Subjective Maps

Today’s readings and discussion made us think about how information is presented. The readings emphasize the surface-level depth of powerpoint and how map makers must decide the important geographic details to include in any given map. Group 2 gave a good summary about how what is deemed important is turned into a “white lie” and how maps tell incomplete truths in order to achieve their specific purposes. The example of different maps of Davidson College, one tooled towards drivers coming into town and one for pedestrians walking around campus (as well as the least realistic, most visually appealing one) show how maps created for different purposes tell different stories.

In class discussion, we took this idea further and looked at how the presentation of information can not only tell different stories, but make arguments. Staying with maps, we looked at how different countries (mainly India and China) “fudge” their borders according to what land they each state is part of their country. We then looked at a Gerrymandering map to see the effect that redistricting can have on election outcomes. In the first case, governments present maps for country boundaries differently in order to stake land claims, and so that their citizens only think they own the land (and it is not disputed). In the second, an argument was made for reformation, particularly fighting against gerrymandering.

In response to the question that group 2 poses: “Does a universally good map exist?”, we don’t think so. We saw in class that maps are tailored to specific purposes, as it is impossible to include all the information in a location (say, a city) on a two dimensional, finite sheet of paper or screen. However, there are pros and cons to different types of maps, as a more detailed one holds more information but takes longer to understand. Any lies present should be justified as improving the effectiveness of that map’s intentions (for example, readability of highway maps for commuters). On that note, our preferred map of Davidson would be close to the second map, but less detailed, as it would be the most useful for us students. We mainly walk on this campus, so the map appeals to us for that reason, but we would prefer a map that’s easier to understand at a glance.

The above question also touches on a main theme of this course. Is there an unbiased way to present data? Do data presenters consider mainly internal biases or the needs of their audience when telling white lies?

An interactive map of Davidson College
Charles, Julia, Niall

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