Map versus Territory

The nice lady at work who is in charge of GIS (Geographical Information Mapping) was showing me a very clever piece of software that showed in 3D the borough with each ward’s height relative to an indicator like % of households on benefits.

It looked like a 3D bar chart, with each ward as a column, and the whole chart in the shape of the borough.

The map twisted and turned as the cursor moved over it, a bit like a computer game flying an aircraft through the Grand Canyon. You can add colour, I was shown, to show another variable such as life expectancy and see how they are correlated in our area, ward by ward. Data mapped onto geography. Brilliant!

Talk turned to information provided only by the census. She told me that when she was liaising with the local census manager she showed him the “rough” areas as he would be sending census staff out to households that hadn’t returned a census form. They had a policy of sending staff out in teams in area that were less safe.

I imagined a special module that shows to street area the incidences of violent crime. Turns out she drove him round in her car showing him the areas that he should send his staff out in teams of 3, pointing at it through the windscreen. Which is of course exactly what she should have done.

So why need a map at all? Everyone knows this area, you know yours too. You know the areas that are deprived, and of those the ones that are safe to walk around at night and the ones that aren’t. You know where the good schools are without looking at an OFSTED report, because you know their reputation from parents with kids at that school, or who live near it. Which is something that doesn’t change with a change in the scoring regime.

I look at a map if I DON’T know the area, if it is a place I’ve never been to before. But I still will only get to know the area if I go to it. Who knows better about an area, a community police officer who knows the streets with the families “known to the police”, or someone looking at a map of that area with crime stats on it? A housing officer who is in the area half their working life, or someone looking at a map of these same houses?

Look at the map of deprivation below from an area around Liverpool. You probably don’t live around there, so this is news to you. But if you do, then this is probably telling you what you already know, you know the territory so what use is the map?


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