When you first read this question, you might think that the responsibility of making a map fair rests entirely on the map maker, the cartographer. Admittedly the map maker does have a lot of responsibility, but it is also the responsibility of the map reader — how they choose to interpret the map and make decisions based on the information offered to them through the map. Maps have been critiqued for their hegemonic views of the world. God’s eye view — view from nowhere — disembodied — where are the people being represented with the color red?

I attempt to unpack the question “What makes maps fair?” through a series of sub-questions — to guide the decision-making process to assess fairness on your own when you are presented with a map.

These subquestions are:

What is missing from the map?
Who is missing from the map?
What design decisions were made while making the map?
What is the map reader’s interpretation of the map?

My talk was one in a speaking series called: In kaart gebracht — which I understand to mean “brought through a map” which Google literally translates to “mapped.”

The series organizers gave me the speaking thought-provoking speaking prompt “What makes maps fair?” And in this talk, I offer considerations for you the map maker as you make this assessment yourself when you are presented with a map. It was extremely difficult to condense and pick which information to share. In this blog post, I try to summarize my main points and share links so that you can read more about the points that interest you most.

Check out my talk here:

I would like to elaborate on certain points, as well as provide links and citations to notable work, and interactive maps that I mentioned in the talk — so that you can read more about some of the points I mention.

Key point: We risk reproducing inequalities that happen in the world, on the map. I echo Elwood and Leszczynski’s (2015) call for active engagement to combat inequalities through modern forms of mapping.

Examples of why it is important to be on the map

To illuminate why “Who and what is missing in the data?” is an important question — I provide examples of open data in Cape Town, South Africa. I mentioned the valuable work being done with NGOs in the area. Governmental data is used to make decisions about where to allocate resources such as where to build a new school, where to place street lights. Open data can shed light on how governments make these decisions.

The ideas from this part of the talk are from my paper that can be freely downloaded here titled: “When open data and data activism meet: An analysis of civic participation in Cape Town, South Africa” by Britta Ricker, Jonathan Cinnamon, Yonn Dierwechter

I briefly mentioned Open Up as an organization that calls itself “Open Data Advocates”. They are modeled a bit after Code for America but differentiate themselves tremendously. This organization builds platforms and services for data and governmental transparency. They hold public events to train citizens and also to learn from them. They build “Civic Issue Trackers” and garner ideas about what to track in the open data from the general public. They call these events “Easter Egg Hunts” instead of Hack-a-thons because otherwise, people will not come. Here is a fantastic video about these events. Check out their valuable work!

You can download and view Cape Town Open Data as well as interact with the map of parcels here below.

Violence Prevention through Urban Upgrading (VPUU) is another NGO that is “Co-creating safe and sustainable neighborhoods to improve the quality of life for all residents.” I shared the example of how VPUU is using an Open Source Geographic Information Systems QGIS to make house deeds and they are then uploading the houses they are tracing in the GIS to OpenStreetMap

OpenStreetMap + Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOT)

OpenStreetMap (OSM) is an open-source web map. All data have been voluntarily contributed to OSM and it can be pulled out and reused because it is open source. This is very exciting! You can add data, you can add missing data. I shared the example of Haiti being populated and I shared a photo from this article from National Public Radio “After Hurricane Dorian, The ‘Wikipedia Of Maps’ Came To The Rescue”

When Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas on Sept. 1, local disaster response agencies quickly realized they needed help. But not the kind of help you might expect: They needed mappers.

I also shared an example of how the Dutch Red Cross is using automated processes to identify damages to buildings after a disaster — to assess where to send help first.

All of this work is being done through Humanitarian OpenStreetMap. You can contribute to existing projects — either easy, medium, or advanced contribution. Check out their website to see how you can help. Other great NGOs where you can contribute to the map include Youth Mappers and Missing Maps

The transition from Data to Information to, hopefully, Knowledge

The data to include, or not to include, data analysis decisions and finally, design decisions are all made by people, sometimes the same person and sometimes many different people. The map viewer also makes a set of decisions — how we choose to read a map. From seemingly mundane decisions like where to go to dinner to really important decisions such as where specifically to send disaster response resources.

Data collection

Tawanda Kenhema’s TED talk about putting more places on Google Street View — on the map — is worth watching! His work is beautiful. His ideas helped me organize the slides I shared around Street View in Cape Town. It also got me thinking about Artificial Intelligence and the important work of the Algorithmic Justice League — about who benefits from these technologies and who is left out.

Data classification

What gets counted, counts ( D’Ignazio and Klein 2020). Data entry and data classification, and how we ascribe attributes to the data, really matters. It matters for what type of analysis is possible later, what becomes searchable. I used the example of different types of roads and childcare. These ideas come directly from the work of Dr. Monica Stephens who quantifies why it is important to know who added the data, who picked the classifications and why we need more and diverse groups of people to add and classify data.

Other interesting examples of the importance of GIS ontologies come from work being done with native peoples in Canada and how they classify different land and water features in a GIS.

Data Visualization

Linking open data to data visualization — I use the example of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal indicator data.

I can’t map all 200+ indicator datasets on my own. Therefore, with co-authors from the International Cartographic Association and the United Nations including MJ Kraak, RE Roth, B Ricker, A Kagawa, and G Le Sourd. 2020— we wrote about how to map the SDG indicator data in the book titled Mapping for a Sustainable World so that everyone can make their own maps. This book is open access and free to download.

The publication aims to share best practices, conventions, and explain how different mapping techniques reveal spatio-temporal patterns, such as global population growth, socioeconomic disparities, and climate change, to understand challenges and achievements towards the Sustainable Development Goals

By integrating geospatial and statistical data of the Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Indicator Database, cartography can support decision-making and promote public awareness on the Sustainable Goals. The publication introduces the SDGs and their relation to data, describes foundational design decisions in cartography, introduces common map types and diagrams for representing the SDG indicators and discusses consideration for map use environments.

In the talk, I quickly share a few ideas and examples from the book.

I did not spend nearly enough time explaining why projections are important.

Through the process of making maps for our book — we realized how much data are missing! This led to research about how to bring more attention to places that are missing data rather than looking away — read the results here. Topographic and thematic (in)visibility of Small Island Developing States in a world map Jessica Gosling-Goldsmith , Britta Ricker &Menno Jan Kraak You can read Jessica’s full Masters thesis here, covering the design process and results from usability testing.

You can play with changing map projections and featuring small island states here.

I also use SDG indicator data to test map reader’s interpretation of these cartographic design decisions — if they view the map as true or not, as authoritative or not — if they decide to give it more attention or look away. Does the map make them feel uncomfortable? To illustrate this point I cited work from a study titled Feminist cartography and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal on gender equality: Emotional responses to three thematic maps by N. Pirani, B. A. Ricker, M. J. Kraak and can be freely downloaded. Which leads me to…

Feminist Cartography

I intentionally wait to mention Data Feminism at the end of my talk — and let the reader in on a secret — that these overarching questions are in fact part of feminist discourse. I do not claim that feminism is a solution to everything. I did not make enough time in this talk to delve deeper into feminist discourse at all.

I highly recommend reading the work of Dr. Meghan Kelly. Her entire PhD dissertation is a fascinating deep dive into Feminist Cartography and in my PowerPoint I specifically shared her work with refugees. Also, together let’s answer Dr. Amber Bosse’s battle cry — Map Anyway!

Please check out the book Data Feminism By Dr. Catherine D’Ignazio and Dr. Lauren F. Klein

“Our regional and national support systems are broken, with decisions of national consequence being made by powerful individuals and moneyed corporations, with the most harmful effects experienced by the least powerful among us.” from Catherine D’Ignazio and Klein

I also tried to lift up the importance of Indigenous cartography and use a graphic and ideas shared by Jacobi 2020 here. Native and Indigenous peoples have a rich legacy of cartography that we cannot discount.

I do not wish to suggest that feminism is not without flaws, check out this Great article critiquing white feminism — focusing specifically on Covid-19: The horrible impact it has had on domestic workers.

“The disruption of the middle- to upper-class home during the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the ways in which mainstream feminism has not evolved beyond an empowering anthem for white women and those aspiring to their privilege; it remains a system in which middle- to upper-class women rely on low-income women of color for housework and childcare so they can participate in protesting and breaking the proverbial glass ceiling.”

How can we make maps, and collect data, to challenge these power inequities?

In Conclusion: You make maps fair

You can go through open data, you can make new data, you can make maps!

If you want to view and make beautiful maps, the most up-to-date cutting-edge cartography techniques — see Sarah Bell’s website.

Map Anyway! Make maps even if you do not have time to research and implement advanced or even basic cartographic design principles. Read that map anyway even if it does not look “official” or even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.

I offered a set of considerations, for you the map reader. Considerations about how maps are made, the entire process. Who collects the data? Who decides how to thematically classify the data? This matters because it influences what becomes mappable, what becomes the truth because maps are often viewed as “truth.” Maps are seen as objective — but they are a result of a series of decisions made by people. People who hold their own view of the world, with specific values, who are trying to tell a specific story about the world. This is all feminist cartography.

I am a feminist cartographer and still I love Map Men — they also understand the importance of projections.

Assistant Professor in GeoSciences at Utrecht University. Researcher of maps online, UAS (drones!) and maps Sustainable Development Goals.