Reflections on a Decade and a Half of Teaching Cartography and Geovisualization

This past fall semester of 2019 marked my 15th time teaching our graduate cartography course. When I joined Ryerson University in August 2006, I had already taught MSA 9050 Digital Cartography at the University of Toronto for three years, in Fall 2003, 2004, and 2005. The course was part of the joint Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) program between UofT’s and Ryerson’s Geography departments, and was also cross-listed with UofT’s graduate course GGR 1913H of the same title. The course had been taught by Byron Moldofsky, who retired as Manager of UofT’s GIS and Cartography Office in 2017, after 37 years of service as a staff member, and continues to be active as an executive member of the Canadian Cartographic Association and a free-lance cartographer.

Then, and now as SA8905 Cartography and Geovisualization, the course “introduces [traditional] cartographic principles and their application to the design of thematic maps with [modern] GIS software” – the words “traditional” and “modern” were removed from the Ryerson calendar course description at some point, without altering the core message. While the lecture portion has remained consistent over the years, heavily relying on three subsequent editions of Terry Slocum’s comprehensive textbook “[Thematic] Cartography and [Geographic] Visualization”, the approach to the hands-on lab component has changed significantly. Expanding on Byron’s design, the earlier iterations of the course saw students select a mid-sized Census Metropolitan Area (CMA), complete a series of weekly lab exercises using socio-economic data from the Canadian Census, submit one or two intermediate lab assignments and one or two reading summaries (later replaced by a map critique), and prepare a final lab project. One lab assignment let the student select, present, and analyze an issue of data normalization, classification, or colour choice. In 2004 in conjunction with a teaching technology grant, students chose their “good” map from the first assignment to turn into a web mapping application as the second assignment. The final project was a thematic atlas plate containing three or more maps portraying the student’s choice of Census data for the selected CMA. The final assignment also required a sketch map or editorial plan for instructor feedback during the term.

Through a series of annual changes to the evaluation scheme, the current set of assignments emerged, consisting of a map poster with two or three maps and a geovisualization project. The map poster is a logical extension of the atlas plate assignment, though students are now free to use any data for any geographic extent, making the assignment more suitable for students across all fields of study in the MSA program (business/retail, social/community, and environmental/physical). The range of topics and data sets being mapped has been impressive; these are the most recent poster topics from Fall 2019:

The map poster assignment includes an early proposal, students’ in-class presentation and discussion of a draft map poster, and final submission. Students are free to use the GIS software of their choice, and many also use graphics tools to finalize their posters. To ensure the student’s preparation for the map poster proposal, the lecture component of the course is now compressed into the first half of the term. This was also possible because most MSA students now enter the program with solid GIS and mapping skills, so that the lecture and textbook material usually serves as review rather than new information. Nevertheless, practice in examining data distribution, selecting adequate cartographic options, and creating “correct” and meaningful thematic maps is still sorely needed by most students who take the course!

Before we move on to examine the second major assignment, the geovis project, I would like to highlight some outstanding student work with respect to the map poster. To my knowledge, three SA8905 students have received external awards for their map posters:

  • Brad Carter, Broken Windows and Violent Crime in Philadelphia: 2nd place winner of the 2012 National Geographic Award in Mapping. Brad’s map poster also won Honorable Mention in the Student Maps Category of the Cartography and Geographic Information Society’s 39th Annual Map Design Competition.
  • Yishi Zhao, Earthquake Intensity and Population at Risk – California, USA (2006-2014): 2nd place winner of the 2015 National Geographic Award in Mapping.
  • Nebojsa Stulic, East Asians in USA – Demographic Trends of Diverse Population: winner of the Canadian Cartographic Association’s 2019 President’s Prize for excellence in student map design at the university level. Nebojsa’s map poster also won Honorable Mention for the Arthur Robinson Award for Best Printed Map in the Cartography and Geographic Information Society’s 46th Annual CaGIS Map Design Competition.

Several MSA graduates and “SA8905 alumni” have become part of what I call the Toronto School of Mapping, a loosely defined group of part-time mappers who use open data to create thematic maps for issues of public interest and distribute them via social media, whether as individual map images or as illustrations within write-ups such as blog posts. The blog by Jonathan Critchley at includes the three dot density maps from his Fall 2011 map poster, along with examples of his later work. Of note, Jonathan teaches our department’s Web Mapping course since he graduated!

Another former student, William Davis, became Data Analyst and Online Cartographer with the Toronto Star, Visual Journalist for Dow Jones Media, and finally Infographic Designer for Sun Life Financial. His personal blog,, contains numerous examples of his work, primarily interactive maps published in support of Toronto Star articles or on his own initiative. William also collaborates with another MSA graduate, Tom Weatherburn, on the award-winning mapping collective mapTO at

William Davis and yet another former SA8905 student, Michael Markieta, were the first exhibitors in the Student Gallery of the Ryerson Image Centre, who were neither photographers nor Image Arts students. Their three-week show “Geographies of Urban Form” in October/November 2015 abstracted the structure of global cities through skeletal maps of their road networks using OpenStreetMap data.

Two other SA8905 alumni, Sean Marshall and Igor Dragovic, maintain active blogs in which they utilize their cartographic skills to support in-depth analyses of urban issues ( and trends in real estate (, respectively.

Some of the interactive maps by William Davis and others, as well as the pursuit of cartography as an art form by Davis+Markieta, are echoed in a second major course assignment introduced to SA8905 in Fall 2013 as a “Mini Research Paper” and then in Fall 2015 reconfigured as the “Geovisualization Project”. While the idea behind the research paper was to improve the students’ writing skills through a 2,000-3,000 word description of a web mapping or GIS automation project, the focus of the assignment quickly shifted from the write-up to a more in-depth technical experience. The geovis project expectations are to “develop a professional-quality geographic visualization product that uses novel mapping technology to present a topic of your interest”. This product, which can e.g. take the form of an online and/or animated map, digital or physical 3D model, or a story map, is accompanied by a tutorial published on, in which the students provide enough information for others to be able to replicate the projects. The three grading criteria reflect whether the project is “cool, comprehensive, and compelling”.

The MSA curriculum structure has been consistent since the start of the program in Fall 2000 and due to resource constraints, our objective to add courses in topics such as programming and web mapping as well as the inclusion of advanced analytical software such as R and Tableau has been difficult to achieve. The SA8905 geovis project however provides each student with an opportunity to test their interest in, and develop or expand their skills with, one or more tools that are not formally taught in any MSA course. The following list of Fall 2019 geovis project topics states the technology in the project title or in parentheses; tools included Python, R, Tableau, CARTO, Mapbox, Esri Operations Dashboard, Esri Story Maps, ArcGIS Pro, and QGIS. This year, only one student created a physical (in contrast to digital) project; in other recent years, several students would select 3D printing, wood cutting, Raspberry Pi, or other “maker technologies” to create their final product. In addition to the geovis technology, students are also exposed to writing concise technical reports in the form of the tutorials created within Ryerson’s WordPress site.

The most noteworthy external recognition of an SA8905 geovis project assignment was for Melanie MacDonald’s “Geovisualizing ‘Informality’ – Using OpenStreetMap & Story Maps to tell the story of infrastructure in Kibera (Nairobi, Kenya)” (Fall 2017). As part of the project, Melanie led a one-week mapathon to add building footprints for an informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, to OpenStreetMap. She then created a story map (shown below and still available at to explain the background and mapping process. In addition, Melanie also created a line art print as a tangible project outcome “formalizing the informal”. At the 2018 meeting of the Canadian Cartographic Association (CCA), Melanie received the best student paper award for her presentation on this outstanding course project.

Melanie MacDonald’s “Geovisualizing Informality” project (Fall 2017)

The final submission of the geovis projects also includes a departmental or public presentation event. In 2015, the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies together with the Ryerson Library’s Geospatial Map and Data Centre organized a GIS Day event that included speakers and an exhibit with SA8905 geovis project displays. In 2016 and 2018, students presented their geovis projects at the user conferences of our industry partner Environics Analytics with an audience of some 500 data analysts and marketing professionals. In 2017 and 2019, projects were presented in the GIS lab to a departmental audience, including undergraduate students as prospective MSA applicants. Photos and tweets from four events are shown below.

For other awesome geovis project examples, I recommend searching the tutorials at for keywords such as: acrylic, hologram, Lego, Minecraft, table-top AR, translucent maps; food aid, parking, polar ice cap, street art, and street grid. Without prejudice, these were some of the most “cool” (unusual, innovative) and/or “compelling” (high-quality) projects that I remember ad-hoc. The “comprehensive” grading criterion, which represents the scope of the project and the student’s level of investment has been very high for all students. In other words, I have been amazed by the results of this assignment year after year. They have become a display of graduate student engagement, hands-on learning, and professional development for the MSA program well beyond the cartography and geovisualization course.