My GSA 2020 ti­tle slide

This es­say is a tran­scrip­tion of my pre­sen­ta­tion at the Geological Society of America 2020 fall meet­ing, which, in keep­ing with the tenor of the times, was pre-recorded and pre­sented re­motely. The talk, ti­tled The map­board, reimag­ined dig­i­tally — build­ing a user in­ter­face tai­lored for field ge­o­log­i­cal map­ping, was the first pub­lic pre­sen­ta­tion of my Mapboard GIS iPad app. I’m re­ally proud of this soft­ware — it’s still very much a work in progress, but the beta is avail­able, and it will be re­leased on the pub­lic app store soon.

  • The orig­i­nal video ver­sion can be found on YouTube.
  • The ab­stract for the talk can be found at the GSA web­site.
  • The tran­script shown here has been lightly edited for clar­ity and con­ci­sion.

March 2021 up­date: Mapboard GIS is now re­leased on the pub­lic App Store!

See the re­lease an­nounce­ment and the pro­ject web­site.

Hello every­one, I’m Daven Quinn, a re­search sci­en­tist at University of Wisconsin–Madison, in the Macrostrat lab. I’m go­ing to talk to you to­day about build­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of user in­ter­face tai­lored for field ge­o­log­i­cal map­ping. This has cul­mi­nated in the Mapboard GIS iPad app, which is in beta. For more in­for­ma­tion on how to try out the app, you can head to the web­site.

Hand-drawn maps are ef­fec­tive

Imbrication in the Naukluft Nappe com­plex

This saga started for me when I be­gan a field map­ping pro­ject in the Naukluft Mountains in south­ern Namibia, which is a se­ries of fold and thrust nappes from the Neoproterozoic to Cambrian Damara ori­gin.

Hermann Korn and Henno Martin’s sem­i­nal map

At the ge­o­log­i­cal sur­vey in Windhoek, Namibia, you are con­fronted with a wall-sized, pen­cil-drawn ver­sion of this map of the Naukluft Mountains. It’s an im­pos­ing work, and a good set piece to con­sider the role of hand-drawn maps in our ge­o­logic map­ping process.

A quick but ef­fec­tive hand-drawn schematic

Hand-drawn maps are the stan­dard for ge­o­logic maps, as they have been since their in­cep­tion — and for good rea­son! In ad­di­tion to be­ing tech­ni­cally ap­proach­able, hand-drawn maps have a tac­tile na­ture that makes them very amenable to build­ing un­der­stand­ing of ge­o­logic re­la­tion­ships and phe­nom­ena by mim­ic­k­ing them on the page. While learn­ing struc­tural map­ping in field camp, I rubbed maps on my map­board raw with eraser, try­ing to cap­ture a field pat­tern that matched what I saw. This it­er­a­tive map­ping process proved highly ef­fec­tive for me, and it’s a tac­tic I con­tinue to em­ploy to this day.

Paper maps are a pain!

Preparations for a pa­per-based map­ping cam­paign

When I ar­rived in Namibia in 2015, I had this pa­per-based map­ping work­flow in mind. I ba­si­cally printed an at­las of field maps, be­cause this was an ex­ploratory map­ping pro­ject and I did­n’t quite know where the rel­e­vant de­tailed map­ping would be. I spent about $140 to print about thirty 20k map sheets and some other in­dex sheets, and spent a lot of time or­ga­niz­ing this ef­fort. And then when I got there, spent a lot of time tap­ing dif­fer­ent map sheets to map­boards.

Google Maps, a mod­ern, mul­ti­scale map plat­form

This started seem­ing a lit­tle anachro­nis­tic, since most of the maps that we in­ter­act with in daily life are by now to­tally scale-in­de­pen­dent. Even on my iPad in the field, I had a high-scale base map where you could re­solve in­di­vid­ual trees and, just as a di­gres­sion, you could see ze­bra paths that turned out to be the best paths down from the plateau.

Multiscale satel­lite basemaps help find the ze­bra trails!

But my pa­per-based map­ping work­flow kept me go­ing through my first field sea­son. I moved around be­tween dif­fer­ent field sites on the edge of the plateau, us­ing a dif­fer­ent base map at each site, and built the re­gional pic­ture by dig­i­tiz­ing points for hours in my tent us­ing QGIS un­til my bat­tery would run out.

A new, dig­i­tal work­flow

The Apple Pencil changed the game!
First stop, FieldMove? (unfortunately not)

So in this con­text, af­ter my first field sea­son, when the Apple Pencil came out, it ba­si­cally blew my mind — it seemed like by far the best tool to do high pre­ci­sion re­gional map­ping at mul­ti­ple scales. So I bought an Apple Pencil and an iPad Pro and first tried this in FieldMove and, um, it kind of worked, but it quickly be­came ap­par­ent that you could­n’t do that much work or that quickly with it. So I cor­re­sponded with Midland Valley to see if they would add a few fea­tures to make FieldMove a bet­ter plat­form for pen based dig­i­tiz­ing, and they sug­gested that they weren’t in­ter­ested in fu­ture de­vel­op­ment. So with a clas­sic amount of grad­u­ate stu­dent hubris, I rolled up my sleeves, started to learn Swift and started build­ing the field map­ping app that I wanted to see.

Mapboard GIS pri­or­i­tizes nat­ural edit­ing with sim­ple tools
Field map­ping” mode

Mapboard GIS is a stream­ing dig­i­tiz­ing app for the iPad and the Apple Pencil. It wraps a so­phis­ti­cated geospa­tial in­for­ma­tion sys­tem (GIS) back­end un­der sim­ple edit­ing tools for draw­ing and eras­ing dif­fer­ent line and poly­gon types, and it also has snap­ping ca­pa­bil­i­ties for clos­ing linework, the abil­ity to add and re­move line types, and to add dif­fer­ent units as poly­gon swatches. It also in­te­grates a layer switcher and al­lows the abil­ity to set dif­fer­ent basemaps. The sim­ple edit­ing tools pro­vided by Mapboard GIS make it easy to do even com­plex GIS op­er­a­tions us­ing the on­board Spatialite back­end.

Couch map­ping” mode, teth­ered to a com­puter
Tethered map­ping mode in ac­tion with a large dataset

When us­ing typ­i­cal field map­ping work­flows, the tran­si­tion to desk­top map pro­duc­tion is a time-con­sum­ing process. Mapboard GIS typ­i­cally runs in a field map­ping mode, us­ing an on­board Spatialite data­base that can be eas­ily read by desk­top GIS soft­ware, but it also has a couch map­ping mode,” where it runs teth­ered to the com­puter and a PostGIS spa­tial data­base. This en­ables map­ping at larger scale, us­ing the greater power of a desk­top GIS sys­tem. It also en­ables col­lab­o­ra­tive map­ping and di­rect, real-time in­ter­faces to ArcGIS and QGIS. In teth­ered mode, Mapboard GIS func­tions iden­ti­cally to how it func­tions stand­alone, but it can load much larger data sets due to co-pro­cess­ing with the more pow­er­ful com­puter.

Existing GIS work­flows are in­flex­i­ble

Point-based edit­ing sac­ri­fices speed for pre­ci­sion (TouchGIS)

You might sug­gest that, be­tween desk­top GIS soft­ware and emerg­ing field GIS tools, there are plenty of pro­grams with stream dig­i­tiz­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties, so why add an­other one? And it’s hard to over­state how im­por­tant hav­ing a sim­ple user in­ter­face is to ef­fec­tive and quick edit­ing. This ex­am­ple of TouchGIS shows the com­mon GIS prob­lem of falling back to point based edit­ing for all op­er­a­tions.

To make maps in ArcGIS, we wade through di­alogs.

But the prob­lems of tra­di­tional GIS work­flows for ge­o­logic map pro­duc­tion ac­tu­ally go much deeper. This tu­to­r­ial on how to con­struct a ge­o­logic map in ArcGIS, from Roman DiBiase’s ge­o­mor­phol­ogy lab, is a good ex­am­ple of that. Not to pick on Roman; this is one of many sim­i­lar tu­to­ri­als that I’ve found, and it is aligned with best prac­tices. The in­struc­tions cover the steps of load­ing data into ArcGIS, clos­ing and snap­ping linework, con­struct­ing poly­gons, and how to lay­out and de­sign your map.

But as we scroll down through this, all we’re see­ing is di­a­log boxes and check boxes, and more di­a­logues and, oh, there’s one point on a map, and so on… but we’re not see­ing that many maps in this process. The whole work­flow is time-con­sum­ing and very in­com­pat­i­ble with it­er­a­tive map­ping. We even­tu­ally get to a ge­o­logic map, but it needed to be fully de­fined be­fore we started the dig­i­tal process.

Iteratively solv­ing topol­ogy

Topology — units fill space be­tween con­tacts

Topology is a prop­erty that ge­o­logic maps share with other space-fill­ing pla­nar graphs, and it’s the rea­son why you usu­ally have to solve the line work of a map be­fore adding poly­gons — the poly­gons must be math­e­mat­i­cally solved from the linework. Mapboard GIS has a built-in it­er­a­tive topo­log­i­cal solver, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to solve the linework of a ge­o­logic map as you draw it.

The topol­ogy-edit­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties of Mapboard GIS, ap­plied in south­ern Utah

This is a ge­o­logic map of the Hurricane, Utah and Zion National Park re­gion, and here we’re draw­ing new unit poly­gons in ar­eas not cov­ered by our orig­i­nal map. We can en­close ar­eas with linework and change the units within those ar­eas, and the poly­gon will snap out to fill the space bounded by these con­tacts. Then we can add an­other en­clos­ing poly­gon around this mesa and as­sign it to the cor­rect map unit; we can do the same for an area of prob­a­ble col­lu­vium.

Then, if we look at our pre­vi­ously dig­i­tized linework, it’s pos­si­ble to change the map that has al­ready been cre­ated. We can also add new poly­gon types and de­tached topol­ogy seg­ments. This is a re­ally pow­er­ful tool, and in my opin­ion also ex­tremely good for teach­ing, be­cause you can show stu­dents how to cre­ate a ge­o­logic map and have them see the re­sults re­turned to them in near real time.

Tethered mode with man­aged topol­ogy
The teth­ered map­ping mode sup­ports con­tin­u­ously up­dat­ing large topolo­gies

All of this topol­ogy work can be done us­ing the on­board Spatialite data­base in Mapboard GIS, but the re­ally ef­fec­tive way to work with topol­ogy is to use the fully re­al­ized ver­sion of the teth­ered map­ping mode with a topo­log­i­cally en­abled PostGIS data­base. Another pro­ject that I have cre­ated that is closely re­lated to, but in­de­pen­dent from, Mapboard GIS is this PostGIS Geologic Map pro­ject, which man­ages a schema and an it­er­a­tive topol­ogy solver that can work with any GIS sys­tem. Here is an ex­am­ple of PostGIS Geologic Map be­ing used within QGIS at the Wisconsin Geologic Survey. Using Mapboard GIS in con­junc­tion with PostGIS Geologic Map al­lows you to solve topol­ogy in real time, even for very large ge­o­logic maps.

Conclusions and next steps

Southern Naukluft Mountains, Namibia
NE Syrtis Major, Mars (pa­per)
Little Ambergris Cay

The Mapboard GIS app has been used in con­junc­tion with the PostGIS Geologic Map topol­ogy solver in sev­eral map­ping pro­jects by my­self and col­lab­o­ra­tors: this pre­lim­i­nary ge­o­logic map of the south­ern Naukluft Mountains, some of my PhD map­ping in north­east Syrtis Major, Mars and fi­nally, a large-scale col­lab­o­ra­tive map­ping pro­ject at Little Ambergris Cay, Turks and Caicos Islands.

I think Mapboard GIS has path-break­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties that il­lu­mi­nate the pos­si­bil­i­ties of good user-in­ter­face de­sign to in­form bet­ter work­flows in the geo­sciences. The next steps for this pro­ject are a va­ri­ety of per­for­mance fixes and op­ti­miza­tions, a few new fea­tures, and most crit­i­cally a pub­lic app store re­lease. But for now, you can check out the beta app on TestFlight. So head to the web­site for more in­for­ma­tion, and thank you very much for lis­ten­ing!