The highlight of my career is having had the opportunity to work on technology for building web-based maps.
Mamata Akella has worked as a cartographer for some of the most transformative geospatial companies across the globe, and now, Felt.
Mamata Akella, you are one of the most well-respected digital cartographers out there. What have been some career highlights so far?
The number one highlight of my career is simply having had the opportunity to work on technology for building web-based maps. The toolbox for building web-based maps is ever-changing and it has been thrilling to build a career that evolves with the tooling capabilities. I am really grateful for that.
Another highlight of my career has been the opportunity to work with a variety of people on different mapping problems–from end users to engineers building the technology. After completing the National Park Service’s first ever web map, I got to see Park Rangers excitement seeing a multiscale view of their park. They could use maps on the web to better communicate their stories for the first time–it was a beautiful moment–to get to see that kind of transformative impact.
What do you love about making maps?
I love that maps are a creative and expressive medium to tell stories with data. It’s a nice combination of learning technology while also doing this kind of artistic expression. I love maps that take a different spin on the same story by adding other attributes that once added, share another view.
What do you hate about making maps?
The constant fine-tuning! As a cartographer, you never feel like your maps are good enough or complete. My perception of my own work becomes really hard for me. The iterative process is essential but it can also feel endless.
What is the best map you've ever seen?
This is a hard one! I don't think I can easily identify the best map that I've ever seen because there are so many that are amazing and that I find inspiring. I think the best maps are the ones that make you look, think, ask questions, and engage. One example that comes to mind is this map from Radical Cartography:
What types of things make the professional cartographer in you cringe?
I once saw a map titled “New Ways to Visualize Your Data” and the image was a map with several data sources symbolized in like 12 different ways. I don’t mind poor cartographic choices unless they are represented as good cartographic choices...
What’s your best kept secret?
I've only made one complete, publishable map in Adobe Illustrator! It was for the NACIS printed program in Colorado Springs, CO in 2016. Every year there is a map in the program that highlights some nearby eats, bars, and landmarks. Given that I haven't used Illustrator for map making, I enlisted a tutor Aly D. Ollivierre to give me a crash course over a couple of beers at my local brewery.
Tell me about North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) & why people should join.
NACIS is an awesome community of cartographers from all walks of life and industries in North America and around the world.
The catch phrase for NACIS is “NACIS is nicest” because you can meet all of the cartographers you most admire in a very open, friendly environment. There are always a lot of great talks. We have a lot of social activities (and after parties)—it’s a good mix of work hard and play hard.
On a personal note, I love the community that exists in mapping. One of the things that makes me feel good is that people feel like I’m approachable. A lot of the work and tough things that I spent time figuring out are inspirational to others—and I want to share it. NACIS is a place where I can.
As NACIS President, what do you hope to achieve for the mapping community?
I hope we get better at attribution, and diversify recognition for great work. Today, I’m saddened by the lack of attribution to cartographic methods that exist or have existed for some time, coupled by the unquestioning authority we give a few names in the industry.
But I’m not just hoping–I spend a lot of time wondering how we can foster more up and coming talent and make them feel comfortable in the spaces we create. I’m actively working on how we can make sure people don’t feel intimidated by the mapping community so they will continue to seek out knowledge to bring their vision to life.
Why did you join the Felt team?
Perhaps selfishly, I cannot wait to collaborate with other cartographers in Felt. Digital cartographers are often isolated on a technical team. Felt could open my work up for comments from users, from other cartographers, or my team–and that would be a gamechanger for my process. When I think of Felt a couple years from now, and picture some of the maps people are going to be making and collaborating on, I see something different than exists today. Less data visualization and more of a medium for creative expression and storytelling in new way that we can barely begin to imagine. I’m really excited about this new way to work on maps through collaboration and creativity. I’ve spent a big portion of my career determining the best default techniques for data visualization, and the idea of building a new, more freeing way for folks who currently don’t have my education and expertise is inspiring.
About Mamata Akella
Mamata has been a professional web cartographer for over a decade building maps and technology for esri, National Park Service, CARTO, Stamen @ Facebook, and now Felt. She loves pushing the limits of cartography on the web and working on cross-functional teams to build cartographic systems into products used by both technical and non-technical users. She is currently President of the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS).
...the best maps are the ones that make you look, think, ask questions, and engage.