contemporary maps of the same locations, an action that they call “rectifiying.”  If you don’t wish to rectify any maps yourself you can also browse or search the collection for maps that have already been rectified.


I would love to see some of the mapping tools listed above incorporated in teaching lessons or student projects.  If you are a professor or a student at FIT and would like to know more about using some of these tools, please feel free to contact me via this this blog by posting a comment below.




Notebooks, Napkins and Felt-Tipped Pens

Returning to a theme, here.  The research process is not just about looking for information, it is also about looking at information — analyzing it and making connections between ideas.  Looking at information by making one’s ideas or new found knowledge visual is something that many artists and designers have always done during in the process of creating their art.  It is also, however, a useful exercise for anyone who is starting, or who is in the middle of research project.  Sketching one’s ideas, concept mapping, and jotting down observations are all great ways to get ready to do research or to get the juices flowing again when faced with writer’s block.

I promised in an earlier entry that I would post some pictures of the beautiful artists’ workbooks that are in our collection.  The gallery below contains images from Cecil Beaton’s scrapbooks, Franco Moschino’s collages, and notebooks filled with Jean-Michel Basquiat’s sketches and griffonage.

While we might not all be artists, we all could learning from this practice and I am not the only one who thinks so.  A recent bestseller among business titles, On The Back of a Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas With Pictures by Dan Roam, is just the latest work suggesting that business leaders could get more done if they could learn to express their ideas visually.   Librarians and other educators have long understood the value of having students visualize (or at least jot down by hand) their information needs, especially when teaching textual research skills to students in the visual arts.

Concept mapping (aka mind mapping) is probably the most useful visualization technique for research that involves textual sources or text-based search tools (although I suppose there are cases where moodboards, or storyboards could do the trick).  As an example of how some academic librarians are making this work, here is a presentation that was given at the 2010 ARLIS/NA conference by Ellen Petraits of the Rhodes Island School of Design – Mapping a Research Topic: Using Concept Mapping to Visualize Research.  It contains some brilliant examples of students’ concept maps for an Art History Research project.  More research in the field can be found here (FIT username and password required).  I have used concept mapping when teaching the research workshop for FIT’s Photography Research for Senior Design Project (PH491) class with Professor Anne Hall.

While all you really need to create a concept map is paper and something with which to write or draw, there are a number of online tools out there that can help with the process.  Here’s a list of a few of my favorites.

  • – Basic, easy to use, collaborate and share
  • Mindomo– collaborate, incorporate media files, can be used for presentations
  • Spiderscribe – incorporate media files, calendars, maps, collaborate and share
  • Prezi  – while this is a presentation tool, its templates can easily be re-purposed for concept mapping

I want to emphasize, however, that as great as these tools are, sometimes it might be more effective to step away from the computer and pick up a felt-tipped pen (or some scissors and rubber cement).  The temptation to copy and paste from the web is pretty powerful, and it can impeded our abilities to observe, create and analyze information.


Basquiat, Jean Michel. Jean-Michel Basquiat, The Notebooks. New York: Art + Knowledge : Available through Distributed Art Publishers, 1993. Print.
Beaton, Cecil, and James Danziger. Cecil Beaton: The Art of the Scrapbook. Assouline, 2010. Print.
Moschino, Franco. X Anni Di Kaos, 1983-1993 = X Years of Kaos, 1983-1993. Milano: Edizioni Lybra Immagine, 1993. Print.
Roam, Dan. The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures. Expanded ed., 1st ed. New York: Portfolio, 2009. Print.

Ready-made Infographics

Ubiquitous Infographics

It seems as if infographics are everywhere now. Increasingly, the visual presentation of data is borrowing heavily from the fields of graphic art, advertising design and even cartography in an attempt to have maximum impact on the viewer, as well as to map complex relationships between data sets. Infographics are so ubiquitous and popular now that there are even infographics on infographics – below is one of my favorites and here is a link to more.

One of the implications of the current popularity of infographics is that they have become a standard and expected part of any business or marketing presentation.  The problem is that not everyone has the ability or the resources to create his or her own infographics.  And that’s were the library comes into the picture.   At the FIT Library, we always try to subscribe to the sorts of services that are actually used in industry, and it just so happens that one of our marketing databases provides users with ready-made infographics. How cool is that?

Mintel – Infographic Overviews

Mintel is a highly regarded market intelligence service that we have subscribed to for a number of years. Recently, Mintel has added infographics to both their product and market segmentation reports.

If a report has an infographic associated with it, it can be found directly under opening summary paragraph of the report and is usually the third PDF document presented for download.

Mintel’s infographics are eye-catching and colorful (if a bit formulaic) and will definitely make any presentation shine.

In the coming weeks I will be featuring other business and marketing databases that offer data visualizations.  In particular, I have an article in works that explores Passport GMID‘s visual resources, including their Datagraphics, which usually take the form of maps and interactive Visual Apps on industries and consumer attitudes.

Also in the works will be articles about free online tools for DIY infographics created from raw data.

Fashion Bloggers


Here’s some interesting reading for anyone interested in the influence or information needs of fashion bloggers.  The first of these was a collaborative effort by one of our own at the FIT Library, Nicole LaMoreaux.

For more information on fashion blogging and its influence on apparel merchandising, you might want to check out the IFB website:


How Do I Look?

Where and how should research begin?

The classic advice doled out by many librarians, including myself, is to begin with a broad overview like an encyclopedia article, work your way up to books and journal articles, and finish it with data, personal observation and/or evidence – essentially making your way backward through the information cycle from tertiary to primary sources information.

Click to see Research/Information Cycle Prezi by H. Lane

While this approach works really well in a lot of cases, the research required of someone working on a creative, visual or design related project is completely different all together.   It seems to me, that it is often largely about inspiration, as well as about the testing of methods, materials and techniques.  In many ways it has a lot in common with the work of scientists in labs, as designers similarly must call on their powers of observation, knowledge of materials, and ability to interpret results.  We have many examples in our collection at the FIT Library of sketchbooks, scrapbooks or notebooks that designers, photographers and other creatives have used for this process. I hope to feature some of these in future in blog entries.

However, there is another book – a completely different type of book – that I want to highlight in today’s entry. I discovered it by accident in early August when I decided to browse the titles on the New Book Shelf on the 5th Floor.  This unassuming, tidy little paperback manual (see cover image to the left) pulled me in as soon as I began flipping through the pages.  What struck me right away was how well designed and structured the book was — full of images and eminently readable at the same time.  Better yet it addressed one of my favorite topics: research.

Sourcing Ideas by Josephine Steed and Frances Stevenson provides clear outlines and paths that textile and surface design students can follow. It offers useful case studies and compelling visuals, and it explores a variety of methods for primary and secondary research in textile development. To sum things up, it is a friendly, inviting gem of book that is both beautiful and utilitarian.  (Click sample images to view larger).

It turns out that over the past few years the FIT Library has purchased a number books from AVA Publishing that all do a beautiful job of mapping the research process for students.  So long as they keep producing titles like Sourcing Ideas, I am sure we will keep purchasing them.


Google’s Knowledge Graph – the reviews are mixed

Back in May of this year, without much hoopla, Google debuted a new semantic web feature called the Knowledge Graph.  The Knowledge Graph warrants the attention of educators and librarians because it marks a departure from search results based on keyword hits to results based on word meaning (a little like the service librarians offer).

When it works it’s a nice, useful addition to regular search results that can be used to help the search distinguish between topics with similar names or terminology, such as Adrian the designer and Adrian the town in Michigan.  That being said, don’t expect it to appear with every search.  My own simple test searches on Edith Head and Jean Desses brought back a nice Knowledge Graph on the former, but just regular results for the latter.

When it doesn’t work, the results can be a bit laughable as well as seriously misleading – more misleading than poor search results because the information is presented in the authoritative form of a graph.  A recent post on ACRLog examines this issue in depth using the Knowledge Graph on the poet Walt Whitman as an example (it seems he recorded a gospel music album . . . Not!).

Many in the mainstream news media have heralded the Knowledge Graph as a step toward a more intelligent web.  (See the New York Times and New Yorker articles below). Others, such as news outlets focused on SEO marketing, technology, and privacy issues are more somewhat more critical. (See the Search Engine Watch, Gartner, and CNet reviews below).

As for myself, I always get excited about attempts at semantic web searching.  However, I would agree with many of the reviewers I refer to that at this stage in the game, if you’re going to search the web for this type of information, you’re better off at Wikipedia.