Mapping, at its best, promotes insight and facilitates data-driven decision-making; at its worst, it generates gee-whiz infotainment. The Boston Globe reports:
Maps have increasingly become vehicles not just for telling us how the world looks, but for organizing and representing all sorts of information … The past year saw an explosion of such maps, portraying everything from earthquake devastation to voting patterns to international reading habits – often made on the fly, by citizens, in response to events … if you want to understand what happened in 2008, they are an excellent way to navigate the year.
From October’s ubiquitous red state-blue state maps, to maps illustrating the lunar landing as if Buzz Aldren and Neil Armstrong had walked on a soccer field instead of the moon, to even more maps showing rabies cases and movie watching in India, it’s clear that the new data geek is not hunched behind an Excel spreadsheet, but instead a GIS platform.
Yet many of the maps described above are more art than science. There is a difference between mapping something because it’s possible to map it, and mapping something to create a meaningful display of data that helps people understand and form opinions about information.
The article’s first user comment — the genius of the crowd! — points out this important idiosyncracy:
It is interesting that all this mass of data and improved technology is not leading human beings, collectively, to make smarter big decisions, even if it gives us portfolios full of cool little maps. For example are [sic] still just as likely to engage in foolish wars as we were in the days of Thucydides. Or to cut down entire forests.
Maps can be used to simplify complex data in order to democratize highly technical information, build public awareness, and foster participation; their real utility is as educational, analytical tools for the decision-making process. While an infographic of December’s Mumbai terrorist attacks can help people understand a tragedy, a map illustrating security weaknesses and population centers in India can help to prevent the next one.