The value of questions

(I’m currently experimenting with writing about general topics going beyond geospatial. This piece, like the last one, is reposted here from my LinkedIn blog.)


“Good question,” said the geologist, “nobody has ever asked me that before. Hmm… I’d say about 30%.”

His response identified the crux of the issue – and it was much bigger than what I had been hired to investigate. I’d asked the geologist how much of his time he spend doing… geology.

Voltaire, the French philosopher, is known to have said that people should be judged by their questions not their answers. In many situations a pertinent question can indeed be more effective than the ‘right’ answer. And sometimes the most obvious questions can be the most incisive.

This is not easily done. I’ve noticed this especially since becoming a consultant. There is often an expectation that, as a so-called expert, you should show off your skills and experience by providing authoritative advice. After all, how else can you justify your salary or day rate?

But providing answers can be a problem.

If you use your expertise to simply prescribe solutions, it narrows down the options for the recipient and reduces their ownership. They will have no choice but to depend on your advice – or reject it.

This is as true for client-consultant relations as for any other relationship at work or at home. Just try prescribing ‘expert’ advice to your husband/wife or teenage kids… Now, how effective was that? Did you live to tell the tale?

Whether you’re an individual or an organisation, you should never outsource the core of your very existence: decision-making. It’s throwing your problem over the fence. It’s avoiding the tough questions that enable you to progress. It’s keeping you vulnerable, and you’ll get stuck.

Unless you’re dealing with an emergency, no problem can ever truly be solved from the outside. If you’ve got a bad back because of lack of exercise, you simply need to exercise more. Outsourcing your gym membership to someone else won’t fix it.

Business is no different. The job of a good consultant (or colleague, or boss) is to find useful questions that help people find their own answers, and then let them get on with it. It’s basically like therapy without the couch, and it can work miracles. As a client or project sponsor this is the kind of service you should be asking for – not a bulky report which nobody reads.

Projects succeed when people within an organisation are empowered to take full ownership. This works because people are intelligent enough to come up with their own solutions, given the right information. The expertise comes in helping people discover this information without judging or prescribing. For a solution to succeed it needs to be their idea, not yours.

Your expertise is to take them there – by asking the right questions.

Too busy being busy?

I love my new job: great people, interesting projects, exotic locations. When, 18 months ago, I joined a boutique consultancy I had a flying start – and I’ve had a total blast ever since. But in truth, after 15 years in the corporate world, it wasn’t an easy adjustment to make.

The challenge with the transition manifested itself particularly when working from home between office and client trips. Sat at my computer, I often felt strangely unproductive (and even guilty), despite working hard and making a difference. I first blamed it on domestic distractions – a beeping washing machine, a ringing doorbell – but that didn’t really explain the feeling. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

And then it hit me.

I missed being ‘busy’. I missed my diary filling itself up with meetings, guiding me through the day like handrails. I missed an overflowing inbox to keep me occupied. I missed having random issues of varying urgency and importance thrown at me from all directions, so I could prioritise, delegate or delay actions.

As consultant working directly for fee-paying clients I now had the relative luxury of being able to focus on just a couple of projects at a time, which was something I hadn’t experienced since I was an analyst in my early career. There was much less overhead activity to deal with, meaning my time was now free to get stuff done, rather than talk about getting stuff done.

So now, devoid of the many forms of distraction I had grown accustomed to, I actually felt anxious. I was now in control of my own diary, but afraid of wasting my time through nobody’s fault but my own. The kind of busyness I was used to had acted as a guide and protective cocoon, but it had also numbed my senses and prevented me from being truly productive. This realisation came a bit as shock as I had always prided myself on empowering my teams with a flexible and holistic work ethic. It was time to eat my own dog food.

I’ve since realised that many corporate working habits are just various forms of procrastination in disguise. Sure, in large organisations there are many lines of communication to deal with, but a busy schedule can be no more effective at making progress than wildly thrashing about in the water to cross an ocean. The effectiveness of multitasking is a myth. You either need to step up, or step back.

So now, I’ve rediscovered that a walk in the woods can be more productive than curating my inbox, or that a chat in a coffee shop can have more impact than all office meetings combined. The best ideas can arise whilst emptying the washing machine. Truly productive work comes in many shapes and forms. And as knowledge workers, there is no need for us to clock in and out of offices as if it was still the Victorian times.

What are you busy doing today?


This post is reprinted here from my Linkedin blog (posted yesterday).

When best practice fails to replicate

On a recent visit to my native Luxembourg I was presented with an old problem. Why, in many public swimming pools, is it impossible to actually swim? Luxembourg, a tiny but hugely wealthy country, has built many new pools in recent years (such as Mersch, Redange or Les Thermes). They are all lovely and shiny, amazingly clean, and offer fantastic facilities. You just can’t swim there.

Now compare this with Britain. Many pools over here are frankly dilapidated, the changing rooms are often a disgrace, and the prices exorbitant. Sure, there are exceptions to this (my favourites are in Plymouth and London Soho) but, on the whole, British pools are a pretty grim affair. And yet, I vastly prefer them to the aquatic temples of Luxurybourg.


Because the Brits, world champions in civilised queuing, have devised a simple system that enables everyone to swim properly. It just involves a piece a rope and some common sense: you simply divide the pool (or part of it) into lanes. It’s a cheap and effective way of keeping everybody happy, and it increases pool capacity many times over (each lane can fit almost as many people as a whole, unroped pool).

A best practice (left), waiting to be replicated (right). Cartoon by the author (click on image for full res on Flickr).

A best practice (left), waiting to be replicated (right).Cartoon by the author (click on image for full resolution on Flickr).

When I suggested this solution to the lifeguard in Luxembourg, he looked at me as if I’d just proposed to jump in naked. And so the locals will silently continue with their old ways, oblivious to the fact that their expensive pools could be made infinitely more usable with a few metres of rope. As in most of continental Europe, swimmer-dodging slalom continues to prevail (although to be fair, I’ve experienced exceptions in some countries).

I don’t mean to claim the moral high ground here – we are all creatures of habit, and usually fail to see it ourselves until someone else points it out. The moral of this story is that no money or resources in the world will guarantee the implementation of best practices or innovative solutions. On the contrary, comfort and wealth can easily breed complacency.

To innovate or replicate best practice, all that is required is simply a willingness to listen to others and look outside the box.




Distances on a world map: the classic geodetic blunder

This week a classic map projection problem reappeared in my Twitter timeline (thanks to @petzlux). In 2003, the Economist featured an article about North Korea’s missiles, including a map showing their purported range:

The original map by The Economist, 2003.

The original map by The Economist, 2003.

Of course, it didn’t take long for the more map-savvy readers of the publication to realise that circles on a map aren’t circles in real life, especially on a Mercator projection. Two weeks later (which seems like a long time by today’s standards) the Economist posted a correction, updating the map. And sure enough, with an alleged range of up to 15,000 km, now practically the whole world was within reach of the missiles:

The corrected map. In real life, those blue and red lines are actual circles spanning the earth's surface.

The corrected map. In real life, those blue and red lines are actual circles spanning the earth’s surface. (credit: The Economist, 2003)

This is a well-known example of how map projections can play tricks on your perception of reality, accidentally or purposefully. If you’re interested, the phenomenon of geodesic buffering is explained quite well in this Esri blog.

It is also, for example, why airliners don’t fly in straight lines across the Atlantic – they do, of course, but the map makes straight lines look curved and vice-versa. But it keeps confusing people.



Stuff that lasts a lifetime: What today’s tech world could learn from its ancestors

Last weekend an advert by mobile operator, O2, caught my attention. It proclaimed that “2 years is too long” to wait for a new phone. Customers should be “more dog” and sign up for an unlimited supply of phone upgrades.

I guess one day an archeologist will dig up this advert and understand what caused our civilisation to end. A new breed of dog will have wasted rare earth elements like a flash in the pan, all in the name of a futile and doomed quest for endless gadgets.

Technology will always progress, of course. But why do even minor, incremental improvements have to make things obsolete that aren’t broken?

The design life of so-called ‘smart’ phones and other personal gadgets is typically 18 months. This is less than a good pair of socks. The tech world is literally expecting us to replace expensive electronics more often than our sets of underwear. Are they losing the plot?

In my mind, smart technology is stuff that doesn’t need replacing until it’s literally bitten the dust. It should be built to last, and able to cope with future upgrades and foreseeable use cases until it naturally reaches the end of its physical life. At which point its components should be entirely reused or recycled.

I recently took a look around the house to see what items have survived years or even decades of (ab)use, and lived to tell the tale. What might we learn from these?

A small collection of stuff made to last.

Take my old Nikon camera. It’s the kind that takes a roll of film, lets you adjust speed and aperture with tactile knobs and dials, and delivers a satisfying “click-clonk” when you press the shutter. It’s the sound of built quality. After 10 years of taking digital snaps with conveniently lightweight but flimsy devices, I had forgotten how good the Nikon feels. But why should it now be obsolete? Digital or not, the physical principle behind photography is still the same. So why not develop a kind of digital film that fits exactly where the analog one used to go? The camera body and lens are so well-made, they’ll last forever.

Then there’s a few Swiss-made items: my self-winding wristwatch which never runs out of battery (because it hasn’t got one), a compass which will always point north (thankfully), and a pocket knife that’s been with me on every trip for the last 15 years. These devices all keep going and going because they’ve been single-mindedly designed for a specific use case, and never run out of power.

Interestingly, however, my longest-serving gadget is digital. The Hewlett-Packard 42S, a programmable calculator, has served me for over 21 years. It still does the job as well as when it first computed a least squares resection on a land survey field course in the Australian bush, all the way back in 1993. With its reassuringly solid keys and timeless design it proves that digital does not have to mean disposable.

I’m hoping my iMac, bought in 2008 and made of a bomb-proof aluminium construction, might go the same way. But I doubt it. Apple will want me to buy a new one soon and so, despite its solid build, this computer will one day choke on a reckless, one-size-fits-all OS upgrade. But what will I do with a perfectly working £1,000 machine whose only crime is not to have enough RAM? This could be fixed with a tiny piece of silicon if the design had catered for unlimited memory upgrades.

Instead we’re being offered unlimited greed, laziness and stupidity, solving problems we never knew we had, and leaving behind growing mountains of e-waste that are spiralling out of control.

Why do we inflict this upon ourselves, when quality stuff is much more fun to use, and a better investment long-term? And there is real joy in using well-crafted items: they have soul.

To achieve this with computing gadgets, hardware will have to be designed such that it is a more permanent container for disposable software, not the other way round. That kind of technology would truly deserve the ‘smart’ label. The alternative is, we won’t become more dog — we’ll simply go to the dogs.

Postscript 15/04/14: Atanas’ calculator is still going strong after 35 years!

Which is the best UK outdoor map?

Walking mountains and coastlines has been a passion of mine for over 20 years. So has mapping, which I’ve done professionally in some form or other for about the same period. But it only occurred to me now to bring the two together in this post.

In Britain everybody associates outdoor maps with Ordnance Survey. Based on over 200 years of cartographic tradition, their brand is a household name and the gold standard by which other maps are judged. OS is so dominant that most people don’t even realise there are alternatives out there which, in some cases, may suit their needs better. First there is Harvey, a specialist mapmaker for walkers, cyclists and mountaineers. Harvey has been around for decades and is highly respected within their respective outdoor communities. I’ve used their maps particularly in mountainous areas such as Scotland. More recently I bought my first Splashmap, which is printed on novel waterproof fabric (more on that later). Splashmaps are made by a small start-up company who, to my knowledge, are the first to ride the wave of open data for the outdoor consumer sector.

So now that there are three serious map contenders in the British outdoors, how do they compare?

From left to right: OS Explorer, Harvey, Splashmap.

From left to right: OS Explorer, Harvey, Splashmap.

Paper vs digital

First I should clarify that I’m only reviewing paper maps here, not digital. Digital mapping certainly has its place, but I take it as a given that you will always take a paper map and compass at least as a back-up – your local mountain rescue or coastguard team will thank you for it.

There will always be a market for paper maps, and the recent hysteria about the “death” of paper maps is simply misguided. Besides many people do not seem to realise that papers maps are made from digital maps, not vice-versa. Far from killing off paper maps, digital mapping improves the way paper maps are made. With digital, you can customise maps or just print them on demand, making sure retailers don’t have to flog left-over stocks of outdated maps. Enough said.

The test terrain

I recently compared all three maps on a half-day trek across Dartmoor, my nearest national park. Dartmoor is renowned for its fickle weather and tricky navigation. Even though it’s mostly a featureless expanse of wilderness, rising barely above 600 metres, the terrain is easy to underestimate. Many people have got lost in bad weather, and over the years a few unlucky ones died of exposure. No wonder Dartmoor also serves as a military training ground. What better terrain to put these maps to the test?

View of northern Dartmoor.

View of northern Dartmoor.

First impressions: Cartography

OS maps come in two scales, Explorer (25K) and Landranger (50K). Both are targeted at a wide audience, for multiple uses. This inevitably makes their cartography a bit of a compromise. I’ve never been a great fan of the Landrangers – their scale is just that bit too small, and the colours a bit too boudoir for my liking. Explorer maps, on the other hand, are highly detailed, and the cartography manages to just about balance all this information with legibility – just. In very steep or multi-use terrain the detail can become overpowering, with too many features competing for attention. On the bleak plains of Dartmoor, however, OS Explorer works very well: there is lots of space for contours, streams, tracks, place names and other detail not to get in the way of each other.

Harvey maps are tailored towards the single pursuit of walking or cycling. Their pastel cartography is beautiful to look at, and tones down any features that are less relevant for outdoor pursuits (e.g. urban features or road classifications). The whole map is filled with pleasing natural hues, colour-coded for elevation, leaving no white spaces. No other map I know reproduces the lay of the land as clearly and effectively. This makes Harvey maps particularly useful in mountainous terrain but also on the high moors of Dartmoor it works very well. And with the 40K scale the whole national part fits on a single map sheet without losing important detail.

Splashmaps are the new kid on the block. Their cartography seems to prioritise the needs of off-road cyclists above everything else: bridleways look like they’ve been painted on with orange lipstick. Although not great in aesthetic terms, it must be quite good for blurry eyes after a death-defying downhill ride. Other than that, the Splashmap cartography is a bit reminiscent of continental-style mapping such as the French IGN or Swiss Topo. There’s no area shading except for woodland and water bodies, so at first sight the prominence of line features like contours, roads or tracks can be a bit overwhelming. This is accentuated by the linework being slightly thicker than normal, which isn’t very pretty. Like Harvey’s, the Splashmap is printed at a scale of 40K, so the whole of Dartmoor fits on one sheet.

Verdict: Harvey is the beauty, Splashmap the beast, and OS a bit of both.

Detail and completeness

Note I’m avoiding the term ‘accuracy’ here. A map is an abstract representation of the world and so will always require a degree of interpretation and prioritisation. These days positional accuracy is not really a concern anymore; what matters is completeness and fitness-for-purpose. OS and Harvey have their own data collection operations, so they are in complete control of the detail shown in their products. Aerial and ground surveys, however, are not something a young start-up company could ever hope to afford. Splashmaps therefore rely entirely on third party sources, so-called ‘open’ datasets. Freely downloadable from government or volunteer sites, these include OS OpenData, OpenStreetMap and local councils.

OS Explorer, thanks to its larger 25K scale, is by far the most detailed map on the market. On the bleak plains of Dartmoor, any detail is reassuring and so the Explorer map excels here: critical navigational landmarks like trig pillars, cairns, stream crossings, ancient stone circles or standing stones are all clearly shown. OS Explorer also offers some useful and unique features not found on other maps, e.g. it clearly marks all common land where you are legally free to roam away from tracks and paths.

The Harvey map is forced to prioritise a bit more by its smaller 40K scale but gets the balance just about right. As it is a specialist map for walking, the detail shown is pretty much perfect for this activity. Even so, I would prefer it if archaeological features like ancient stones circles and markers were shown a bit more prominently as, on Dartmoor, there are a lot of them and they’re important navigational aids.

The detail and comprehensiveness of Dartmoor’s Splashmap is really impressive given it’s all built on free data. At first sight there’s hardly any difference with OS or Harvey, except for style. After some inspection, however, there are a few noticeable omissions. First, the Splashmap doesn’t show the expansive military ranges. On Dartmoor these are a key feature as they can be off-limits to the public on certain days. Then there is something weird going on with car parks. A big one I’ve recently used near Willsworthy Camp isn’t on the map but others, near Okehampton Camp, are on it even though I’m pretty sure they’re off-limits (military use only). The Splashmap is also missing archaeological navigation features, and the place names can be a bit hit and miss (e.g. the prominent Yes Tor or Haytor Rocks aren’t marked, although the vast majority of tors are).  Still, this is version 1 of a new product created by a garage start-up, so I’m inclined to cut Splashmaps a bit of slack (and we’ll come to its unique selling point in a minute). Besides, OS and Harvey don’t get everything right either. On my recent walk near Belstone I came across this prominent standing stone (at SX 640 925) which, for some reason, isn’t shown on any of the maps:

The missing stone.

The missing stone.

Verdict: No map is perfect but OS is best for overall detail, and Harvey takes the prize for fitness-for-purpose. Splashmaps still have a bit of catching-up to do but greatly exceeded my expectations on what is possible with open data.

Tracks and paths

Walkways are a bit of a bugbear of mine. Maybe I’m too simplistic but as a walker I’m really not interested in whether the trail I’m walking on is a track, footpath, bridleway, green lane or whatever. Combined with rights of way, the different types of routes can result in a baffling array of line styles.

Basically I just want to know if there is a path of any kind, and whether I’m allowed to walk on it. If the answer to both questions is yes then great, just show it in a single style. If there is no right of way, it should just be greyed out. End of story. Cyclists would no doubt disagree with me here – and that is the inherent problem any mapmaker faces. How do you keep everybody happy? You don’t. (But more on this later.)

Still, none of the maps satisfy me here. Whether OS, Harvey or Splashmap, walkways tend to hide in plain sight, and I always need to look twice before I’m sure to be looking at a path and not something else.

Ironically Harvey is the worst offender here. It uses a different symbol for every type of track, path, road, or long distance trail, and then again a different one for every type of right of way. This results in a confusing medley of solid or dotted lines, often overlaid with tiny circular dots of different colours or sizes. OS Explorer gets an out-of-jail card because its larger scale works well on the featureless moors, but I’ve had problems in other places such as the Lake District. The Splashmap thankfully uses much fewer categories for walkways – hooray! – but then chooses to paint them purple which is hard to distinguish from the brown contours. Which explains the need for orange lipstick.

Verdict: All are unsatisfactory in different ways but Splashmaps are on the right, err, track.

Grid reference markings

grid square

This has been another frustration over the years. You want to take a quick GPS position and then check where you are on the map. This normally takes a few seconds – except it doesn’t, because eastings and northings aren’t marked on every grid square. So you end up unfolding the map, read the grid reference off the nearest markings, then trace your way back to your location, which may well be on the opposite side of the fold. By that time you will have forgotten what the GPS reading was, so you start again… If you’ve ever attempted this in a howling gale or horizontal rain, you know what I mean. This is where digital mapping devices come into their own – as long as they are waterproof and their battery lasts all the way.

OS Explorer repeats grid references every 10 kilometre squares in both directions. Harvey uses a more irregular spacing of 10 x 7 (or more, depending where you are on the map), but the dark blue font used for grid references is hard to see as it blends into the map. The Splashmap uses a spacing of 14 x 14 squares. Like OS, it uses a light blue font that is easier to spot than Harvey’s, but the spacing is far too wide to be useful. However, as the Splashmap is made of fold-free fabric it eases the task of panning along to your nearest grid reference.

Still, I’d really prefer something like a 4 x 4 spacing. This is baffling as it would be easy to fix. Am the only one who is having this problem?

Verdict: All unsatisfactory, or maybe it’s just me.

Map material and waterproofness

Britain is not renowned for its dry weather. Combined with regular breezes blown in from the Atlantic, the experience of unfolding a map can be like being slapped in the face with a wet fish. A good map needs to be rip- and waterproof.

The pure paper versions of OS Explorer don’t last 5 minutes in the wilderness, but the more popular ones (including Dartmoor) also come laminated. Although very sturdy and waterproof, the lamination is heavy and bulky, and after a while ends up with bubbles and stretch marks along the creases. With OS Explorer, I also don’t like that the map is double-sided because, just like a piece of buttered toast falling on the floor, I always open the wrong side first.

Harvey’s map is made of thin polyethylene which feels like paper even though it is a plastic material. This makes it totally waterproof, highly rip-resistant, lightweight and nice to hold. It just smells a bit odd. But as far as ‘paper’ maps go, Harvey used to be best in class.

I say ‘used to’ because that was before Splashmaps arrived on the scene. It’s like one of those revelations, “why has nobody thought of this before?” As it turns out, some people have. Splashmaps are inspired by the fabric maps used by pilots during World War II. These maps could be hidden in clothing, didn’t rustle, and doubled up for multiple uses such as a sling or bandage. Splashmaps have taken this concept into the 21st century with a high-tech fabric that enables a high quality map print whilst being fully washable. The fact that I can carelessly stuff the map into my pocket like a handkerchief, and then pull it out – wholly or partially – without having to faff around folding the map, is a total winner. The fabric doesn’t crease even after being left squashed and crumpled in a pocket for a few hours, and the material makes it really easy to grab your area of interest.

A wet day on Dartmoor: Splashmap in its element.

A wet day on Dartmoor: Splashmap in its element.

The only issue with the Dartmoor Splashmap is its size (it’s like a tablecloth) but thankfully its creators resisted the temptation to print it double-sided. Maybe I’ll just cut the map into bitesize pieces… But the material is awesome.

Verdict: The Splashmap literally blows the competition out of the water.


All three map providers offer customisation options, although I’ve never tried any of them myself. With a few clicks on their website, both OS and Splashmaps allow you to order a map centred on your exact area of interest.

Splashmaps also have a service to print standard OS Explorer maps onto their fabric – this could well be the way forward if you want the best of both worlds, albeit a bit pricey. Splashmaps and Harvey also offer bespoke mapping options for particular needs, although for some of these you may be better off printing your own map with a digital solution like Anquet or MemoryMap. On the hills a disposable sheet of A4 paper (wrapped in a plastic sleeve) can be quite a good option, but it requires a bit of an upfront investment in software or data.

Verdict: Try it for yourself.

Open data to the rescue?

I’ve tracked developments in open data for years, so I’ve known what’s been available. But based on the Splashmaps experience the overall quality of this data is still a bit of an eye opener to me. Sure, there are a few glitches that need ironing out but that is just a matter of time.

Open data could well be the gateway to greater choice in personalised or custom maps. Inspired by Splashmaps, I downloaded the 50k terrain and vector data from Ordnance Survey into my GIS software (if you’re new to this, try QGIS). The quality really is very good, and it made me wonder whether I should start making my own maps for personal use, exactly the way I like them. I realise this isn’t an option for everyone but that is where companies like Splashmaps come in. Is there a new market opening up after all?

As you read this, you may be wondering why you should pay for a map that is entirely based on free data. Well, anybody who has ever made maps professionally knows how much work is involved in designing a good map from raw information (compiling, reclassifying, merging, de-duplicating, symbolising, and so on). Then there are the costs of production and distribution which, for any physical product, are significant. So only a fraction of the cost of a physical map actually resides in the data. Life is tough in the mapmaking business, so any new entrants working to offer a bit more choice and competition should be welcomed. Kudos to Splashmaps for taking on this challenge.

Verdict: Watch this space.

And the winner is…

Navigational overkill.

Navigational overkill.

Well, this depends on your point of view – and I’m not being lazy here. There is simply no such thing as the perfect map. Whatever you do, a map is always a compromise between reality and abstraction. There are many variables at play, and the ideal map very much depends on your particular use and preferences.

In an ideal world, I would love the ability the print a Harvey map onto Splashmap fabric, enhanced with a few features from OS Explorer as well as personal additions such as grid reference markings and simpler route symbology. Fat chance you say, but why not? These companies complement each other’s offerings, and with ever more accessible digital data and printing technologies (3D scaled models, anyone?) it doesn’t take a huge leap for someone to rearrange (and license) the relevant bits to create new magic.

This is the ground that Splashmaps have begun to break, and hopefully more will follow in their footsteps – on a clearly marked path.


Disclaimer / Re-use:

This review is entirely independent, unscientific, anecdotal and based on personal experience only. I am not an employee, partner, or investor in any of the map sellers reviewed. Use at your own risk. In the outdoors, maps are no substitute for good judgment.

As all material on this blog, you are free to re-use this article under the Creative Commons licence.