There’s a hip trend going around, making simple maps with labeled spaces. At least one or two a week have been crossing my computer screen lately. I’ve always referred to this approach as using maps as organizational templates. In most cases the map-makers don’t go into telling a story about why the data are where they are. They’re just labeling a place with its information, and leaving the rest up to us. The map is serving as a way to represent data by virtue of its geographical location. That is, we start with some data, and that data happens to have a 1-to-1 relationship with some location, like a state in the US, or a country in the world.
We could use a spreadsheet as an organizational template instead. In fact, many of these maps started that way. Start with a spreadsheet with an alphabetical list of all 50 states (plus D.C., which often gets overlooked), and then another column in the spreadsheet has some information about each state (let’s call it an “attribute” of that State). And maybe we know different attributes for different years.
Problem: looking at an Excel spreadsheet is boring. And it’s virtually impossible for us to envision a “pattern” from a spreadsheet. States or countries arranged alphabetically tells us nothing about the geospatial relationships among those places. Did I already mention it’s boring. Our eyes glaze over. Who wants to have glazed eyes?
Instead, by labeling each state – or country – or region – with the attribute, we can appreciate the geographic pattern of said information. When the data are categorical or nominal, you might get a map like what the most popular boy’s name has been in each state over the last 60 years, or the girls’ names, or surnames in Europe, how the Russian language engenders the names of world countries, or what each world country is “best at” (which is a wonderfully subjective way to begin a discussion), with the label being a word or a phrase.
Such data can often be represented pictorially or through icons, like the “most famous book” in each State (again, who gets to decide that?!), or the Food of the States. At least they remembered D.C.!
I don’t know, maybe it’s just me. But I’m seeing these maps all over the place these days.