MapCarte 280/365: GB Minecraft 2.0 by Ordnance Survey, 2014


Minecraft is a computer game that allows players to create and build places in which they can then play. The landscapes are built of 3D textured blocks and since its creation in 2009 many different worlds and environments have been built. Gameplay is supported by the procedurally generated 3D blocks. Britain’s national mapping agency Ordnance Survey has built an entire version of Great Britain as a downloadable world that players can then use in minecraft.

The map consists of 83 billion building blocks that represent the 220,000 sq km of mainland Britain and its surrounding islands, all built from Ordnance Survey data. Each building block represents a ground area of 25 sq metres and has been vertically exaggerated to reflect topography in a way that gives interest to low-lying landscapes.


The original map was built by intern Joseph Braybrook who has now improved the detail in GB Minecraft 2 by adding trees in forested areas as well as more detailed hydrology and the rail network. Roads are also classified using Ordnance Survey’s familiar scheme. What better way to play in a computerised world than by using the real world, mapped by Ordnance Survey!

GB Minecraft 2 not only provides gameplayers with a beautiful world in which to play, it acts as an educational tool to explore geography.

You can read more about GB Minecraft and download it here and, inspired by Ordnance Survey, the British Geological Survey has build a geology world that you can also download here.

MapCarte 152/365: What is fracking? by National Geographic, 2013


National Geographic have long been associated with graphical excellence for their maps, their pull-out posters and the graphics that adorn their print magazine. To this staple diet of work we can now add animated mapping in short-form videos that allow their graphic designers to make use of additional mechanisms to tell a story.

The March 2013 edition of the National Geographic Magazine (print and digital) focused on America’s search for oil from their own reserves and, particularly, on the controversial extraction method fracking that taps in to hard-to-reach reserves. The story requires multiple scales and graphics to fully illustrate the science and geography of the technique and the work produced in both print and digital form is a tour de force in research, design, graphics, video and story telling. Each is excellent in their own right but as a collection weaves them expertly into a cohesive story in the familiar National Geographic Style.

The work focuses on the new boom region of North Dakota with a map that shows over 3,000 existing wells as dots and their associated pipelines in grey that are shown across the surface giving a sense of the chaos under the surface that we cannot see. The use of the Missouri River as a central anchor point contrasts the natural beauty of the rural landscape with the massive human transformation. The next graphic takes us to an individual well – a real one that gives the reader a sense that this is real rather than simply a diagrammatic indication. Making the graphic real and showing the actual fracking activity mapped from seismic data allows us to imagine this process some 3,000 time…or 8,000 when projected to the whole state…and 50,000 times if we are to believe the projected number of wells.


Then we get to the video. It video begins with a wide shot of the United States with generalised oil producing regions we zoom in to North Dakota with a muted topographic map for context which acts as a base for oil wells that fade in to the scene. As we zoom in further detail is added that gives the strong impression of just how many wells there are before the map fades out and the map tilts and rotates to leave a 3D view of a collection of wells that then zooms to a single well. The zoom effect from continental to individual well is dramatic and tells its own story.

The subsequent 3D animated model illustrates the fracking process itself which is well presented with clear, informative design. The video ends by retracing the route in summary form back out to the continental US. An accompanying commentary tells us the story as we proceed through the video giving us clear links between what we are seeing and what is occurring.

This is a high quality, well designed and produced piece of work that integrates maps with animated diagrams, mixes 2D and 3D, print and animation to good effect and uses labels sparingly and for effect. It’s educational and shows National Geographic extending their graphical excellence and story telling into new territory.

MapCarte 108/365: Watercolor by Stamen Design, 2010


Click on image to view web map

One of the ways in which mapping technology has changed, particularly in the early 21st century is that we now have a wide range of pre-canned work that can be re-purposed as part of our own work. Google’s 2005 map revolution played a massive part in this as the idea of cached, tiled basemaps at multiple scales became the de facto digital map experience. Soon after, people began ‘mashing up’ their own content across Google’s basemap and the mashup craze was born. Cartographers have always compiled their work from a range of different sources, and often used base mapping produced for other purposes, so conceptually this wasn’t anything new but practically this developed into a radical departure. For compile, read mashup.

But what if you don’t want a Google topographic reference map as your underlay? What if you want something else more suited to the data you’re draping across the top? Many mapping companies, design studios and individuals have developed techniques for re-styling other people’s tiles or for re-cooking new tiles based on modifications you make yourself. This provides the map-maker with a fantastic opportunity to prepare a basemap that truly meets the map’s needs.

Stamen Design  have developed a reputation for thinking outside the box and using a technological sophisticated approach to produce aesthetically pleasing work. This includes digital base maps. They’ve produced many different, eye catching designs but perhaps the one that has caught most attention has been Watercolor. The map takes on an ethereal feel because it’s appearance is similar to the soft strokes of a watercolor painting. Fills are inconsistent in tone, texture and transparency, line widths are not at all uniform in width or colour and many of the features are little more than a hazy amorphous blob. But what an effect!


Click on image to view web map

The concept of taking a digital map data set and portraying it in the most un-digital way possible provides a natural attraction. There’s something very appealing about the way that an apparently painted picture challenges the stereotype of rigid digital data and traditionally produced maps. It provides a very organic product from a very sterile set of coordinate data. As with all good digital basemaps, the detail is re-styled at different scales and the process of simplification and generalisation works well – less detail and more smudges at smaller scales and some refinement as you zoom in.

Many have used the basemap, often, it has to be said as a stand-alone map just because it has a strong visual appeal. Ironically, it’s also been printed and hung as a picture by many too. Of course, as with any basemap it’s also possible to find examples where people have used it wholly inappropriately under data not suited to the style but that’s to be expected. What Stamen did was challenge our notions of what a digital basemap can be and inspired us to move beyond functional digital maps to beautiful digital maps.

More about Stamen’s maps can be found here. Their overall design studio work is here.