Every project I have been involved thus far, I have helped people to ask the question – ‘Are maps really the right tool for us to tell this story?’ And I must say, there are not many people who are convinced. Maps are cool, they look nice, you can make them interactive, they may go viral (for good or bad), and yes, people like maps. Agree and that’s one of the many reasons why I love making maps and telling stories through them. If you do not ask the question, several things can go wrong.
I put together a repository to start gathering few examples of situations when maps go wrong. And spoke at an event in Bangalore and it was exciting. We will see some of those in this blog post. I am not intending to provide solutions to most of these, that will make a better blog post later. Broadly, there are six lists –
Misrepresentation of data
Careless handling of images and data can cause terrible mistakes, like the one below from the CNN a few weeks back.
The Wired wrote about the bike sharing system supported by Citi Bank in New York City and how the map is a misrepresentation of the actual findings. As noted in the articles through the conversation on Twitter, the problem with the maps is this – the map maker did not account for the population density or bike dock density in each of the boroughs. As long as that is not factored in, the map becomes a biased representation of data.
Maps are tools of power. Since map users are generally easy to win over, making a map that aligns to political strategies have been employed since the early years. This map of detailing the assassination strategy of Osama bin Laden made its rounds in the media and on the Internet, but everyone knows the truth.
National boundaries are always a sensitive political issue. Jammu and Kashmir took a very interesting stand in the following official map by making it more confusing. The Jammu and Kashmir region is under constant conflict because of the boundary wars between India, Pakistan and China. Neither of the parties are willing to acknowledge any functional government running in the region and to wave off the threats the official map is carefully designed not to choose any sides. They resorted to make it confusing with too many lines, patterns and the terrain. The whole story of the map came out in the BigThink.
There are tonnes these maps around the Internet. What I found below is interesting. It is the Washington State University’s parking locations map. I could locate the parking locations only after spending about 15 minutes reading and ignoring unimportant details in the map. It is really easy to get verbose in a map by throwing lot of data points and text on it, but that makes it difficult to read and understand.
This article in Wired talks about Map Kibera, but stresses on the point that the map was made by a company called Spatial Collective. On the ground, it was not Spatial Collective but Map Kibera‘s volunteers making the map. Kibera is one of the largest slums in Kenya and it was never part of a map. The Map Kibera project is perhaps the most interesting slum mapping project in last few years because is touched upon various levels of sensitivity. The authorities sent an organisation called Spatial Collective to ‘support’ when the project gained traction and started collecting data to make a map of Kibera. Later on, the picture changed slightly where they held the map high to promote the support organisation.
There are lies which are essential in map making, according to Mark Monmonier who wrote the fascinating book called How to Lie with Maps. The process of projecting an irregular sphere to a 2D surface guarantees distortion. This map of Africa is the best example. What this tries to convey is very straightforward – the map that we see everyday, which uses the Mercator projection does not preserve area. It was invented for making calculation of distances easier. The area of Africa is in fact roughly the sum of areas of other countries listed in the map below. This is purely caused by distortion and the map conveys that we cannot underestimate the size of Africa by looking at the usual map which employs Mercator projection.
Then there are troubles caused because of incorrect rendering of the map, like these featured in the Huffington Post article.
The GPS is vulnerable
Civilian GPS does not have end to end encryption and no quality assurance. This means that anyone with the proper tools and knowledge of how to use them, can fake GPS signals or even cause errors in the existing signals. People have done this before. Iran captured a US drone that was flying above one of its cities in 2011 through a GPS spoofing attack. Iran’s armed forces made the drone to safely land at their airbase by faking the GPS control signals. Tod Humphreys points how it is possible to make GPS signals erroneous in his TED talk.
Maps are great, but what’s next?
Maps are great to catch attention of the people or authorities. What is the next step? How do you translate maps to action? What is the larger outcome than that great looking map? There are several projects that we are familiar with which has this problem – Powercuts.in, HarrasMap Mumbai. I was having this conversation with Mikel Maron of the Map Kibera project and he raised the question of how do we measure the success of a project if there weren’t many actions?
I want to leave these questions to the reader and also point them to the Dead Ushahidi project, a collection of dead or inactive Ushahidi projects, curated on their Crowdmap platform.