When we caught up with Hungarian cartographer Robert Szucs, he was in an Indonesian rain forest doing orangutan conservation work for International Animal Rescue. Prior to that, he had spent two months in Alaska working with marine biologists studying humpback whales and three months with archaeologists in the Caribbean.
When he's not volunteering in Portugal or Borneo, he's at home in the U.K. working his "regular" job in geographic information systems, or GIS. It's those GIS skills that he volunteers to NGOs around the world. They're also what inspired his line of vibrant, colorful, textured river basin maps, elevation maps and heat maps of countries around the world, which look even more striking when set against a solid black background.
"Rivers are amazing. I worked a lot with spatial data during my studies in geography and GIS, and you just see what nature can draw is incredible. Still, all the river maps you see look the same, boring, unspectacular. All lines blue, all the same width. It's quite amazing how you can make such bad maps from such great source material," he says.
To make his maps, he uses freely available data from government agencies and NGOs, along with open-source software. "Making one river basin map now, if I already have the data, can be less than an hour, but getting to this level of symbology and this design was definitely a few weeks, going through a lot of iterations and ideas," he says.
The river basin maps look best when the topography is varied. "Some countries are luckier than others. For example, my country, Hungary, is in the Danube's watershed, so if I make a map like this, it would just be one color. Also, it's a small country," Szucs says.
On the other hand, speaking about the U.S. map at the top of this page, he says, "Nature gave me a very good base to work with, and I think it's my best work so far. This is also the map which brought the most attention, so it has a special place in my heart. But there's a lot I really like."
Szucs says he has no formal art training and can't draw, though he's now starting to think of his maps as art. "I'm coming into the art world from a technical, scientific background, but with an artistic vein. At the beautiful crossroads of two worlds," he says.