Book review: “Mapping Time” (Esri Press)

There’s hardly any infographic that is more famous, more often cited and more often re-designed than the graphic on Napoleon’s march to Moscow, designed by the Frenchman Charles Joseph Minard in 1869. The graphic is astounding as it seamlessly integrates six dimensions of data. Since Edward Tufte popularised the piece in the 1980s, it has widely been praised as a highlight of early data visualisation.

To me it has always been puzzling how in the field of information visualisation many people come together from a broad variety of professional backgrounds – and bring with them each an individual mind set and differing research questions. Minard himself was a civil engineer, an expert in building canals, bridges and pavements. In the course of engaging in the development of the early railway network in France in the 1830s, he took to creating statistical maps in order to better evaluate various options for building the railroads. Long after his retirement he started to apply his innovative flow map concept to a wider variety of themes, such as historical military campaigns.

Menno Jan Kraak, on the other hand, is a professor of geoinformation science in Twente/Netherlands, and in 2014 he published an indepth study about Minard’s graphic: Mapping Time. Illustrated by Minard’s Map of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign of 1812 (Esri Press).  It is really charming to read how the author assembled his book as a homage to Minard’s work – out of fascination with the narrative power of this one particular graphic, but also out of personal involvement. Menno Jan Kraak recounts that an ancestor of his joined the campaign as a Dutch soldier and fell in the battle at the river Berezina, during the army’s desastrous retreat.

In his study, Kraak opens up a question that is very intricate and of utmost relevance – particularly today, when cartography and geoinformation are in the midst of a major shift, shaking up their tools, scopes and opportunities: If cartography is about creating spatial representations – how do you incorporate and visualise aspects of time in a map? Cartographers have always been aware that maps always imply certain temporary aspects, but in a wider sense this question is still underrepresented for map makers and map users alike. Kraak writes: “The predominance of questions with a temporal component has grown, motivated by the increasing availability of information… How do we best map change? More specifically, how do we design a map so that its temporal component properly narrates the story of change?” [p.2]

Kraak chose the Napoleon map as a starting point, as he found this piece a striking example of telling a story of change – and getting a strong point across there. Kraak scrutinizes Minard’s map, highlighting the many small design decisions that Minard took (positioning of places on the map, choosing the language of place names, streamlining the many erratic army movements into one big continuous flow etc.) Kraak then takes this several steps further and asks which information (other or more) one could have decided to include when mapping Napoleon’s campaign, and he presents a broad variety of models that allow to visualise events unfolding in time.

What I particularly like about this study is how it highlights the incredible amount of editorial and design choices made during the creation of such a map – in historical works such as Minard’s oeuvre, but also in our present time. When looking at a highly accomplished work of information visualisation, we tend to forget or overlook how this is not a natural outflow from the raw data, but the result of hard work and many well-considered decisions on the part of their makers.