Gretchen Peterson | Profiles From the Geospatial Community

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Gretchen Peterson is a well-known geospatial professional who has run her own GIS consulting firm, Peterson GIS, since 2001.  She has worked on a wide range of GIS projects including (just to name a few) solar energy site suitability analysis, stream restoration prioritization, wildlife corridor design, and an archaeological sensitivity model.  Her extensive experience with geographic analysis and mapping forms the baseline for the knowledge she shares in her publications on maps and cartography.  The latest book from Peterson is called the Cartographer’s Toolkit.  Peterson shares her thoughts about cartography and the geospatial field regularly on her blog and via her @PetersonGIS twitter account.  

1.  First of all, how did you get started in the field of GIS?

As an undergraduate I had a job at the New York State Water Resources Institute. They needed someone to get data for the Susquehanna watershed, make sense of it, and put it together in map form for technical reports. With one GIS class in my background I was the most experienced GIS intern at the institute, so I got those tasks. It was a real learning experience as pretty much nothing about gathering spatial data, reprojecting it, or mapping it was straightforward. Since that skill coupled nicely with my natural resources degree, I pursued it as a career. Soon after, I landed a job at a consulting firm doing salmonid research, habitat analysis, and cartography.

2. You’ve run a GIS consulting firm since 2001.  What has been the most noteworthy change in the geospatial field for you?

The ease with which you can find data and analyze it in a meaningful way, as well as the much greater ability to share data. I almost always create a webmap for clients these days so that they can poke around with the data and results themselves, which leads to them asking me better questions and a superior end-result. Even if the webmap is just for their in-house use, they can always decide to go public with it if they need or want that capability. What hasn’t changed is my client’s needs for high quality spatial analysis of large spatial datasets, a lot of disparate datasets that cover the same geography, or both.

3. You are the author of several books and booklets dealing with cartography and map design. What was your inspiration for getting into geospatial publishing?

When I worked at the consulting firm I had to make large wall maps of my analytical results for display in the hallway of the company. These were rather embarrassing looking so, since being in this field we are used to being self-taught, I looked around for cartography design books and there was very little in the way of good advice on the subject. I figured that if I ever got to a point where I could make a decent map, I would write the books myself. And that’s what I did. The books are heavily influenced by a more organic process to design than your typical text, reflecting the idea that good maps are both an aesthetic and a communication experience.

4. Please explain what your latest book, Cartographer’s Toolkit, is about and why should geospatial professionals buy it?

Cartographer’s Toolkit (Amazon link) is about three things: colors, typography, and patterns. The first chapter is full of color palettes that have been tested on my own maps–and that are used on www.mapbiquity.com as well– showcased on sample maps so you can easily flip through and pick something applicable to your particular data. It’s meant to be a short-cut in the color picking process. Also meant to be a short-cut is the next chapter, typography, which has 50 different typefaces shown in maps, with descriptions that are applicable to cartographic design. It makes it easier to choose a typeface that will set your map apart from all the rest. The third chapter discusses 28 different map composition patterns, from animation, to choropleth, to some interesting new map techniques like type maps and flow maps. Each of the patterns are illustrated with one or more maps from great cartographers who are doing amazing work in our profession right now. Anyone who wants to make maps that are informative, inspired, and original will get something out of this book.


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5. What’s your biggest frustration with the current state of cartography?

Trying to make a webmap look like a GIS. People are much more responsive to single-themed webmaps with just a few salient datasets, rather than 20 datasets they have to click on and off. The GIS type of webmaps take too long to understand on such an ephemeral platform like a website, where people want to gather information easily and painlessly. We often end up making webmaps with too much information because we are trying to please one scientist who wants to be able to have all that information at their fingertips, but if that is the case–get that person a GIS, not a webmap! For most public sites, you’ll get a vastly larger number of hits for a single-themed, well-designed webmap than for a slow to load layer-laden monstrosity.

6.  Any other thoughts or comments you’d like to add?

You can order the book directly through me for $30 including shipping if the shipping address is within the continental U.S., which is a significant discount. Just email me for more information. You can also get the book from any of the major online retailers (order via Amazon).

Also catch the archived video about from James Fee’s Google Hangout featuring Gretchen Peterson:




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