My work throughout the past years has involved researching current trends as well as the long history of information visualisation. This research focus has led me to peek into a variety of professional and scientific disciplines. Coming from an art history background myself, I have worked with designers, coders and editors, but I have also had the chance to discuss with historians, computer scientists or geographers.

Henri Chatelain: Atlas Historique, 1739

One particularly inspiring experience was an interdisciplinary workshop run by the geographical research hub “Institut für Länderkunde”, based in Leipzig. The team around Francis Harvey gathered a group of around thirty scientists and experts to discuss the “Future(s) of the Atlas”. As the editors of the German National Atlas, the IFL team felt the need to reflect on their work at a deeper, more conceptual level:

What does it mean to create an atlas today? Which needs should it answer? Which conceptual and technological goals would be desirable to achieve?

We opened the session with statements from all invited guests about what they imagined to be the future of the atlas and which work they had done in the field previously. I borrowed the title for my statement, Suddenly this Overview, from Swiss artist duo Peter Fischli und David Weiss.

Francis Amasa Walker: Fiscal Chart / United States Statistical Atlas, 1874
Francis Amasa Walker: Fiscal Chart / United States Statistical Atlas, 1874

Sometimes in conceptual debates about how to set up complex interactive publications, the focus tends to be on what’s technologically feasible – instead of the use cases the publication is intended for. So in my statement, I pointed to the broad variety of historical atlasses we know, for all kinds of different readers. There’s not really anything like “The Atlas”, but a whole colourful world of different atlasses.

Urban observatory (photo: ESRI/Chris Krüg)

We then worked in teams to tackle more specific questions regarding the technological framework, the accessibility of data, options for interacting with the maps. The IFL team put together a website with a summary of these debates, as well as providing all guest statements.