Behind my GIS: How not to ask for a map

This blogpost evolved from different situations where I was asked to draw a map or to do a GIS-based analysis of ancient stuff (inscriptions, tombs, Roman provinces, finding spots etc.). In one of my weak moments, I desperately placed the following question on Twitter which genereated some interesting answers:

Let’s be honest, there are a ton of really good ressources on the internet one can use to actually “draw a map”. But what about the points in this map? What do I want with those points? Actually, a lot of people understand, why a GIS (=geographic information system) can be useful. My professors and advisors all knew and know very well that it is a really good thing to analyse your findings based on their spatial and geographic data. Where are those findings located, what is nearby, how many of them, date, time, etc. So, a GIS is more than a map. People are basically aware that a “geographic information system (GIS) is a conceptualized framework that provides the ability to capture and analyze spatial and geographic data.” (check Wikipedia for a short overview)

My first steps in the world of GIS and software like QGIS were like the first steps of every noob (remember the #happynoob-policy we epigrammetrists like). I did basically a lot of learning on the job. Archaeologists and maps of findings and excavations and so on – you name it, I was always involved with those things somehow in my practical education. Later on I found myself often in the situation to do those things all by myself – a lot of wokshop material, notes on online tutorials, books and articles on the topic are now collected and stored in my bookshelves. I even began to teach the basics of GIS for classics and I really enjoy doing so. I never thought of it like that but for the preparation of my courses I experienced my highest learning curve ever for technical stuff. Also, motivation is a big help. It is fun. Who would have known? I really like teaching digital classics. But still, there is a lot to learn and I am by no means an expert. But I can read, I can ask people who are experts, … 😉 That’s how we roll.

But back to our topic – how not to ask for a map or any GIS-related stuff: Here are my best three stories.

The “Knock knock.” – “Who’s there?” scenario

Person (P) in need of a map: “It’s me, XY told me you can draw me a map, I need one for my article.”
Me: “Sure, what’s it about?”
P: “You know, just basic stuff, province borders, location of cities mentioned in the text…”
Me: “Sure, do you have a list of the places? What Roman province and what timeframe are we speaking of?”
P hands over article
Me: “Oh, well, that will take some time… Next week? I have to look up the geographic information for each of those 65 cities and finding spots.”
P stunned: “Can’t you do it now?”
Me: “Er, yeah, I will start tonight, I have some free time left… But there are 65 locations… and it’s Friday and I like my weekends. I will send it to you Monday or Tuesday morning…”
P: “But what is taking that long? I just need some points on a map…”
Me: “But you like them to be correct? Like any other information concerning borders, topography etc.?”
P: “Well, sure, but the deadline of the article is on Sunday… You know what, just give it back to me, I’ll do it myself with this one map. I will do it with Paint and I will just do the dotting myself… You made this really complicated…”
P leaves my office

Happend to me at least… six, seven times? With people I admire and whom I want to help. Really.
But: Please, don’t come at the last possible moment, because for a completely new designed map, even without any extras, I need my time. At least some hours to collect all the coordinates, to choose the right setting, then working out a nice layout… If I am very quick and working like a machine: 6 hours, including me eating, taking breaks and still being highly relaxed. So, at least, a working day. I have a job and appointments as well as commitments on the side, too. So, let’s say, I will need three days, because there are always other appointments and deadlines. But you will get a really nice and shiny and perfect looking map.


The “I’m not tech-savvy, but you’ll do this in the most perfect way.” scenario

P: “Hey, I sent you a pic with finding spots criss-crossed on that location we were talking about yesterday. Can you draw a map?”
Me: “Yeah, well, sure, but… Do you just have this picture or…”
P: “No, I can give you the printed plan.”
Me taking everything I get: “That… may be good enough to work with. Do you have any digital data on this?”
P: “Oh, you know me, I am ‘old’, I leave that to your generation. You are all computer cracks.
Me dying inside: No, not really… So… no digital data? No list? Nothing? GPS? Something?”
P: “I did not ask. But I know you can work your magic with this pic. After all you did the nice map for our article last time.”
Me: “For this one I had data and…”
P not listening: “Great. Just mail me the result!”

Also, like scenario 1, happens all the time with people I like and I want to work with. But there are rules on how I can perform my “magic”… Sometimes those rules are forced to… evolve? I can work with “nothing”, I have proven that quite often. But sometimes nothing just results in nothing. Or, at least, nothing good enough to work with. I will collect the data, even talk to the person in charge, all by myself. For magic I need something to do magic with. This is depending on what you exactely want from me, but I am always struggling when people say, I am from the young generation, I can do this. My best worst example on this: There are others, younger than me, some of them cannot work with MS Word because they have no clue.
Age is no guarantee for the possession of different technical skills. Likewise gender, origin, education, the love and interest in “technical stuff” (because there is a lot of technical stuff you can be an expert in).


The “My assistant knows her stuff and of course she can do a detailed analysis of XY” scenario

First of all, shoutout to all the advisors who are encouraging and empowering their students! But empowering can go the wrong direction…
So, when standing next to my advisor or boss, doing smalltalk at a conference and WHAM – this statement rushes in and I do not know the particular stuff adressed… Thank you very much, I am sure, but… What?
I am no expert, I am learning on the job, I have basic understanding of some DH-stuff, but sometimes my advisors scared the hell out of me by telling other really important people in my field that I can do magic. Magic refers to real magic in this cases…

So far I have been able to solve the most of such cases, but it was a lot of extra work and a lot of frustration, chocolate and coffee. And alcohol. There are times when nothing gets my exhausted brain cells to work better than a glass of wine. And sometimes there were cases I could not solve. Because they were too complicated, I had the wrong equipment… or simply did not know how to do it. When I spoke up and told this little inconvenience – oh boy, the looks. But still, not my fault. I am no know-it-all and I never ever want to be one. I will try. I am interested and motivated. I am still just working and trying like everybody else. Funny enogh, this statement is not really known out there in the strange land of Academia.
One has to admit, most people just understood, no big deal. Nevertheless, I had a bad feeling when I had to admit gaps in my knowledge – sometimes ones I didn’t know I had.
So, please, just ask me if I happen to be able to do this and help – not just state the fact that I can do this. Even though, I really appreciate your trust in me.


So, this are my three top scenarios on how you should never ever ask me for a map. Generally speaking, to all of you people in need of a map, please note that you should not ask any of your people able to do maps (in whatever form you want them) in a way like described above. This is my post for today, but there is more coming: I will give you my ideal workflow – my really ideal, perfectly planned and just utopical workflow. 😉 Stay tuned for my next blogpost on “Behind my GIS”…

All the best




OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Astrid Schmölzer (June 27, 2021). Behind my GIS: How not to ask for a map. Epigrammetry. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from

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