Over the course of this interim term, I have done extensive researching, map making, and web-app building. Today, as a class, we were finally able to present our work to the general public, and wow was it gratifying. When you are buried in folders upon folders of spreadsheets containing various types of data of varying levels of completeness, it is easy to lose perspective on what the final product will look like and what impact it might have on its audience. Furthermore, in a deep and prolonged research dive (and, more generally, in most all things in life that are worth doing) you find yourself getting frustrated, doubting yourself, and wondering whether what you are doing will be worthwhile at all. While this was the case at times for me during our research process for mapping the life and legacy of H.T. Burleigh, it was all more than worth it as soon as I was able to start creating and playing with the first map web-app. (For those who missed it, each of us was assigned a “specialization” for the last week or so of class and mine was map making. You can read more about my experiences as a map maker here.) For me, there is something uniquely satisfying and exciting about seeing data, especially that which you worked hard to produce and clean, come to life in a way that is meaningful even to the uninformed eye. In the case of our research project, map making has proved to be no exception.
All of that being said, there are a few things I’ve found that can help make the process of map making and web-app building even smoother and enjoyable than it already is. First of all, the most important thing I have to keep in mind is that more is not always better. Although you may think you are helping your viewer by providing them with endless entertainment by giving them more points to click through and tools with which to do it, what you are really providing them with is often simply an overwhelmingly overwhelmed sensation. Rather, you would be much better off to distill the maps into various component parts, as we did for the most part, and limit the number of tools available to the user, at least at first glance. One idea that I had, but did not have time to implement, would be “scaffolding” the user’s map experience. To elaborate, in education the idea of scaffolding is that, rather than simply throwing challenging information or topics at students and hoping that it sticks, one is better off teaching them more basic concepts first, and then gradually building up towards the harder material. This way they have enough of a framework of prior information and knowledge that they can much more easily make sense of the previously difficult concepts when they get to them. Relating this to mapping I wonder if there would be some sort of way to design a map web-app that, rather than simply presenting all of the information and tools to you at once, instead provides you with only some data (such as by starting with a zoomed-in extent and/or with only one or two layers shown) and some tools, (such as the legend and perhaps the time-slider) and then allows access to the more intricate tools (including the ones that would allow you to turn on more layers) as you explore. By doing this, the users who are first coming to the map are not overwhelmed, can have a successful and enjoyable learning experience, and may even want to return to discover more, and the more experienced users who are already returning, will know where to look to unlock the deeper secrets of the map. By engineering a map in this way, the users would ideally feel that they are discovering something novel and engaging each time they explore the map further, but are kept blissfully unaware of the full depth and extent of the map until they have already learned the basics. The most challenging part of this idea would be in the implementation. If you make things too simple initially, then the user won’t explore at all, and if you make things too complex, then you run into the aforementioned more general problems with complex maps and new users. Another challenge is a more logistical one: how do you both hide tools from the newer users and ensure that the returners can resume where they left off without too much hassle? I have some ideas, such as creating widget ‘folders’ so that the newer users won’t see the full range of tools until they click to open the folder, (which presumably/hopefully they would not do until they have become comfortable with the existing tools) and perhaps using the arcGIS online function that allows users to return to where they left off in web-apps. However, neither of these ideas has yet been fleshed out. Will you, the aspiring map maker and web-app builder yourself, be the one to implement them?
All things considered, it has been an enormously successful and enjoyable interim term, and I look forward to seeing where my scholarly adventures, whether map making or otherwise, will take me next. I encourage you to read other blog posts, check out the maps, and enjoy the fruits of our labor. You just never know what you might find!