Authoritative Bias of Maps

In today’s context it is bit of a challenge writing a post about the authoritative bias of maps. After all, how can maps be both accurate and tendentious. Kuby, Harner, and Gober’s book Human Geography in Action (Amazon Link: this authoritative bias to five critical decisions cartographer must make in creating and conveying visual information: maps projections, simplification, map scale, aggregation, and type of map.[1] Below are a couple of ways Google’s Geo tools can be used to demonstrate these choices.

1. Maps Projection

As discussed in a previous post (link), Google Maps, Google’s Maps API, and Google’s My Maps uses a Mercator projection. Projections are chosen for a purpose; in this case probably navigation. The easiest way to demonstrate the impact of this choice simply draw the ring around Greenland in My Maps, or, and drag the polygon to the equator. I normally show this in class then give the student 20 – 30 mins to draw and drag polygons. Students tend to want to know the size of Russia and like to drag the continent of Africa north towards the pole. Being from Texas, I often ask students to grab Alaska and bring it south over the continental US for a bit of humbling.

Map Projection

Map Projection My Maps

Map Projection Cool Site

2. Simplification

Kuby et al. like to use subway maps to demonstrate the idea of simplification and its benefit to the user. Below are London’s transit tubes on Google Maps and the other is London’s transit tube map. Explore and follow routes through London by zooming in/out and dragging the two maps below. Imagine if you where actually in London. Which map is more useful if you need to use this transit system? Which map is more accurate?

(Sorry, Google’s API only shows tube transit lines from this zoom level and closer)

Source: Google Maps API Transit

Use the slider at the bottom of this map to help compare.

Source: Transport for London

Simplification Google Earth


3. Map Scale

The zoom level of a map corresponds with the detail of a map.  Large scale map views a smaller area with more detail. Small scale maps view a large area with less detail. Which maps below gives you more detail of Texas’ Capitol?

Map Scale Google Earth

Map Scale

4. Aggregation

Aggregation is the size of geographic units in visualized in the map. The video below shows how level of aggregation tells a different story for Pennsylvania’s 2016 election. The end of the story is the same but rescaling the data tells a richer story.

Aggregation (State Result vs. County Results) Google Earth

Aggregation (State Result vs. County Results)

5. Type of Map

Be it reference or thematic maps, cartographers still must make decisions on what to show, omit, or emphases.

Reference maps: See what Google Maps can do depending on your search location setting. If you do this make sure you set your location setting back. (Developer Maps API Link Localization)

Thematic Maps: Here is a simple change in shading created to complicate the spatial distributions of Pennsylvania’s 2016 election votes. (Initial Blog Post Here)

Shading Thematic Maps Google Earth

Shading Thematic Maps

KML Files (Add to your drive or download): 

Kuby, Harner, and Gober’s book Human Geography in Action (Amazon Link: is much richer than this simple post.  I highly recommend this text for anyone, or class, that wants to deepen their knowledge of geography. The intent of this post is to show the purposeful inaccuracy of maps and the importance of these inaccuracies. While maps, and many other forms of information, can be misleading, it is not always for nefarious reasons.  At some point, the read/user has assess the value and limitations of their sources. The primary purpose of a map is often to transfer information more efficiently than a textual source.  After all, as Harm De Blij wrote, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, a map is worth a million.” Try it yourself…describe the boundaries of all the countries in the world. Don’t forget the disputed ones. The choices made by cartographers give maps both value and limitations.

[1] Kuby, Michael, John Harner, and Patricia Gober. Human Geography in Action. 6th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2013.

Voting Data Sources:
Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access: (Download County Boundaries – Almost every state has this…Census also has state counties

Pennsylvania Department of State: (Election Data)

Inner Earth Processes with Google Earth and


One of the geography courses I am fortunate to teach uses a blended physical and human geography framework. The first several weeks of the year, the course entails why geography is important along with physical Earth observations and understandings. The first physical Earth lessons deal with landforms and the inner Earth/ outer Earth processes that form them. This June I converted many of the files from to kml/Google Earth. Below are the maps sets used in class to visualize these Earth processes…+ a bonus Google Earth/kml file to help teach and/or review plate tectonics.

The pedagogical formula follows the working definition of geography taught to me from Brock Brown PhD.

“Geography is a perspective…the geographical perspective provides a broadly applicable interdisciplinary method of observing and analyzing anything distributed across Earth’s space.”

  1. Starting questions: what, when, where?
  2. Followed with: how and why?
  3. Lastly: what if, what next, what about me, what about others, what should we do?


Google Earth File (Add to your drive):

Start with an observation: Physical Map Set (Natural Earth, NOAA Physical, NOAA Digital Elevation Model, Topographic NASA, World Topo-Bathy NASA) Video

Google Earth Video

Follow up with understanding the process(es) that are responsible for the spatial observation. (Bonus Google Earth file: )

**Bonus +1 Here is a Google Earth Project for Continental Drift** (No kml required)

Website overview Plate Tectonics Google Earth file:  

Google Earth Video

Lastly, how as this impacted people in the past? How about the impact on people today…tomorrow ? (prediction) Video (Ctrl+click to enable two layers)

Google Earth Video

End of Tour Creator – August 2018

This summer, probably August, I will be turning off my tour creator for Google Earth web page. There are several reasons, but mainly Google’s Tour Builder can do almost everything I want, and its creations can be opened directly into Google Earth for Chrome. The only thing left for the Google Earth team to do is put these creation tools in Google Earth. A teacher can dream.

How to open Google Tour Builder file in Google Earth for Chrome

Extended Explanation
The image at the top of this post was my brainstorm for the tour creator. It was sketched out at the Macaroni Grill in Chicago’s O’Hare airport. It came about because some colleagues saw I was able to create voyager like stories and they told me they wanted an easy way to create these stories for this “new” Google Earth. I also thought students would enjoy creating these stories and understood that Google Earth for Chrome/Mobile would not launch with creation tools. I initially helped a friend develop a Google Sheets creator; where students could input latitude, longitudes, elevations, tilts, and heading. Then students could input images and descriptions. As that project was coming to an end I spent a week developing the Maps API version that thousands of students (I assume they were students; don’t keep track of that stuff) have accessed. Basically, creating the big paper above. I felt it would be easier for students to have spatial context when selecting their location and didn’t want them going from one site to another to put in location data. Anyways, I had intentions to continue this project, but in September 2017(?) Google launched their Open in Google Earth link from their Tour Builder. From Tour Builder students can insert images, YouTubes, numerous icons, save, etc. It would have taken a month for me to get all this done, and that would be without my day job. I didn’t, and still don’t, have a magic crystal ball, but it was not too difficult to read this future. I feel it would be better for teachers and students to use Google’s Tour Builder for classroom instruction. Students can just do more.

All that stated, it was a fun little project and I have many more. I still maintain my site,, and have been developing numerous Google Earth for Chrome/Mobile (kml) files for a variety of classrooms. Thanks to everyone who continues to use and support anything created from from this little house in Austin.

Classroom Google Earth Examples
I’m Australian Too (Grades 1 – 3) – Click here for Google Earth file

Plate Tectonics (Grades 5 – 9) – Click here for Google Earth file

Added Benefits to learning code

As mentioned in several previous posts, leaning to code kml was my gateway into programming. While I admit my code often looks like a three-year old’s coloring book, the amount of growth and learning over the past five years has been such an enjoyable and relaxing experience. Initially was designed and created to allow students to more efficiently explore one, or two, spatial distributions (perspectives) of their world. There were many other factors that went through my mind before creating from wanting a hobby that helped me relax and think, to the annoyance of “education/technology” companies charging so much money for something two people and several pots of coffee could create.  I am so pleased that educators around the world can use, along with other projects, in their classroom.

The one thought that never crossed my mind when creating these geo-tools was the amount of teacher cred I receive from students. My first experience with this teacher cred was five years ago while teaching summer school. During this summer session, I came across many reluctant learners, but one student, in particular, was classic John Bender from Breakfast Club.  About four days into summer school I was demonstrating and “John” blurted out, “you created this?” John was, in business management terms, a first follower. From that point on this room of reluctant learners pivoted into “just enough” learners.

Every year since the creation of I have had these moments in the classroom.  I never know when this moment is going to happen, but each time I get the same half proud half embarrassed feeling. This year I did not tell the students I am the creator of  In one class, a student clicked the YouTube icon on the page and figured out I was the creator. Then followed an awesome teachable moment of contagious diffusion from that student’s group in the back-right corner sharing the information until it reached the front left group. Another class figured out it was me when they looked at the page source of the page and found my name somewhere in the code. That group also found one of the easter eggs in the JavaScript which x10’d my teacher cred. (Hint… think Konomi’s Contra)

For the past week and half, I might have been viewed by many as an absent-minded teacher who can’t take roll, loved to talk about geography as a perspective that transfers across disciplines, and an idealist of lifelong learning.  Once students figure out I learned to code from spatial thinking these qualities, minus the taking roll part, are no longer just words, but true beliefs and core to my teaching and learning philosophy. Learning to code and developing the language of technology though a spatial lens has given me a window of teacher cred to build those needed relationships to last at least the next 180 days, but hopefully beyond.

Blue Marble: Changing Seasons – New Google Earth

Happy summer solstice northern hemisphere 2017!

Blue Marble: Changing Seasons – Google Earth for Chrome (How to best use Google Earth video file, kml file, and post below)

Instructions on how to turn off cloud layer and import kml included in video

**Note: Clicking on left panel then clicking “Esc” key will hide the left panel. Click My Places icon to show left panel.**

Here is the file: Blue Marble – Google Earth for Chrome

Over the past several months I’ve been busy brushing up on a little kml (Google Earth files). It is funny how is coming full circle. Many years ago I started my programming hobby with learning kml (See previous blog post). Six years later  a new Google Earth has led me to unlearn, learn, and relearn kml. While I am more than happy to share everything I know and don’t know about kml, it would make for a very unwieldy blog post. Maybe some day I’ll write an online course. The issue is not kml per se. It is a pretty well documented language (documentation link); though not all kml tags work on Google Earth for Chrome (supported tags). What makes creating kml files challenging for the new Google Earth is the mashing together of kml, html, javascript, and css in a way that does not run into internet security safeguards; namely same origin domain policies. In other words, learning kml is not enough, and has never really been enough, for how I would like to integrate Google Earth in the classroom. As mentioned before, kml was simply my gateway language into html, javascript, and css. This is why I am such a proponent of kml and try to get teachers and students interested in coding using kml. It is a simple language that allows students and teachers to see patterns, understand processes, and make predictions. That and it makes for some awesome visuals for the classroom!