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04 January 2008

The art of cartographic intelligence

The display of geospatial information has a long and storied history. Regrettably, as technology advanced, and the dissemination of mapping products was transformed by the radical new printing techniques of the industrial revolution, much of the unique art and frequent beauty of cartography fell by the wayside in favour of a brutal simplicity and single purpose mindset.

Strange Maps reminds us often of that lost art. Most recently, they cite the Economist on one of the more haunting representations of the complex statistical and geographic story of Napolean’s ill fated invasion of Russia, created by an inspector-general by the name of Minard.

The Minard map demonstrates most clearly the utility of both abstraction but also multiple element representation in geospatial intelligence products. The map is not the territory – and we are foolish to attempt to conflate them in an absolute and literal sense using technology, when the true purpose of our finished intelligence is intended to convey the vital element of analytical judgment. We do not merely seek illustrations for the sake of visual highlight but rather to provide additional insight into the subject under discussion.

This is among the more difficult aspects of the intelligence profession for an apprentice to master. Even among those experienced in the craft, the dominance of verbal and written production too often tends to overshadow its visual counterparts. This is something that we are reminded that we must always be mindful of in the excellent piece “Teaching Vision” by Mark G. Marshall, published in the Joint Military Intelligence College’s Occasional Paper A Flourishing Craft: Teaching Intelligence Studies , under the incomparable editorship of Dr. Russell Swenson.

For those wishing to explore this arcane aspect of the profession further, we highly recommend the works and instruction offered by Edward Tufte. W are rarely fans of most quantitative analysis techniques, given the all too frequent tendency to seek false certainties in numbers fabricated almost entirely from whole cloth. However, when numerical statements are properly called for there are few better ways by which they may be approached than those demonstrated in the The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

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