<i>We Are Here</i> - An Atlas of Aotearoa

With Chris Knox and published in the New Zealand Herald, 23 November, 2019

Chris McDowall and Tim Denee’s We Are Here, the first general atlas of New Zealand to be published in more than 20 years, is a ground-breaking atlas for the internet era and an outstanding success on many levels. Through its data-rich snapshots, it shows us more than we imagined we could know about the country around us, from the whereabouts of our enchanting under-sea rivers, to the secret lives of cats, to the rise of Aotearoa Roots as a major music genre, along with much else. And it does all this while remaining both accessible and beautiful.

We Are Here contains 84 full-page graphics in eight sections: Te Whenua, Water and Air, Living Things, Places, People and Government, Movement and Energy, and Heart and Memory. Each section weaves, in refreshing twists and turns, a picture of Aotearoa that is at once familiar and surprising. Each page is dense with knowledge, compressed into immediately understandable form - and there's a small "how to read" paragraph for each visualisation in case you need it. And in case you need a break from the information-by-numbers, there's also an essay to open each section, contributed by various New Zealand writers and experts. The only thing arguably left wanting is the index, which is not as comprehensive as some readers might find useful.

Although technically an atlas, almost half of the book’s graphics are not maps. McDowall, a data scientist and cartographer, says sometimes a map isn’t the right way to tell a story - particularly if that story involves time. McDowall also notes that the mixture of map and chart types helps keep the reader’s experience fresh.

This is clearly not your grandma’s atlas, although Grandma might be interested in the transformation of old Area Health Boards into today’s DHBs (page 164-5). Or perhaps China’s rise to become our biggest trade partner (188-9). Or even how what we die from changes across our lifetime (140-1).

“I could spend a lot of time with this book,” a friend said, as he started reading the page on the re-shaping of Christchurch’s surface by the 2011 earthquake (32-33). And you could - maybe years. It is the perfect “coffee table book” but one that packs a solid educational punch, something you can dip in and out of randomly, and always learn something new from. Ever wanted to see the rise and fall of New Zealand’s Liberal Party? Turn to page 147. The distribution of pests and predators? Page 78. Or where the wind blows from? Page 54.

We Are Here was a labour of love, taking McDowall and Denee, a graphic designer, five years to complete. Each page represents a phenomenal amount of work. But the two have done more than provide us with incredible graphics - each example of which could be framed and exhibited in a contemporary art gallery - they have also collated all the sources of the data and publically released the computer code they used to generate the maps and charts. This is a generous knowledge gift to the public that should result, for example, in (one hopes) a vast improvement of the quality of maps being graded in NCEA geography.

This dedication to transparency not only ensures that We Are Here serves as a gateway into the rich world of New Zealand data, but also that it stands as an example of what can be done when government departments commit to making their data publicly available.

This is not your grandma’s atlas, but it’s not your grandson’s either. In 2019, most of the knowledge we access is personalised and localised by the algorithms of the internet. But a printed atlas returns us to information delivered to every reader in exactly the same way, unfiltered by global technology companies. Of course, there’s still plenty of room for personal experience within that. And that meeting point is exactly what the authors hoped for. “When somebody picks up this book, I want to offer them a little space for contemplation,” says McDowall. “And I want that to be a shared reflection on where New Zealand is in 2019.”

With an atlas this fascinating, it’s a reflection we’ll be sharing for years to come.