An Interview with Derek Watkins, Geography Graduate Student and Creative Mapmaker

 

Derek Watkins, Deparment of Geography,

Derek Watkins (Geography) applies his technical knowledge and design skills
to create interactive maps that explore relationships between people and place.

“I like blending research and design to tell stories about the world, mostly through the medium of maps,” says Derek Watkins, a second-year master’s candidate in geography. “You present something clearly, and people latch onto it because it’s simple, but interesting.”

Lately, more and more people have been “latching on” as Watkins’ newest map has gone viral among geographic blogs—and even some big venues of the mainstream media.

In July 2011, Watkins launched a blog, Creative Mappings (http://blog.dwtkns.com/), where he posts his cartographic creations. From the beginning, his posts have gotten attention (a map depicting the distribution of generic names for streams in the continental U.S. has built a string of 83 comments), but his latest offering, “A squinty-eyed look at population densities,” has attained a whole new level of visibility. Watkins posted the map on Friday, April 13. By the following Monday, it was being discussed on many sites throughout the blogosphere, including high-profile venues such as The Guardian, Gizmodo, and even Vanity Fair. Juli Weiner’s Vanity Fair piece, headlined “Interactive Population-Density Graph Induces Claustrophobia and Agoraphobia Alike,” describes Watkins’ map as “remarkable, fascinating, and interactive (!)”

I recently met with Watkins at Marché to gauge his reaction to all this.
 

Geographically speaking, where do you come from?

I grew up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Before I came out here, I think Dallas was the farthest west I had ever been. I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Southern Mississippi, and that’s where I became interested in cultural geography.

What brought you to graduate school at the UO?

I ended up coming here mostly because this program has a reputation for being very collegial. In geography as a discipline—certainly in some departments—there can be a split between the people who focus on physical geography and those who focus more on human geography. And I think that gap is a little bit smaller here.

Tell me about your research.

For my thesis, I’m gathering data from Flickr: photographs and commentary that people have uploaded about the U.S.-Mexico border. I’m trying to look at how what’s said about the border online can change people’s perceptions about that place. My advisor is Alexander Murphy. I couldn’t have asked for a better, more supportive advisor. His own research is not similar at all to what I’m doing with my thesis, but his door is always open.

How did you become interested in mapmaking?

I’ve always been interested in technology and design. When I was younger, I really thought I was going to go into graphic design as a career field. Since I’ve been here at Oregon, I’ve started picking up my old interest in graphic design and begun melding it with my interest in human geography.

 

Interactive population densities map by Derek Watkins

Screenshot of Watkins' interactive population density map.

 

How were you inspired to create the “squinty-eyed look at population densities” map?

I made this map in particular as a side project, just to play with HTML and some new technologies that I wasn’t too familiar with. The map is based on the work of a cartographer, William Bunge, who was active in the 60’s and 70’s. He was known for being this kind of radical cartographer. Especially at that time, cartography was all about being a method of scientific communication. But Bunge—this kind of weird, subversive guy—made a map called “Continents and Islands of Mankind.” It was more generalized; just blobs of black on a white sheet indicating where people mostly lived. It forces you to really focus on what parts of the world people are actually using more than others. So, I essentially just animated Bunge's map so you can see different slices of population density. I used a dataset put out by, I think, NASA—I generalized it and smoothed it out, but it’s based on this world population dataset.

Did all the attention this map has generated come as a surprise to you?

Well, some things I’ve done before have gotten some exposure, but it was kind of unexpected to get that level of coverage. Especially from Vanity Fair [chuckles]; I never expected to be on their website. But the editor emailed me—apparently she’d seen it somewhere—and I was like, “Sure, put it up! I’m not going to complain.”

Has the feedback been all positive?

The maps I make, some people don’t like them. A lot of people have criticized that population density map, especially, because it’s really generalized. Some of the comments I’ve seen online are like… “Whoa, where’s this city? Where’s Topeka, Kansas? Topeka has a dense population, so why isn’t it on the map?” Which is completely valid. It actually makes me happy that it prompts discussion that way. It’s always good to get people thinking about their world.

What is it like being a graduate student at the UO?

It’s been great being here. There’s a sense of community in my department and the grad students as well. People are always willing to help one another. I think there’s recognition that if one person does well, it reflects well on the entire department. And I get the feeling there’s a bit of a similar vibe all over campus.

Have you found opportunities for dialogue with students from other departments and programs?

Well, it can be hard to get out of your shell in any situation. But I did a presentation at the Graduate Research Forum, and that was a really good opportunity to meet people who were doing work similar to mine, in different fields. More so than many other disciplines, I think geography can be such an open and interdisciplinary thing.

Why should we pay attention to maps? What can they do better than any other method of communication?

Providing context is a really big thing. With the rise of more visual communication, there’s a lot of experimentation with representing data graphically. I think one advantage of maps is that people are so used to looking at them it’s often easier to tell a story than it would be with another method. People are more open to maps. On the other hand, people are so used to looking at maps it can sometimes give them blinders—they’re not willing to see something unusual on a map. But even with that standardization of “what maps are supposed to look like,” I think it’s an opportunity to sort of slip things under the radar. For me, I see maps as a means to an end.

 

A second-year master’s candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Oregon, Derek Watkins explores the ways in which design and technology can be used to promote understanding of the relationships between people and place. He has served as a research assistant in the Spatial and Map Cognition Research Laband as a GTF for the courses Political Geography, Advanced Cartography, and Introduction to GIS. This summer he will be interning in the graphics department of The New York Times.

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