Is the Mainstreaming of Maps Compromising Their Quality?

Have you noticed an increasing number of maps in mainstream media channels and on the internet over the past few years? I’ve seen maps pop up everywhere as a part of data visualization, data revolution, and open source technology movements. With the power of mapping transferring from a select group of trained cartographers to the hands of many, maps are showing up within news stories or often as the stories themselves in outlets like Atlantic Cities, Slate, The Guardian, Washington Post, and New York Times, among others.

I recently attended a session at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) where geographer Kenneth Field spoke about this influx of maps in mainstream channels. While widespread public enthusiasm for maps seems like a good thing on the surface (especially for us geographers), Field was concerned. As professional geographers, we must care about quality, not just quantity. As he points out in his blog, while there have been some great maps created, there have also been some that are just plain embarrassing. And yet, the public eats them up.

The most recent tragic example to make its way around social media is the below map by NBC Nightly News.

Changing-face

One of its biggest problems (though there are many) is that this stacked area chart clipped to a map of the United States implies that the numbers vary based on location, when in fact the numbers are for the U.S. as a whole. Luckily, most people recognized its flaws and for those who did not, experts like Field and Nathan Yau of FlowingData were able to bring to light the many shortcomings of this “weird stacked area map thing,” as Yau called it.

Do you ever question the veracity of the maps you see or wonder about the credentials of the people who made them? People with no cartographic knowledge are making maps (often really bad ones) and those maps are what the public often willingly consumes. If the demand is there, the maps will keep coming. So let’s challenge ourselves to change the nature of that demand by being critical about the information we consume and promote.

If you want to learn more about good map design from an expert, check out Field’s daily posts. He showcases great maps and explains exactly why the maps are great. Happy reading.

One Response to “Is the Mainstreaming of Maps Compromising Their Quality?”

  1. Eden

    Wow, what an embarrassingly bad and misleading map. Maybe their regular person had the flu.
    Nah.

    Reply

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