Time Magazine reports on a study (pdf) that considers the connections between hazard maps and recent natural disasters. Are “bad maps” to blame for greater-than-expected damage, death, and destruction? Among other issues, the study authors suggest that mapmakers may lack adequate “humility and caution.” Of course that may be true, but it’s so much more complicated than that. Map makers rely on the data they have, not the data they want. They are required to generate maps that rank risk based on models that necessarily have fragmented, incomplete, sampled, and uncertain data. The cartographic symbology necessary to communicate this uncertainty is often lacking.
Which for me gets to the interesting set of questions. Understanding the connections between a map maker, the representation itself, and the decision makers on the other end. Few map makers set out to create a map that leads to poor decisions. What happens along the way? How can we do better to reduce confusion and re-align intentions? How can we improve feedback mechanisms so that the next generation of maps is “better”? Really, no map is inherently “bad” – so we need a better set of terms, and expectations, and practices, so that effective maps help support the best decisions.