The rise of the news map, and its dark side

Ian Delaney
London 51° 30' 23.112" N, -0° 7' 37.956" E

More maps are made today than at any previous point in history. In fact, if you follow channels such as Amazing Maps (Twitter) and Map Porn (Reddit), it seems probable that more maps were made last week than in any given century before the evolution of computer graphics.

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There are at least two factors that have fuelled this voracious hunger for more and more maps.

First, the web has become increasingly visual over the last few years. A picture is very literally worth a thousand words in many of the most popular sections of the Web. As Ricardo Bilton in digiday notes, ‘News Lite’ sites such as Gawker and Vice; viral chasers like Buzzfeed and Upworthy and, of course, the mighty Facebook all thrive on images where once words held sway.

It’s not a dumbing-down, though, at least when it comes to most maps.

Maps are an enormously powerful form of visualisation and can tell a detailed story more concisely, and just as dramatically, as the best journalists.

A bigger (better) picture

This map from the NY Times shows where the currently missing Malaysian Flight 370 might have got to, given its last known location and fuel capacity. The newscasters might have told you that salvage efforts have an enormous area to cover in order to track down the wreckage. But told visually on a map, the vast expanse of the potential search area comes home at a glance.

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This is just one of a series in the NY Times, and they’re well worth a look.

Asking the questions

This map from SGW blog shows whether men or women receive most education (in terms of how many years people spend in full-time education compared to their opposite-sex peers) across the world and it’s a great example of a map that can be approached by anyone, and is educational for almost everyone.

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It confirms what you may have already suspected – women are better educated in most parts of the world, and this is – at least in part – connected to the economic prosperity of countries.

The information comes from the CIA World Factbook and UNData – but you’d have to do an awful lot of collation and comparison from different parts of those sites to come up with the same picture of education worldwide. It’s a great example of how maps can condense information and make it usable.

It tells a story but it doesn’t over-generalise or brush over the complexities too much. Like many good pieces of journalism, it raises as many questions as it answers. The exceptions prompt a curiosity about what’s going on, as much as the overall picture. What’s happening in Botswana, Uruguay, Kenya, and France that means they’re not the colour you might expect, for example? And is that good news, or bad?

Click’n’play cartographer

The second factor fuelling this massive influx of maps is, of course, the ease with which they can be copied and rewritten. Until the late Twentieth Century, creating a new map meant starting from scratch with a pencil and a theodolite.

Now, it will take you less time than it takes to find a pencil to download a map template, or even find a site devoted to creating your own printable maps. Like everything else connected with making and publishing media, the barriers to entry for map-making are pretty much non-existent in the Internet age.

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The barriers to creating a good map, on the other hand… well, there still are some.

When maps go bad

People can certainly take this carto-philia a bit too far. And in many cases publishers abuse what makes maps useful in the first place.

Alissa Walker on Gizmodo asks ‘Let’s all cool it with these stupid maps’: maps used to chain together topical subjects willy-nilly or used as containers for wild opinions to create clickbait.

Walker calls out this example from Maps on the Web:

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It’s a good example of map-abuse. It takes longer to understand what it’s communicating about US population distribution than pretty much any alternative we’ve ever seen. And we’re not sure what on earth it’s saying about Ukraine beyond “it’s quite a bit less populated than the US”.

This one is an equally heinous abuse (sorry, estately blog).

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Allegedly, it shows which foreign country each US State is “most similar to”. Unfortunately, the information about what constitutes these alleged similarities isn’t on the map. It’s not communicating nor condensing information; it’s not doing anything much except outraging state-patriots across America. Whatever your feelings about Texas, I suspect it’s unlikely you’d agree that the country in the world it’s ‘most similar to’ is China. (Their common bonds are ‘executions’ and ‘wind-power’, according to the 3000 words it takes to explain the map).

A recent Twitter chat – transcribed here – under the tag #geowebchat highlighted a few other terrible/hilarious examples.

Finding the world

Perhaps we’re biased (OK – we’re totally biased) but we remain very positive. We think easily-generated and manipulated maps are an enormous force in the successful creation of data journalism, the ability for journalists to inexpensively and cleverly combine and present information in fresh, new ways that can really open our eyes to the state of the world, our countries and cities.

Check out this example from CNN.com to see how journalists used HERE maps to communicate more than words about a refugee camp in Syria.

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It’s hard not to be optimistic, to see that the storytelling power of cleverly constructed maps is an enormous force for better public education, better journalism and a broader world view.

Just so long as people keep asking questions and don’t mistake a map-shaped infographic as the same thing as facts.

image credit: See-ming Lee

Topics: Features

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