Resistance Mapping

This is the text of a talk I gave at the Critical GIS Workshop at McGill University held in concert with NACIS on October 13, 2017. I will likely try to publish it in modified form, but didn’t want to hold off giving it a little exposure in the mean time or in case it never gets into print. I would appreciate any constructive feedback via the comments section. -C

Since the early 1990s, critical GIS has engaged with efforts to support oppressed and Indigenous communities through map-based empowerment—what Denis Wood (2003: 7) might call “offer[ing] professional assistance, on bended knee if necessary, to all the people trying to ameliorate their situation by mapping it.” This combined ethic and process has gone by many names indicating variants on the general theme: participatory mapping (Chambers, 2006; Corbett, 2009), public participation GIS (Elwood, 2002; Sieber, 2006), critical cartography (Crampton, 2010), feminist GIS (Elwood, 2002; Seiber, 2006), Indigenous mapping (Poole, 1995; Chapin, Lamb, and Threlkeld, 2005), and counter-mapping (Peluso, 1995). While all of these variants stimulate productive relationships between researchers and underserved communities, there seems to be a growing need for a new, more confrontational version of critical GIS praxis.

There has been a recent upsurge in place-based Indigenous resistance movements in the U.S. and Canada, exemplified by the Idle No More movement and more recent water protector struggles against oil pipelines, such as Dakota Access last year. These efforts contain a cry for radically-minded GIS practitioners and cartographers to assist. I suggest that resistance mapping can offer a more useful framework for such praxis than other existing terms. The concept of resistance mapping builds on ethical principles established to ensure productive cooperation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous partners, while challenging extractive capitalist and police state power structures more directly than other critical GIS practices.

Let’s briefly travel back to this time last year, to the water protector camps near Standing Rock, North Dakota. The Dakota Access Oil Pipeline was planned to carry 470,000 barrels per day of fracked crude oil from the Bakken fields of western North Dakota to southern Illinois. Its route passed within ½-mile (0.8 km) of the Standing Rock Reservation and within ten miles of the Tribe’s water intake pipes (USACE, 2016). Having exhausted the state and Federal environmental review process with inadequate tribal consultation, Standing Rock tribal members decided to engage in direct actions challenging the pipeline (Meyer, 2016). Their resistance took the form of both legal protest and prayer, and direct actions deemed illegal by the state, such as blockades and lockdowns to construction equipment (Carlin, 2016) They were met with private security attack dogs, the intentional bulldozing of sacred archaeological sites, and massive police state repression with footage reminiscent of the civil rights-era Deep South.

By August, the water protectors’ struggle had become an international cause célèbre, with thousands of people from around the world—mostly Indigenous, some non-Indigenous—descending on the Sacred Stone and Oceti Sakowin camps to assist. But despite the international outpouring of attention and news headlines, initially there were few publicly available maps to locate the site of the struggle, much less the pipeline route or the locations of critical events (Sack, 2016).

In response to this absence, I created a map entitled “The Black Snake in Sioux Country,” which located the site of the protest camps and the pipeline route. It also showed an alternative route initially proposed by Energy Transfer Partners, the pipeline company, but rejected by regulators for reasons that included protection of the Bismarck-Mandan water supply (USACE, 2016). The map included a red outline over the area where the pipeline company had skipped its construction forward 20 miles in order to bulldoze archaeological sites. And it depicted both the border of the Standing Rock Reservation and historic Sioux territory under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie through which the pipeline passed, something I only learned of when I spoke with Tribal Historic Preservation Office staff at Standing Rock.

After I published my map on my blog and social media, thanks to a bit of good timing, it quickly went viral. Many people who commented on the blog post interpreted the visual contrast between the rejected route and the chosen route as evidence of environmental racism in regulatory decision-making. Others reacted strongly to the inclusion of the 1851 Sioux territory, of which legal U.S. ownership remains contested by many Sioux people (Ostler and Estes, 2017). Clearly, maps have power; resistance maps have the power to alter public perceptions in support of Indigenous-led environmental and treaty rights struggles. Resistance maps aim to tell the story of such struggles from an alternative point of view not beholden to dominant capital or state interests.

Yet, it would be inaccurate to call this form of critical cartography Indigenous mapping. Although I traveled to Standing Rock, stayed at Oceti Sakowin camp, participated in a protest march, and met productively with Tribal staff, I was only present in the area for four days, much of which I spent holed up in the casino keeping up with my teaching load online. The entire process was far too rapid and discounted to stand as a model of Indigenous cartographic participation. The final map was heavily influenced by what I learned at Standing Rock, but was ultimately my creation and distributed widely under a Creative Commons license to the public, rather than the tribe or a representative group maintaining ownership over it. Nor can I accurately call this counter-mapping, as it was not led by the Indigenous frontline community, nor a direct attempt to reclaim resources or sovereignty (Peluso, 1995). This map, and others made in direct response to resource colonialism and/or structural violence, are acts of resistance against capitalist and state forces that threaten the lives and livelihoods of frontline communities.

Of course, it is still vital to first understand the needs and wishes of frontline communities regarding their struggles’ spatial representation. Mapping in the heat of a tense and quickly evolving situation like Standing Rock does not excuse the need for free, prior, and informed consent. Quite the contrary. Free, prior, and informed consent in resistance mapping requires the cartographer to dialogue directly with authorized representatives of the communities leading the struggle, and to respect their authority over what should and should not be mapped (Corbett, 2009). Special care must be taken to avoid exposing sensitive local knowledge. Standing Rock provides an unfortunate example of what’s at stake here, as an archaeological survey map that the Standing Rock Tribal Historic Preservation Office provided to the court at the judge’s request was used by Energy Transfer Partners to locate where to preemptively bulldoze before a stop work injunction could be issued.

Tense situations like the Standing Rock struggle demand all due haste in getting a map out there, but remote sensing and remote communication cannot be ethically used as shortcuts to producing a resistance map. Face-to-face conversation is vital for trust-building, and rural areas such as most Indian reservations often have poor phone and internet reliability. Both Indigenous culture and the struggles themselves are typically centered in place, so ‘getting the lay of the land’ in person is important to accurately represent locations, events, and the viewpoints surrounding them. For a cartographer, the rush of adrenaline that accompanies a direct confrontation with the police state poses a danger of overlooking the personal, the community, and the grounded; but these elements in fact are vital components that lend strength to any resistance struggle, and they must be reflected in the final map.

Gift giving is also an historic and culturally recognized practice that demonstrates a desire to satisfy the needs of others (Kuokkanen, 2006). A recognition of gift culture, without stereotyping or trivializing it, goes a long way toward making friends and building trust, especially when the gifts you give are useful to the struggle you’re trying to support. In my case, these gifts included a donation of time and expertise on an easy GIS project that the Standing Rock THPO staff simply needed someone to sit down and do. I also gave the Tribal staff large mosaics of USGS topo maps covering the vicinity that I had printed back at the lab in advance. In turn, THPO staff were willing to share some GIS data and spend some time cluing me in on important spatial components of the struggle, such as the 1851 and 1868 treaty territories. Critically, we discussed and came to agreement on would and would not be represented on the map. These interactions took less than a day, but proved vital to the efficacy of the final product. Back at home, I ran a rough draft of the map by THPO staff over email, and got the OK from them before posting it publicly.

A final component of resistance mapping that shouldn’t be overlooked is how the final product is distributed. As critical cartographers, it’s nice to spend time debating how computers and the internet are changing map use and our perception of the planet, and whether they can adequately represent traditional Indigenous ontologies and epistemologies. But one key fact is that the internet and social media provide a huge amount of power to amplify one’s visual message, if you have the technical knowledge and bandwidth to exploit them. After returning from Standing Rock, my goal was to get my map out there to as many people as possible as quickly as possible. Blog and social media platforms were key to this. But while you can post anything you want on a WordPress blog, getting people to actually read it is a matter of paying attention to some established best practices. These include adding SEO metadata, Tweeting and posting it to Facebook several times, and coordinating your release with widely publicized events to boost your signal.

In my case, I had the good fortune of being almost done with my Black Snake map when the largest online protest in history broke. On October 31, 2016, a million people “checked in” at Standing Rock on Facebook, after a rumor was put out that local law enforcement were using Facebook’s location-based services to track who was at the water protector camps. (As an aside, this was a fascinating moment for geographers, and I’m honestly surprised that I haven’t seen any papers published about it yet). Now, you don’t have to know much about social media algorithms to know that when you post something on Facebook, it tells Facebook’s algorithm that you’re interested in that thing, and Facebook thus shows you more things like the thing you posted. So this check-in phenomenon was a precious moment when the AI-driven virtual gaze of a million Facebook users was affixed to DAPL. I was able to rush my map to completion and post it a day later. The magic sauce worked; my blog post got picked up right away by The Huffington Post, a source widely read by the quasi-Left whose profit model operates less like a traditional newsmedia outlet and more like a megaphone for unpaid content producers. So, in my case, a mix of a hot topic, good timing, and a cursory understanding of how to milk the online medium synthesized into a viral resistance map.

To sum up, there is nothing new about critical GIS praxis aimed at empowering underserved and Indigenous communities. However, the set of procedures I’ve described here is significantly unlike most Indigenous mapping or counter-mapping processes. It characterizes an expedited approach that can be used in response to fast-moving, Indigenous-led resistance struggles. Such struggles are growing increasingly common and increasingly confrontational across North America, particularly around new petroleum infrastructure designed to serve climate-threatening tar sands and fracking operations. The Dakota Access struggle was ultimately lost due to winter weather and the change of Federal administration—sometimes the side with the best maps doesn’t win, but it never hurts to try. But the DAPL fight has spurred on many other Indigenous-led struggles against other pipeline projects in at least a dozen states and multiple Canadian provinces (Water Is Life Movement, 2017). Resistance mapping can give a powerful boost to Indigenous-led struggles through linking critical GIS scholar-practitioners to frontline communities who would benefit from telling their story with a map.


Carlin, Charles. 2016. “The Ethics of Ceremony at Standing Rock. Edge Effects (blog). October 6. Accessed August 31, 2017. Online:

Chambers, Robert. 2006. “Participatory Mapping and Geographic Information Systems: Whose Map? Who Is Empowered and Who Disempowered? Who Gains and Who Loses?” Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries 25(2): 1-11.

Chapin, Mac, Zachary Lamb, and Bill Threlkeld. 2005. “Mapping Indigenous Lands.” Annual Review of Anthropology 34: 619-638.

Corbett, Jon. 2009. Good practices in participatory mapping: A review prepared for the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Rome: International Fund for Agricultural Development.

Crampton, Jeremy. 2010. Mapping: A Critical Introduction to Cartography and GIS. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

Elwood, Sarah A. 2002. “GIS use in community planning: a multidimensional analysis of empowerment.” Environment and Planning A 34: 905-922.

Kuokkanen, Rauna. 2006. “The Logic of the Gift: Reclaiming Indigenous Peoples’ Philosophies.” Botz-Bornstein (ed.). Re-Ethnicizing the Mind? Cultural Revival in Contemporary Thought. Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi. 251-271.

Meyer, Robinson. 2016. “The Legal Case for Blocking the Dakota Access Pipeline.” The Atlantic. September 9. Accessed August 31, 2017. Online:

Ostler, Jeffrey and Nick Estes. 2017. “‘The Supreme Law of the Land’: Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline.” Indian Country Today. January 16. Accessed August 31, 2017. Online:

Peluso, Nancy Lee. 1995. “Whose woods are these? Counter-mapping forest territories in Kalimantan, Indonesia.” Antipode 27(4): 383-406.

Poole, Peter. 1995. Indigenous peoples, mapping, and biodiversity conservation: An analysis of current activities and opportunities for applying geomatics technologies. Landover, MD: Biodiversity Support Program.

Sack, Carl. 2016. “A #NoDAPL Map.” Northlandia (blog). November 1. Accessed August 31, 2017. Online:

Sieber, Renee. 2006. “Public Participation Geographic Information Systems: A Literature Review and Framework.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 96(3): 491-507.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—Omaha District (USACE). 2016. Environmental Assessment: Dakota Access Pipeline Project Crossings of Flowage Easements and Federal Lands. Omaha, NE: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—Omaha District. July. Online:

Water Is Life Movement. 2017. “Meet the Camps.” Accessed August 31, 2017. Online:

Wood, Denis. 2003. “Cartography is Dead (Thank God!).” Cartographic Perspectives 45: 4-7.


Mapping the Enbridge Midwest Octopus

If I had all the time in the world, I would turn the very basic Google My Map above into something a little more complete and polished. But sometimes quick solutions are better than nothing when the need arises. In this case, the data needed to be out there for water protectors and others to see the tar sands Ground Zero in our backyard. Now more than ever, we need to be mapping climate-changing infrastructure and sites of resistance. If you know of anything that you think should be added to the map above, please get in touch by posting a comment on this entry.

Things are heating up in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Enbridge Energy is the biggest transporter of tar sands oil in the country. At a combined capacity of nearly 2.7 million barrels per day, its pipelines from northern Alberta to the Midwest, eastern Canada, and the Gulf Coast dwarf the other two tar sands pipelines, Kinder Morgan Transmountain (300,000 bpd) and TransCanada Keystone (590,000; 1.3 million if XL is built). Almost all of the crude and dilbit Enbridge transports gets routed through its main terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. Here’s what Enbridge says about the termial (from the pipelines map linked above):

“With 45 storage tanks, and a shell capacity of 13 million barrels, Enbridge’s Superior Terminal, in Superior, WI, is a vital hub for safe, reliable crude oil transportation across the United States. About 20 percent of all daily U.S. crude imports pass through Superior Terminal.”

This makes the little-known Superior Terminal ground zero for climate change in North America. But groups in the Midwest are taking notice. In Wisconsin, a coalition of environmentalists, climate change activists, and landowners took on a recent tripling of capacity in Line 61, and are now fighting a possible “twin” pipeline, Line 66, along the same corridor across the state. In Michigan and northern Wisconsin, activists are standing up against the 64-year-old Line 5, which threatens the Straits of Mackinac and has been operating with expired permits in the Chequamegon National Forest and Bad River Indian Reservation. It just came out that Enbridge lied to Michigan state officials about the amount of damage to its pipelines under the Straits, and the state is now trying to mollify the increasingly noisy resistance by conducting a “risk assessment” of the line—led by a former Enbridge employee.

And in Minnesota, several water protectors have been arrested in blockade actions against Enbridge’s construction of a new Line 3 “replacement” pipeline. Enbridge wants to abandon its current pipeline in place and built a new route that threatens even more wild rice lakes and Treaty-protected lands than the old one. Two water protector camps—Camp Makwa, the frontline resistance camp, and the Ma’iingan Prayer and Culture Camp—have been set up in rural northeast Minnesota near the current pipeline. The Indigenous-led nonprofit Honor the Earth, Minnesota 350, and independent water protectors have been organizing direct actions, marches, and turnout at public hearings around the pipeline.

I will do what I can to keep putting all of this on the map.

The pipeline route data above comes from as follows: Line 61: Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration via 350 Madison (downloaded before access to data was severely restricted by the Trump Administration); Line 5: OpenStreetMap, verified by cross-checking with satellite imagery and some ground truthing on the Bayfield Peninsula (for some reason this is much more accurate data than I could find from the one other available web source, linked to the National Wildlife Federation); Line 3: provided by Honor the Earth.

Invisible Nation: Mapping Sioux Treaty Boundaries

This post is based on a talk I gave at the Nelson Institute Center for Culture, History, and Environment Symposium at UW-Madison on February 11, 2017. Here are the slides from the talk:

Last fall I made a map of the Dakota Access Pipeline’s Missouri River crossing that went viral. One part of the map drew especially vigorous discussion in the comments section of the original post: the area labeled “Sioux Territory Under 1851 Treaty of Ft. Laramie.” Because of that discussion, I changed the label from its initial wording, stripping the word “Unceded” from the beginning. I won’t change it back; for now, this keeps the map on sound legal footing. But here I will explain why I think a strong argument can be made for the original wording, and what it portends for Sioux sovereignty over this contested landscape.

While conducting research for the Black Snake map in mid-October, I connected with a staff member at the Standing Rock Tribe’s Historic Preservation Office who gave me information I could use on the map in exchange for some light GIS assistance. As I was packing up to head back to the Oceti Sakowin camp, this person asked me if I would be willing to digitize and map the boundaries of the Great Sioux Nation.

My response was: The what?

The Great Sioux Nation is a geographic entity that came into existence with the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. Intended to halt Indian attacks on white settlers moving west along the Oregon Trail, the treaty for the first time designated territorial boundaries of the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Assiniboine, Mandan, and Arikara peoples. To the Native Americans who roamed the plains as nomads hunting buffalo for subsistence, these boundaries were always in flux, determined by who could best their rivals in counting coup. To the Americans, fixated on expanding their nation-state, defined territory and property boundaries were necessary prerequisites for legal ownership and use of the land. Thus, these boundaries were largely fictitious, but a legal fiction that would bear some fruit in the white man’s court over a century later.

Map of 1851 treaty boundaries from North Dakota Studies website.

Of course, hostilities between the U.S. and the Sioux in particular did not cease in 1851. In 1868, after a series of skirmishes known as Red Cloud’s War, the U.S. signed another Treaty of Fort Laramie with the Sioux and their allies. This treaty was negotiated shortly after Red Cloud’s warriors massacred 81 American troops under Captain William Fetterman, who the Indians saw as trespassing in the contested Powder River Country (they were protecting white gold prospectors using the Bozeman Trail, whose presence threatened the buffalo herds, the main form of subsistence for the western Sioux). In the wake of the Civil War, the U.S. Army calculated the cost of militarily subduing the proud Sioux as too high, and sued for peace.

The 1868 treaty contained three sections defining Sioux lands. Article 2 of the treaty designated a “Great Sioux Reservation,” a place where, in theory, Indians who wanted to assimilate could settle into the lifestyle of yeomen farmers. Article 16 recognized Sioux hegemony over the vast Powder River Country, labeling it “unceded Indian territory” and closing American forts and the Bozeman Trail. Article 11 recognized the rights of the Sioux to hunt south of the reservation “so long as the buffalo may range thereon in such numbers as to justify the chase.”

Map of 1868 treaty boundaries from North Dakota Studies website

These treaty boundary maps were easily located on the internet, but were too small-scale to digitize accurately. I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to use the treaties themselves to draw in more accurate boundaries, or, failing that, find the sources used by the online maps. As I was leaving the Standing Rock office, I said that I should have something done by the weekend. Boy, was I off. I was staring down a rabbit hole.

The first source I went to, of course, was the treaties themselves. Two problems quickly became apparent: in some cases, the treaty language was very vague and didn’t match up with on-the-ground geography, while in others, the boundaries on the online maps obviously disagreed with what what the text of the treaties said.

Exhibit A: Here are the Sioux boundaries as defined in the 1851 treaty:


The problem lies in this part: “…to a point known as Red Bute (sic), or where the road leaves the river; thence along the range of mountains known as the Black Hills…” Red Butte is just west of modern Casper, Wyoming. The Black Hills—at least as we know them today—are at closest 150 miles to the northeast.

Red Butte and the Black Hills are separated by 150 miles of nondescript plains. Screenshot from ArcGIS Online.

So how does one get from Red Butte to the Black Hills? The boundary on the online maps does not head northeast from Red Butte at all, but rather continues west along the North Platte River, seemingly in violation of this treaty language (otherwise, why would Red Butte be marked as a waypoint on the boundary line at all?).


Exhibit B: Article 11 of the 1868 Treaty states that the Sioux “reserve the right to hunt on any lands north of North Platte, and on the Republican Fork of the Smoky Hill River [now just called the Republican River]” as long as there are buffalo to hunt. But the two rivers are widely separated by a seeming no-mans-land, and what exactly does “on” the Republican River mean, anyway? Again, the maps have an answer, but it’s not a very satisfying one:


(Note that the above map mislabels the southern hunting grounds “unceded Indian territory;” the treaty does not use that term for this area, nor have the courts that interpreted it).

Exhibit C: Article 16 of the 1868 Treaty vaguely defines the “unceded Indian territory” of the Powder River Country as “the country north of the North Platte River and east of the summits of the Big Horn Mountains.” This was well and good for the time the treaty was signed, when everyone knew that the problem was the Bozeman Trail and the string of forts the U.S. had erected to protect it. As a cartographer, I’m fascinated by the problem of symbolizing vague and poorly defined boundaries; there are plenty of ways to show land claims without drawing a hard line around them. But that is exactly not what the online treaty maps do. There are very definite lines drawn around this area; some segments obviously follow rivers, while in other spots the underlying geography is not obvious, but the border clearly follows something. Then there’s that big finger-shaped hole in the territory that juts down from the north like a peninsula; what’s that about?


So I had to figure out where these boundaries were coming from. That took me to the book Black Hills, White Justice by Edward Lazarus, which appears to be the original source of the online maps. Lazarus is the son of one of the attorneys who prosecuted a pair of Sioux cases against the U.S. to gain compensation for usurped treaty lands, including the sacred Black Hills. The Black Hills case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with the Sioux in 1980 and awarded them over $100 million for the unilateral “taking” of the Hills by Congress in 1877 (an episode of which a lower court famously declared, “A more ripe and rank case of dishonorable dealings will never, in all probability, be found in our history”). The other case called for remuneration for land rights ostensibly relinquished under the 1868 treaty, and eventually won the Sioux an additional $40 million.

By the time the Sioux won these cases, they had been in court for almost six decades. The intervening years saw a revolution in Native American attitudes toward their own sovereignty. Fearing that monetary compensation would absolve the U.S. government of any responsibility to give back the land they had stolen, the Sioux have refused to touch the money. Today it sits collecting interest in a BIA-administered trust now worth well over $1 billion.

Map of 1851 Sioux territory in Black Hills, White Justice by Edward Lazarus

Lazarus’s book is a splendid bit of storytelling, and vividly recounts the whole convoluted history of U.S.-Sioux legal relations, from the fights that led to the 1851 treaty, to the theft of the Black Hills, to the high court’s ruling on the Hills and the Sioux response. But Lazarus is a lawyer, not a cartographer, and his primary focus is on the shifting jurisprudence around Indian legal rights and treaty claims, not on the geographic boundaries of those claims. Nonetheless, his book at least pointed me in the right direction: toward the Indian Claims Commission, a special court created by Congress in the New Deal era to adjudicate outstanding Indian treaty claims.

In the act that created the ICC, Congress gave the Commission the power not only to interpret Indian treaties, but to literally redraw disputed treaty boundaries and then make decisions as if they were the original boundaries. And, it turns out, this is just what the ICC did in regards to the 1851 and 1868 Sioux treaties.

In 1965, the Commission took up the issue of the 1851 Sioux territory’s western boundary (the part that went from Red Butte “along the range of mountains known as the Black Hills”). In its decision (15 ICC 577), the Commission thoroughly reviewed the background and tenor of the negotiations that led the treaty, including the boundary lines drawn on the (highly inaccurate) maps made at the time, and concluded “that the proper location of the Sioux western boundary… follows the drainage divide between the rivers flowing east into the Missouri and those flowing north into the Missouri.” This seemingly logical conclusion produced this territory:

1851 Sioux Territory as determined by the Indian Claims Commission in 1965. Map by the author.

But it didn’t make the lawyers for the Sioux happy. The problem, they pointed out, is that the new boundary left a large “neutral zone” between the Sioux and their western neighbors and bitter rivals, the Crow. The eastern Crow boundary specified in the treaty follows the Powder River rather than the “Black Hills” used by the Sioux boundary. The attorneys argued that the land in between rightfully belonged to the Sioux under the terms of the treaty—and should be compensated for. In 1969 (21 ICC 371), the Commission agreed, nullifying its previous boundary and redrawing the 1851 territory thus:

1851 Sioux Territory as determined by the Indian Claims Commission in 1969. Map by the author.

To determine the exact line of the western boundary, the ICC relied on a set of maps of Indian land cessions drawn by Charles C. Royce for an 1896 report to the Smithsonian Institution. The 1851 Sioux boundary eventually settled on by the Commission follows the line between area 517—land ceded by the Crow in a separate treaty—and area 597, or what Royce identified as Sioux territory supposedly ceded by the illegitimate 1876 “agreement” cited by Congress to annex the Black Hills.

Indian land cessions map by Charles C. Royce, 1896

Royce produced maps like this for every state (more than one for some states), and luckily they have all been scanned at high resolution and are now hosted online by the Library of Congress. They were the last piece of my puzzle. They are based on the Public Lands Survey and highly accurate for the time. With a little bit of georeferencing work in GIS software, they gave me something to trace where no rivers, graticule lines, or modern political boundaries otherwise demarcated the ICC’s treaty boundary line.

The geography of the 1868 treaty is a bit more complex than the 1851 territory, and remains contested. The latter treaty is especially important to modern Sioux sovereignty because it is regarded as the last legitimate treaty between the U.S. and the Sioux. The sell-or-starve “agreement” giving up the Black Hills in 1876 was signed by just a handful of war-broken chiefs, violating a key provision of the 1868 treaty stipulating that it could only be superseded by signature of 3/4 of the adult male Sioux population. This “rank case of dishonorable dealings” was cited by the Supreme Court as a key factor in its 1980 decision.

To review, the 1868 treaty declared three types of Sioux lands: the Great Sioux Reservation, on which the Sioux could permanently settle (not that they wanted to); hunting grounds available for Sioux use as long as they contained free-ranging buffalo (which were decimated within a few years of the treaty’s signing); and unceded Indian territory, where the unconquered western Sioux could roam and hunt in the lifestyle to which they were accustomed without harassment by U.S. soldiers or fortune-seekers. The treaty language is quite clear on the boundaries of the reservation, which basically covers the western half of what is now South Dakota along with slivers of North Dakota and Nebraska. The other two treaty areas are less clear.

In 1970, the ICC rendered a pair of decisions drawing boundaries around the southern hunting grounds and western unceded territory (24 ICC 98 and 23 ICC 358, respectively). These decisions were clearly somewhat arbitrary, drawing solid lines where perhaps there should not have been based on the post-1868 land cessions on Royce’s maps. Importantly, and against the arguments of the Sioux counsel, the Commission arbitrarily decided that the eastern boundary of the unceded territory—”the country north of the North Platte river and east of the summits of the Big Horn mountains”—aligned with the western boundary of the reservation on the 104th meridian (104º west longitude). This decision excluded the 1851 Sioux territory to the north of the reservation, which then fell under Article 2 of the 1868 treaty, relinquishing all Sioux claims to territory outside of the lands described by the treaty.

Sioux lands under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie as determined by the Indian Claims Commission in 1970. Map by the author.

But this isn’t the end of the story. In a 1978 decision(42 ICC 214), the Commission again modified its earlier findings, declaring that, based on the tenor of treaty negotiations, “the Indians cannot have regarded the 1868 treaty as a treaty of cession.” This would tend to suggest that the 1851 Sioux territory to the north of the reservation should be included in the unceded Indian territory that the Sioux did not believe they were giving up. Thus:

Sioux lands under the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie as suggested by the Indian Claims Commission in 1978. Map by the author.

So the Great Sioux Nation, then, could be constituted by the Great Sioux Reservation and unceded Indian territory to the west and north of the reservation, as designated by the 1868 treaty and interpreted by the ICC, and possibly 1851 territory within the hunting areas to the south of the reservation. Why is this important now? It is the ambiguously designated northern segment of 1851 Sioux territory through which the Dakota Access Pipeline—the Black Snake—passes.

Between the Heart River and Lake Oahe, the Dakota Access Pipeline passes through 1851 Sioux territory. Map by the author.

In an article published last month by the Indian Country Media Network, a University of New Mexico Ph.D. student, Nick Estes, and a University of Oregon history professor, Jeffrey Ostler, argue based on the 1978 ICC decision that the pipeline passes through territory never legally ceded by the Sioux. Thus, they say, it is especially imperative for the government to respect the tribe’s right to consult on and even veto dangerous infrastructure projects in the area (I would add, particularly given that the original intent of the “unceded Indian territory” was to check the growth of American infrastructure). Their exact claim—that the ICC declared “the northern boundary of the unceded Article 16 lands was the Heart River”—I can’t find support for in the wording of any ICC decision. But I agree with the logic of their argument, and I certainly think a court should definitively nullify the arbitrary and ahistorical 104º eastern limit of the unceded territory.

Would a modern court recognize that the Sioux maintain treaty rights in the 1868 unceded territory, including this northern zone? And if so, what would the nature of those rights be? In the 1990s, the Ojibwe tribes of northern Wisconsin won (back) their treaty rights to hunt and fish off reservation in ceded territory. But the idea that Native American treaty rights could include veto power over infrastructure and industrial development has not, to my knowledge, ever been tested in court. Given that the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is fast running out of other legal avenues to block the Black Snake, perhaps it’s time to test it.

Note: My maps of Sioux treaty boundaries use state boundary and terrain data from the US Geological Survey and satellite imagery data from Digital Globe via ESRI. All maps in this post authored by me are licensed CC-BY.



When I decided to become a cartographer, I didn’t just want to make pretty and useful maps. I became a cartographer to make maps that change the world for the better. Right now, no situation needs this kind of map more than the current drama unfolding around the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline’s crossing of the Missouri River.

Thousands of Native Americans and their allies have gathered on former Sioux land delimited by the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie to try and stand in the way of the “black snake” that could poison the Standing Rock Reservation’s water supply. Many have noted that the pipeline corridor was repositioned from its original route north of Bismarck after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected it citing its threat to drinking water in that mostly-white municipality. Yet the Corps failed its federal mandate for meaningful consultation with the Standing Rock Tribe before signing off on a route that moved the pipeline to their doorstep.

This is not to say that the good citizens of Bismarck and Mandan should be subjected to the risk of an oil spill. What’s wrong with the picture above isn’t the routing of the pipeline. What’s wrong is that the pipeline project exists to begin with. Some say it’s a good alternative to dangerous oil-by-rail shipments of Bakken crude. Those are bad too. We don’t need more fossil fuels making it to market to be burned and burn the planet up in turn (I am typing this in Wisconsin as the temperature nears 70 on the first of November). We do all need clean water. As the Sioux say, mni wiconi–water is life.

To keep to its construction schedule, the pipeline company, Energy Transfer Partners, has met nonviolent water protectors with private security guards using attack dogs in a scene reminiscent of 1963 Birmingham. It has worked hand-in-glove with law enforcement and the National Guard to create a militarized response straight out of apartheid South Africa or occupied Ireland. It has locked up hundreds of protesters in wire cages like those used early on at Guantanamo Bay. Those on the ground fear something like another Kent State, yet they keep coming, and the worldwide solidarity has gone viral.

Water protectors approach a line of riot police and armored vehicles on October 15. Photo by the author.

Yet for all that, when I went out to camp with the water protectors at Oceti Sakowin on October 13, I had to rely on a friend’s hand-drawn sketch posted to Facebook for directions to the camp. If you Google “NoDAPL map,” you’ll find few maps available to provide visual context for the unfolding drama. The most popular seems to be the company’s own very-small-scale route map, showing a dotted line over highlighted counties on a generic road map backdrop.

Dakota Access Pipeline Route Map by Energy Transfer Partners

This kind of view erases the people affected by the pipeline–quite literally, by covering over their communities with a hot pink gradient fill. It doesn’t tell you that all of Turtle Island (North America) is Indian Country, or that the project runs headlong into international treaties signed between the U.S. and various tribes and then unilaterally violated by Congress. It doesn’t show you where the frontline communities have set up camp to fight back (and here I realize that I should also make a map of the Bold Iowa resistance camp), or where the pipeline company, spurred on by the internal pressure of their $3.8 billion investment, has bulldozed sacred ground, or where exactly a pipeline break would endanger the drinking water of millions downstream.

There was one other, better map of the project that I found and was partially inspired by–a relatively simple yet powerful map by Jordan Engle published by The Decolonial Atlas. It uses the indigenous placenames for key waterways and sites in the vicinity of the Sacred Stones Camp (translations are on the blog post linked to above). It is oriented to the south, challenging the typical viewpoint of Western maps. This map has truly not gotten the attention it deserves.

Dakota Access Pipeline Indigenous Protest Map by Jordan Engle and Dakota Wind, The Decolonial Atlas.

Maps like this are great, and there should be more of them. However, I felt strongly that there still needed to be a map of the area that would look familiar to most viewers and orient them to the important geographic facts of the struggle. I don’t claim that none of those facts are currently in dispute, but I recognize that all maps (even road maps overlaid with pink polygons) take a position and create knowledge based on the cartographer’s point of view. Maps have great power, and it’s a power anyone with pen and paper or a computer can wield.

My Wisconsin-bred geographer hero Zoltan Grossman once declared, “The side with the best maps wins.” The pipeline company has an army backed by state power to do its bidding. The water has its scrappy protectors. It’s time we put the latter on the map.

To download a large-scale printable version of the map, click here.

This post and the map have been corrected to indicate that the 1851 Treaty territory is former Sioux territory, not unceded land as originally stated. In fact, this land was ceded by the Sioux to the U.S. under the terms of Article 2 of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. While the latter treaty was signed by a plurality of Sioux chiefs, some chiefs did not sign because they refused to agree to any land cessions, and at least one of those who did sign (Red Cloud) later claimed he was misled regarding these treaty terms and believed he was merely signing a treaty of peace. See Edward Lazarus’s excellent book Black Hills, White Justice for more of this history.

The post has also been updated to remove reference to citizen protests against the original route in Bismarck, which I have not found a first-hand record of.

WebGIS is Fun and So Can You

I’ve written this post to accompany the talk I gave on August 31 to the UW Cartography Lab’s Education Series special two-day workshop in partnership with Mapbox. I was asked to talk about JavaScript and Turf.js. Give my mixed audience, I thought talking about Turf right away would be putting the cart a bit before the horse—first, I needed to build a simple web GIS app that could use Turf. So this 1-hour talk turned into an as-noob-friendly-as-possible walkthrough of building such an app.

To start, here are the slides I used; really, just an outline of my talk.

The link on the second slide goes to a dropboxed zip file containing two directories: one called “initial” and another called “final.” The “initial” directory contains a boilerplate HTML file that I used to begin my live app-building demo and a data directory with two zip files. The “final” directory contains the final app script and data files. I’ll be walking through the “final” version, but you can start with “initial” and try to build it out yourself for practice.

Slide 3 is what I called the “Sam Matthews Mantra.” Sam Matthews is this awesome guy who I used to work side-by-side with in the Cart Lab back in 2012 and now works at Mapbox; his visit to Madison was the original impetus for this “reunion” event. Yesterday, he gave a talk on the basic structure of slippy maps, including the four ingredients: tiles, library, data, and internet. But for the purposes of my tutorial, I modified this mantra a bit (slide 4) to outline the parts of my demo: library, tiles, data, and analysis.

To create my app, I first needed to load some helper libraries. The app uses jQuery to interface with the DOM (Document Object Model, the structure of a website) and facilitate asynchronous communication between the browser and server. For the actual mapping, I used Leaflet, now the most popular open-source JavaScript library for creating web maps. The spatial analysis components that make this a web GIS app uses Turf.js, but I’ll get into that library more later. I call the libraries from remotely hosted sources using some simple script tags in the <body> section of index.html:


Leaflet also requires its own stylesheet, linked in the header:


With Leaflet imported, we can build a basic map with the following JavaScript code within the $(document).ready callback function (this bit of jQuery causes the browser to wait until the entire page is loaded before executing the JavaScript):


Awesome—I now have a Leaflet map; you can tell by the zoom button in the upper-left corner. Note that I am running the app through a Localhost server, rather than double-clicking on the index.html file. Some browsers (Chrome especially) strongly dislike loading data outside of a server, so it’s always best to set one up first. If you don’t want to go through the rigmarole to set up something permanent on your machine, a great temporary solution is to run your app through a preprocessor app such as prepros or codekit.


(The text and “Click me!” button were included in the “initial.html” template).

It’s not really much of a slippy map, though, without some map tiles. Nowadays, I like to choose tilesets for my Leaflet apps that are included in the Leaflet Providers Preview. Leaflet-providers is a small plug-in for Leaflet that lets you use a shorthand tileset name instead of a full tileset URL to create a Leaflet tile layer, but the Preview site is itself a handy tool that gives you the full code for creating the tile layer if you don’t want to download the plug-in. For my purposes in this demo, I just copied and pasted the code for the Stamen Watercolor tileset:


A little explanation of the above: L.tileLayer is a method of Leaflet that creates a tile layer. It takes two parameters: a URL with variables (letters inside curly braces) that are replaced by the library automatically depending on which tiles are called from the server, and an options object with any of several options for the tile layer. The addTo method then adds the new tile layer to the Leaflet map object, contained by the map variable.

With tiles loading, it’s time for data! For the demo, I chose to use two datasets from Natural Earth, the go-to website for popular global datasets covering cultural, physical/natural, and raster themes. The two datasets I chose were States and Provinces and Populated Places, both at the 1:50 million (medium) scale (unbeknownst to either of us before hand, John Czaplewski, who presented after me, chose the exact same datasets for his live PostGIS demo). To prevent any snafus with the Natural Earth site (it was being slow when I tested it the night before), I went ahead and included these two shapefiles in the “initial” demo folder, each in its own zip archive (“” and “”).

If you’ve ever worked with GIS software, you probably know what a shapefile is. Really, it’s a collection of several different files with different components of a geospatial dataset (the .shp component contains the geometry data, while other components contain attribute data, metadata, etc.). Shapefiles are a popular standard format for GIS data (though not usually the best one for spatial analysis tasks), but they’re pretty useless for web apps. Instead, the standard geospatial data format for the web has become the GeoJSON format.

A handy tool for converting shapefiles to GeoJSONs is mapshaper, created by UW alumnus and New York Times graphics wiz Matt Bloch. We can import a shapefile to mapshaper by just dragging the .shp part of the file and dropping it on the site, but that will result in only the geometries being converted to GeoJSON without any attributes. We want the attributes, so we need the whole shapefile; luckily, mapshaper lets us import a zip file containing it. Once we’ve uploaded a shapefile, mapshaper should display something like this:

The populated places shapefile in mapshaper

Mapshaper is a great little program. It allows you to quickly and easily simplify polygon geometries, reducing the file size. In this case, though, all we want it to do is spit the data back out as a GeoJSON. For this, we click on “Export” in the upper-right corner, then choose “GeoJSON” and hit “Export” again. This should cause a .json file to download. To make accessing the data easier, I renamed each file “places.geojson” and “states.geojson,” respectively.

Now, just what is a GeoJSON? It’s a geospatial variant of JSON, which stands for “JavaScript Object Notation.” Essentially, it’s a more picky formatting of a JavaScript “object,” which is really not an object in the true object-oriented programming sense but rather a type of map or dictionary data container. To see what this looks like, neatly formatted, we can import our new GeoJSON data into another handy little web app called, an open-source project largely created by Mapbox’s Tom MacWright. Here is our populated places file displayed in it:


On the right-hand side of the window, you can see the object structure of the file, which consists of nested key-value pairs. Every GeoJSON has a "type" which is always "FeatureCollection", and every one always has a "features" property consisting of an array of features. This will become important when we use Turf.js to operate on the data. Each feature in turn has a "type", which is always "feature", a "geometry" which is an object containing the feature geometry as one or more geographic coordinate pairs (always in the WGS 84 coordinate system), and a "properties" object consisting of the attributes, if any. Note that this is similar to a shapefile in that it doesn’t encode any relationships between features, or topology in GIS speak (there is another web spatial data format, TopoJSON, which does encode topology, but we won’t get into that in this tutorial).

Now that we have our data in the right format, we need to load it into our code and onto the map. Loading data into a JavaScript program is trickier than it sounds, but it’s worth taking the time to show you how to do it right. Some tutorials out there will tell you to just assign a variable to the code in each JSON file and bring it into the site with HTML <script> tags, but if you’re loading geographic datasets (which tend to be large), this has a tendency to bog down the loading of your page. It’s much better to load the data asynchronously, adding it to the page after it has loaded into the script. But this means that the rest of your script will have executed before your data is loaded. Thus, you need a special function called an AJAX callback to make use of your data only after it has been loaded by the browser.

First, we need to make sure our .geojson files are stored in the “data” folder of our working directory. Then, we can use one of jQuery’s many helpful AJAX methods to load the data into our script. Because we have two datasets we need to load, it’s best to load them in parallel (at the same time) and only call the function that uses the data (the callback) after both files have loaded. To do this with jQuery, we can use the $.when method:


Note that the two $.getJSON methods are actually parameters of the $.when method, so there should be a comma between them, and no semicolons in between or after them (I ran into trouble with this both in practicing for the demo and doing it). Each one of these .getJSON methods calls a data file and then executes a separate callback for that file, which saves the file’s data to a property of an object I created previously (data). Finally, the .then method calls the overall callback function after the data has loaded, which I’ve named addData. Now, I’ve put a few carts before the horse here; let’s back up and take a look and where I define the data object and the addData function, above the AJAX call:


Again, this code is above the $.when method in the script. Here, I’m first defining two objects: data, which (as we have already seen) will hold the GeoJSON data, and dataLayers, which will hold Leaflet’s rendering of that data into layer objects that can go on our map.

Then I define the callback function, addData. By the time this function executes, the $.getJSON callbacks have already saved each file’s GeoJSON data to properties of the data object, so I can go ahead and take a look at the structure of that object in the console and see that my data is indeed present:

GeoJSON objects neatly formatted in the Firebug console

Now that I have this data, I can use Leaflet’s L.geoJson method to stick each layer on the map. This method takes two parameters: the data I want to turn into a map layer, and an options object that can hold a number of different layer options. For the states layer, I’ve given it some style options to override Leaflet’s defaults. For the places layer, I’m using the pointToLayer option to create a function that iterates over each point feature and turns it into a Leaflet circleMarker, which I have styled to look like a moderately-sized black dot. Each L.geoJson method is chained to the .addTo(map) method to add it to the map, and the resulting layer object is assigned to a property of the dataLayers object I created above the addData function, allowing for later access.

Here is what my map now looks like:



With data on the map, we are ready for the fourth and final step, which makes this a true WebGIS: analysis. Now, as you can see in my HTML and the image above, I have included a large “Click me!” button in the boilerplate for the app. A good WebGIS should be interactive; you want to allow your users to perform operations on the data, not just do what you think they want to do for them. Since this is a simplified demo, I figured I would just include one button instead of several to demonstrate the concept. At the end of the tutorial, each click of the button will do something different and interesting to the data.

Before we get there, to keep our code neat and make sure the analysis only gets performed after the data is loaded, we need a new function called from within addData to put our analysis tasks in. I’ve called this function analyze, and pass it the two objects I created, data and dataLayers. If you’re working from the “initial” index.html file, you will want to move the $('#mybutton').click listener and clickme callback function inside of this analyze function. Inside analyze, we will perform three types of analysis using Turf.js: a point-in-polygon test, creation of a bounding box, and creation of a triangulated irregular network (TIN). To have our button do each of these in turn, we will create a counter and increment it each time the button is clicked, calling a different analysis function for each counter value.


Before we go further, the thing to know about Turf is that its methods operate very much like toolboxes in ArcGIS: you put one or more layers in and you get a new layer out. The big difference is that in this case, each layer is in GeoJSON format, either an individual feature or an entire FeatureCollection. Turf includes dozens of helpful analysis tools that can all be run client-side in the browser. This gets an A+ for convenience and interactivity, but a C or D for performance. If you’re using big data or have a complex series of tasks to run, fire up Arc or Q or Python and skip the JavaScript.

Now, let’s create our point-in-polygon function. A point-in-polygon test is a classic problem in computational geometry and has all sorts of applications in GIS. Turf’s .within method accomplishes this test. It takes two parameters—a set of points and a set of polygons—and returns a new FeatureCollection containing just the points that are within the polygons. So, say we want to find the populated places within the U.S. lower 48 states. Since our states dataset has states and provinces for other countries as well, we will first have to pick out only U.S. states that aren’t Alaska or Hawaii and add them to the features array of a new FeatureCollection. We can do this with a piece of native JavaScript, a .forEach loop:


Now that we have our subset of states—stored in the usStates variable—we can use it to perform our point-in-polygon test, and view the results in the console:



There are 94 populated places within the U.S. Lower 48 out of our original dataset. To put these on the map, we can simply create a new L.geoJson layer (this time with red dots) and add it to the map. We can also replace the places component of our data object with the new dataset, so that our next two analysis operations are only operating on the U.S. places.


Now when we click on the “Click me!” button, we should see this result:


That was actually the hardest Turf analysis I got to in the demo. I wanted to get the tough one out of the way first, I guess. The next two are much more simple. First, the bounding box:


This uses Turf’s .envelope method to return a polygon encompassing all vertices. Once again, it makes a call to L.geoJson to plunk the bounding box onto the map. Voilá:


Finally, we’ll create a TIN using our U.S. Places as the input dataset. Turf’s .tin method takes the dataset and optionally the name of an attribute that can be used as a z value for each vertex. This results in polygons that have three properties: a, b, and c, the z values. We can use this data to shade the triangles; in this case, I chose to calculate the averages of the three values and use each polygon’s average to derive its percentage of the highest average z value in the dataset. I then set this percentage as the opacity of the polygon to make the data visible.


Here is the result (after three button clicks):


That’s about it for this demo. Of course, there are lots of ways to use Turf that don’t involve Leaflet; since it speaks GeoJSON, it’s compatible with a wide variety of other libraries and frameworks. Hopefully this has been a useful intro to open source WebGIS tools and inspires you to go do something cool.

Carbon Emergency Infrastructures

The following post contains the transcript and images from a talk I gave at the UW-Madison Geography Symposium a couple days ago. Since I wrote the whole thing out, I thought I would go ahead and share it here.


The Carbon Pollution Emergency Act of 2022 has been heralded by historians as the first bold step against global warming taken in the United States. It implemented a heavy carbon tax on all fossil fuels and progressively restricting the amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas that could be produced or imported each year. The Act made it official federal policy to reach 100% renewable electricity generation by 2050. Proceeds of the carbon tax and a reduction in military spending were used provide 90% rebates on small-scale solar and wind energy systems for homes and fund the replacement of fossil fuel electricity plants with wind and solar farms. In the transportation sector, the Act placed a moratorium on the building of new roads and airports and boost funding for mass transit systems by over 1,000%…

 Such a scenario might seem far-fetched today. But not much is invented without imagining it first. Think of all the tablets and cell phones we have now, even 3D printers—all technologies that were dreamed up on Star Trek in the sixties. If we can dream it, we can do it. And I’ve been dreaming. And since I’m a cartographer, my dreams look like maps. The focal point of my dreams up to this point has mostly been the transportation sector, since it’s big, it’s visible, and it entails nifty-looking machines that go “vroom!”


I was inspired to share some of my dreams with you by some conversations during the CHE Symposium about the concept of infrastructure, and the question of whether nature can be conceived of as infrastructure. While I don’t see nature as a form of infrastructure, infrastructure does have a large role in shaping nature. This is particularly true of transportation infrastructure, as it has reshaped much of this country’s landscape and is our second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, after electricity. So come along and dream with me for the next few minutes about what a transportation future with a lighter carbon footprint could look like.

I want to start here:

Take a long walk off a short bridge?

This is the main east-west highway in Cuba. When I visited Cuba in 2005, we traveled part of this highway in a beat-up old school bus. We passed a number of unfinished bridges like this one, along with interchanges with dirt exit ramps leading to nowhere. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba underwent a Carbon Emergency, what they call the Special Period. Overnight, they no longer had an overpaying buyer of their sugar and tobacco exports, so they no longer had money to import fossil fuels. Driving suddenly became very expensive. What you unfortunately can’t see in this picture, and I couldn’t find a good picture of, is all of the bicyclists, pack animals, and hitchhikers that I witnessed making use of the four-lane expressway. While Cuba is slowly being reintegrated into the fossil fuel economy, it still serves as a model for what a post-carbon or largely post-carbon society could look like. And it’s not that bad. The point I want to make here is that this highway is not abandoned, just repurposed. It changed my way of thinking about post-carbon infrastructures. New stuff takes more energy to build, and at least in the near term, that necessarily means it needs more fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources. We shouldn’t necessarily be thinking of how to build shiny new things, but rather how to repurpose the immense and under-cared-for infrastructures we already have to utilize them without fossil fuels.


The first cartographic imaginary I created along these lines involved a commuter rail system for Madison. I designed this map over the summer of 2014. Railroads were the first nationwide transportation infrastructure designed to move people and goods quickly over land, so this would be a renewal of an old idea rather than a new idea. At least 60 percent of this proposed urban rail transit network would use existing railroad rights of way.


Conducting a bit of GIS analysis, I found that this system would put about 21% of the Dane County population and 47% of the county’s jobs within a half-mile of a station. The system-wide use would be higher still when considering the network of park-and-rides and bus transfer points that would allow it to interface with other forms of surface transportation.

This brings up an important point: the goal of a carbon emergency infrastructure cannot simply be to replace fossil fuel infrastructures, as this is not realistic in the near term. It must interface with them and make it convenient for humans to shift their habits away from heavily consumptive transportation. Imagine how much quicker and easier it would be to take a train from home in Schenk-Atwood or South Park Street to campus than drive a car or cram onto a bus. Young people, old people, and anyone else without a driver’s license would have more freedom to move and more jobs accessible to them. Mass transit is a racial justice issue as well, as those in the black community are less likely to have driver’s licenses than average due to poverty and institutional discrimination. Economists who think about mass transit say that it creates “positive externalities,” or virtuous feedback loops that benefit society at large. One of these is the “Mohring Effect,” the observation that better mass transit service creates more demand, which in turn increases the frequency of service, reducing travel times, creating more demand, and so on.

After completing the urban commuter map, I began to wonder how I might extend a vision for better mass transit outward to rural Wisconsin. Where I went to college, up north, we were fortunate enough to have a regional bus system with one route that ran every two hours on weekdays. This is to say, it was a valiant effort with the very limited funding available, but not very useful to your average commuter. Most parts of the state don’t even have that. I first thought of rebuilding the railroads, as per my Madison transit idea. But the extensive railroad network that used to exist in Wisconsin has largely gone to pot and would cost billions to rebuild. Why not pick up some lower-hanging fruit?

Potential bus routes in northern Wisconsin

During trips out to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, I used their regional bus system, which has more frequent service and quite effectively connects isolated towns across multiple counties. I thought, Wisconsin can do that, and better. So for the past year, in my very limited spare time, I have been working on concocting a transit map with the premise of bus routes with hourly service on every federal and state highway in Wisconsin. This infrastructure uses the road base that already exists, but reimagines it as a more efficient and less deadly people-carrying network. Rides would be pooled onto fast, clean electric buses with professional, sober drivers. Regular bus service, especially in the evenings, would reduce the epidemic of drunk driving in rural Wisconsin, where every burgh has a bar or two and driving is currently the only way to get home. The roads themselves need less maintenance, as fewer cars and trucks create less wear and tear on the pavement. The bus system brings freedom of movement and opportunities for breathing new economic life into the impoverished countryside.


Get on the bus!

The primary investment needed would be in the moving parts of the infrastructure, the buses. These could be made all-electric using newer battery and fuel cell technologies, or run on cleaner forms of biodiesel, or some combination. They could largely be made out of recycled metals and plastics from decommissioned war machines and old pop bottles and grocery bags. Some nonrenewable resources would still be required.


Let’s go play in the park!

Mass transit need not only be used for commuting to and from employment. Recreation has a place in our imaginaries too. And like access to jobs and other privileges that come with mobility, access to recreational and relaxation opportunities can and should be enhanced by mass transit. With a relatively small grant, the City of Madison could begin offering round-trip service to nearby state parks on summer weekends, making these oases accessible to young people and low income folks who can’t afford the gas and the park entry fee.

Passengers board a shuttle bus in Zion National Park. National parks provide shuttle buses to alleviate automobile congestion and reduce air pollution.


In this imaginary, city buses not in use during the more limited weekend service routes would be driven by Metro drivers who want to earn overtime pay while enjoying some time away from the city themselves. The buses begin from downtown, stopping at outlying transfer points for greater convenience, and spend the day traveling to and around the recreation area before returning home in the evening. From Madison, Parkbus routes could service a number of parks and recreation areas within an hour’s drive on different weekends throughout the summer, including Devil’s Lake, Blue Mounds, Governor Dodge, Kettle Moraine State Forest, and Wisconsin Dells. Service to the same area on both Saturday and Sunday facilitates overnight campouts. Urban citizens have the opportunity to relax and rejuvenate in nature without having to drive there. The most crowded parks, like Devil’s Lake and Governor Dodge, no longer have to contend with paving over more of their land as parking lots, and their air is cleaner too, all because urbanites have the option of taking the bus instead of driving.


To close, I want to take us back home to Madison and consider the one form of wheeled transportation that is closest to being carbon-neutral. That, of course, is biking. Madison is already a great place to commute by bicycle. It is currently ranked the 7th-most bike friendly city in the U.S. by Bicycling Magazine. On the other hand, we’re 7th, just behind hill-infested San Francisco! Madison can do better!

Cyclists ride past Monona Terrace on the Capitol City Bike Path. Image from Shifting Gears, Wisconsin Historical Museum

One way to encourage more bike commuting is to improve existing commuter routes while reducing the convenience of driving. The most heavily used bike corridor in Madison, the Capitol City Path across the Isthmus, sees close to a thousand cyclists a day on average during peak season. But it requires frequent stops for cross-traffic on very minor streets, as well as tedious and dangerous crossings of two of the city’s busiest intersections. To get to campus that way, you have to go out of the way along Monona Bay before turning north. On my own commute to campus from the East Side, rather than deal with this detour, I ride Gorham and Johnson streets, which have very heavy car traffic and are downright treacherous in winter. But what if the existing bike corridor were re-envisioned as a “no-stop zone” for bikes, the nation’s first bicycle expressway? Think about the new raised pedestrian crossing on Park Street at the end of Library Mall. Why can’t such crossings be added to the existing bike path to give cyclists a smoother ride? On local streets, cars should be made to stop for bikes instead of the other way around. A cut-through bike path could be constructed alongside the train tracks that cut the corner from Broom Street to West main.



Two new bicycle overpasses would carry cyclists quickly and safely across John Nolan Drive at North Shore and across Williamson Street at the Blair/John Nolan intersection, as well as a reconfiguration of the current “bike boulevard” along East Wilson Street to put bikes in a partitioned express track.


Plans by the Madison Design Professionals Workgroup for a covered-over Blair Street/John Nolan Drive

It turns out I am not the only person thinking about such things. The Madison Design Professionals Workgroup recently put forward a proposal to cover up John Nolan Drive to improve local pedestrian, bike, and rail connections between downtown and the Isthmus. Their plan is driven more by aesthetics than sustainability and would use a lot more nonrenewable resources, but does incorporate bicycle and commuter rail components. It could easily include my vision for a bike expressway (and if the designers are smart, I think they will). Of course, this plan is much more thought out than mine, and by people who actually get paid to do this stuff. To date, all of my doodling has been stuff I’ve daydreamed in my spare time. But who knows? Even daydreams can sometimes make their way into the world.

Printing in Leaflet

It’s been a while since I posted anything to this blog, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy. I’ve been having all kinds of adventures working with Leaflet and making it do interesting things it probably wasn’t intended for. I’ll try to catch up with writing about some of these over the next few posts.

My most recent triumph involves printing a Leaflet map. Now, I know what you’re going to say: Why would you print a Leaflet map? Aside from the snarky answer why not?, the project I’m working on requires a map that is both interactive and can go where there are no mobile devices or internet access, and that requires printing.

Before I get into the technical stuff, I want to briefly expound on the broader implications of what I’m about to cover. We in the cartography world are generally split down the middle when it comes to media: either you make static maps for print or you make interactive web maps. Generally, the only crossovers are static maps that get plopped online Web 1.0-style, as images or PDFs. I think it’s high time we start thinking about transcending these media silos with our maps. Like, can you print an SVG graphic generated by D3? Sure you can, but can you control the scale at which it prints and make it look good? Similarly, how do we make zoomable, panable slippy maps, with all the advantages those entail for web users, and make them printable as a resource for those who need to draw on top of them or pick them up and take them where reliable internet access doesn’t exist?

The specific map I’ve been working on for a little over a year now is wikimap of data collected in eastern Senegal, which will enable trusted users with local knowledge to edit the data and contribute new data. One of the requirements of the application is that it be printable as posters to take to village meetings. The map utilizes an underlying satellite imagery tileset, a custom tileset with the polygon and line data (hosted with Tilestrata on Amazon AWS, which is a whole other blog post waiting to happen), and the point data as overlays added with your typical L.geoJson calls.

Couloirs Transhumance,
a map of herding routes in eastern Senegal

One challenge is that the map covers such a huge geographic area and includes so much data that a printed version of the entire thing would be unintelligible unless printed on a very large poster. Thus, users need to be able to choose both the scale of the map they print and the paper size, and they need to be able to preview what they’re going to print. So I built a print preview window.

Teh Printerface!

First of all, notice there are no satellite image tiles on the map. Satellite images are basically photos (but from spaaaaaaaace). Have you ever tried printing a photo at 72 dpi? It looks. like. crap. Likewise, raster tilesets look like crap when printed. Ditch ’em.


But I still wanted to take advantage of Leaflet’s smooth interaction capabilities to allow the user to control the map view that they’re going to print. Thus, I created a new Leaflet map with no base layer and L.geoJson overlays for all of the mapped data, including the two-dimensional features that are burned into my custom tileset on the main map. When there are thousands of SVG paths and raster icons on the map, it slows things down a bit. So I had to kill scroll wheel zoom and get the zoom buttons off the map anyway, since they’re not going to be present on the final printout. Hence the scale bar, which represents the Leaflet zoom levels as tics on a line to give users an idea of how close they are to the minimum or maximum zoom.

You’ll notice that under the scale bar is an actual, honest-to-godess ratio scale, which applies to the printed map. Okay, so there’s like, A LOT of math behind this, because the map scale varies based on latitude, zoom level of the map, page size, and the size and shape of the preview window. Here’s the code:

function adjustScale(){
    //change symbol sizes and ratio scale according to paper size
    var prevWidth = $("#printPreview").width();
    var prevHeight = $("#printPreview").height();
    var longside = getLongside();
    //find the mm per pixel ratio
    var mmppPaper = prevWidth > prevHeight ? longside / prevWidth : longside / prevHeight;
    var mapZoom = printPreviewMap.getZoom();
    var scaleText = $("#printBox .leaflet-control-scale-line").html().split(" ");
    var multiplier = scaleText[1] == "km" ? 1000000 : 1000;
    var scalemm = Number(scaleText[0]) * multiplier;
    var scalepx = Number($("#printBox .leaflet-control-scale-line").width());
    var mmppMap = scalemm / scalepx;
    var denominator = Math.round(mmppMap / mmppPaper);
    $("#ratioScale span").text(denominator);
    return [mmppMap, mmppPaper];

function getLongside(){
    //get longside in mm minus print margins
    var size = $("#paperSize select option:selected").val();
    var series = size[0];
    var pScale = Number(size[1]);
    var longside;
    if (series == "A"){ //equations for long side lengths in mm, minus 10mm print margins
        longside = Math.floor(1000/(Math.pow(2,(2*pScale-1)/4)) + 0.2) - 20;
    } else if (series == "B"){
        longside = Math.floor(1000/(Math.pow(2,(pScale-1)/2)) + 0.2) - 20;
    return longside;

What the printerface does is give the user access to all of these variables, and change the map scale depending on them. Fortunately, international paper sizes greatly simplify this math by maintaining the same aspect ratio (√2) regardless of size. If the window size changes, the preview map can change size proportionally and still represent the printed page. In order to better represent what the printout will look like, the ratios allow for automatically adjusting the size of the symbols on the map based on the window size or chosen paper size. So if the user changes the paper size to, say, A1 (a typical poster size), the preview map looks like this:


Note that the ratio scale has increased quite a bit. Think about what this will look like when it turns into a 841 mm x 594 mm poster. The bounding box has been preserved, symbols will be the same proportions relative to each other as in the preview, and they will be the same absolute size as the symbols printed on any other page size (8 mm wide for the icons). Also note the new labels for village features. These are scripted to show up whenever the scale is greater than 1:250000. More on these in a minute.

The last tricky step to printing is how to actually resize everything so everything on the map prints at the right size with the correct bounding box. Folks, I’m here to tell you, figuring this out was no walk in the park. I may have prematurely lost some hair over it. In the end, the solution was as simple yet un-straightforward as the cheat that lets you beat Myst within the first five minutes (for you whipper-snappers, that’s a shameless 90’s computer game reference). Here’s the code in case you want to pick through it; if you just want the punch line, skip on down.


    //transform map pane
    var mapTransform = $("#printPreview .leaflet-map-pane").css("transform"); //get the current transform matrix
    var mmpp = adjustScale(); //get mm per css-pixel
    var multiplier = mmpp[1] * 3.7795; //multiply paper mm per css-pixel by css-pixels per mm to get zoom ratio
    var mapTransform2 = mapTransform + " scale("+ multiplier +")"; //add the scale transform
    $("#printPreview .leaflet-map-pane").css("transform", mapTransform2); //set new transformation

    //set new transform origin to capture panning
    var tfMatrix = mapTransform.split("(")[1].split(")")[0].split(", ");
    var toX = 0 - tfMatrix[4],
        toY = 0 - tfMatrix[5];
    $("#printPreview .leaflet-map-pane").css("transform-origin", toX + "px " + toY + "px");

    //determine which is long side of paper
    var sdim, ldim;
    if ($("#paperOrientation option[value=portrait]").prop("selected")){
        sdim = "width";
        ldim = "height";
    } else {
        sdim = "height";
        ldim = "width";

    //store prior dimensions for reset
    var previewWidth = $("#printPreview").css("width"),
        previewHeight = $("#printPreview").css("height")

    //set the page dimensions for print
    var paperLongside = getLongside(); //paper length in mm minus 20mm total print margins minus border
    $("#printPreview").css(ldim, paperLongside + "mm");
    $("#printPreview").css(sdim, paperLongside/Math.sqrt(2) + "mm");
    $("#container").css("height", $("#printPreview").css("height"));
    //adjust the scale bar
    var scaleWidth = parseFloat($("#printBox .leaflet-control-scale-line").css('width').split('px')[0]);
    $("#printBox .leaflet-control-scale-line").css('width', String(scaleWidth * multiplier * 1.1) + "px");
    $("#printBox .leaflet-control-scale").css({
        'margin-bottom': String(5 * multiplier * 1.1) + "px",
        'margin-left': String(5 * multiplier * 1.1) + "px"

    //adjust north arrow
    var arrowWidth = parseFloat($(".northArrow img").css('width').split("px")[0]),
        arrowMargin = parseFloat($(".northArrow").css('margin-top').split("px")[0]);
    $(".northArrow img").css({
        width: String(arrowWidth * multiplier * 1.1) + "px",
        height: String(arrowWidth * multiplier * 1.1) + "px"
        "margin-right": String(arrowMargin * multiplier * 1.1),
        "margin-top": String(arrowMargin * multiplier * 1.1)


    //reset print preview
    $("#printPreview .leaflet-map-pane").css("transform", mapTransform); //reset to original matrix transform
        width: previewWidth,
        height: previewHeight
    //reset scale bar
    $("#printBox .leaflet-control-scale-line").css('width', scaleWidth+"px");
    $("#printBox .leaflet-control-scale").css({
        'margin-bottom': "",
        'margin-left': ""
    //reset north arrow
    $(".northArrow img").css({
        width: arrowWidth + "px",
        height: arrowWidth + "px"
        "margin-right": arrowMargin,
        "margin-top": arrowMargin

Okay, here’s the punchline. The key is using a CSS transform to temporarily scale up the whole leaflet-map-pane div, which holds all of the layers in the print preview map. Leaflet already adjusts the symbol positions using a transform translation, and I need to preserve that transform to reset the map after it’s printed. But to print it, I need to add a scale transform that multiplies the size of everything by the ratio of paper millimeters per screen millimeter (which you get if you cross-multiply paper mm per pixel times pixels per screen mm). Once I figured this out, I had to figure out how to adjust the transform origin so the bounding box didn’t move out from under my paper map. This involved dissecting the transform matrix and turning the last two numbers negative as the x and y coordinates of the transform origin, which moves the whole map back up and to the left, where it should be (I still can’t keep straight why this works even after re-reading the above link, but I’m sure you mathy people can figure it out).

The rest of the above code just messes with the map div and the accessory elements to get them all the right print size, pulls the trigger, then sets everything back right for the screen viewer. Oh, I also have some helpful print CSS styles, which I’m not going to bother explaining:

@media print {
    @page {
        size: auto;
        margin: 10mm;

    body {
        /*border: 5px solid blue;*/

    #container {
        /*border: 4px solid green;*/
        position: absolute;

    #cover, #maparea, #printOptions, #ppmmtest, .closeDialog, .resize, .msg_qq {
        display: none !important;

    #printBox, #printPreview {
        position: absolute;
        bottom: 0;
        left: 0;
        top: 0;
        right: 0;
        /*border: 1px solid red;*/

    #printPreview {
        border: 1px solid black !important;
        background-color: white !important;

    #printPreview span {
        text-shadow: -1px -1px 0 #FFF, 1px -1px 0 #FFF, -1px 1px 0 #FFF, 1px 1px 0 #FFF;

    .leaflet-control-scale-line {
        text-align: center;

So yeah, that’s printing from Leaflet in a nutshell. Just to prove I’m not blowing smoke, here’s a scan of the printed version of the second screenshot of the post.


Pretty good, huh?

Now, I promised you I would talk about labels. Leaflet and labels are like Cowboy and Octopus. After all, why would you need to put labels on a Leaflet map when they’re baked into your tiles? Well, again we come to this minor issue of printed raster tiles looking like something a dung beetle would enjoy. So I needed to figure out how to plunk labels onto my map. For the area features, which are drawn as SVG overlays, I decided the easiest thing would be to just add the labels as SVG <text> elements, placing them in the center of each feature’s bounding box. Unfortunately, I’ve found that once Leaflet draws its overlays, you can’t just put new elements into the SVG and expect them to render. So I cheated a little and brought in D3 to do the job. Because D3 is magic.

//for SVG polygons, add label to center of polygon
var g = d3.selectAll('#printPreview g'),
    scaleVals = adjustScale(),
    denominator = Math.round(scaleVals[0]/scaleVals[1]),
    areaTextSize = denominator > 500000 ? '0' : String(8/scaleVals[1]),
    labelDivBounds = [];

    var gEl =,
        path ='path');
    if (path.attr('class').indexOf('|') > -1){
        var labeltext = path.attr('class').split('|')[0],
            bbox = path.node().getBBox(),
            x = bbox.x + bbox.width/2,
            y = bbox.y + bbox.height/2,
            color = path.attr('stroke'),
            textSize = x == 0 && y == 0 ? 0 : areaTextSize,
            text = gEl.append('text')
                x: x,
                y: y,
                'font-size': textSize,
                'text-anchor': 'middle',
                fill: color

One thing I want to point out here is that textSize variable. I was having a bit of trouble with a bunch of labels piling on top of each other at one particular spot on the map, because apparently once a feature is off the map, its bounding box coordinates become the negative of half the corresponding dimension of the SVG. So I just shut those labels off. There’s also a line that sets the areaTextSize to 0 if the scale is less than 1:500,000 to avoid cluttering up the map too much. There’s a similar D3 .each() loop to adjust the labels each time the map is moved or resized that I’m not showing here.

I also wanted to add labels to the village symbols on the map. But these are actually raster icons, not part of the Leaflet overlays SVG. First I played with just a straight JS loop that would use jQuery to grab the icons and plunk absolutely-positioned divs or spans on the map for each icon. This choked the browser. So then my thought was to make Leaflet do the work, creating an L.geoJson layer for all of the labels I wanted, and cooking the labels themselves with a pointToLayer function. The problem here is that the only SVG layers Leaflet creates are paths, and the only non-SVG layers Leaflet creates are icons! No text or any other elements.

So I decided to do something clever. I would trick Leaflet into putting the labels on the map by creating icons with the feature names in an alt attribute and feeding them a bad src URL! Aside from a pesky image 404 error in the Console, this worked great in Firefox. But Chrome annoyingly adds a broken image icon and cuts off the alt text; IE is a little better but still adds an X icon. So finally I decided I just had to add a label class to Leaflet. Fortunately, this wasn’t too hard. I just extended the Icon class with the bear minimum modification to create <span> elements instead of <img> elements:

L.Label = L.Icon.extend({
    _createImg: function (text, el) {
        el = el || document.createElement('span');
        el.innerHTML = text;
        return el;

L.label = function (options) {
    return new L.Label(options);

Then I just had to instantiate an L.geoJson layer and feed it my label class. Voilá! I magically had village labels on the map! (At scales of over 1:250,000, again to avoid clutter).


I did end up adjusting the CSS just a little with some in-line script and a stylesheet style:

//inline script to adjust label css
$("#printPreview span").css({
    'margin-left': pointTextSize,
    'font-size': pointTextSize,
    'line-height': pointTextSize

//css style to create label outlines for improved readability
#printPreview span {
    text-shadow: -1px -1px 0 #FFF, 1px -1px 0 #FFF, -1px 1px 0 #FFF, 1px 1px 0 #FFF;

It’s not perfect, but the end result seems to be a readable printed Leaflet map. I hope this has given those of you who want to step outside of our media silos some ideas for further experimentation!