Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Dangerous times. Dangerous maps.

A map showing the distribution of people on Trump's foreign banned nationals Executive Order appeared recently.

You can read the full blog post by the publishers here but here's a screen grab in case the tweet is taken down:

There's a few things that upset me about this map.

Firstly it's non-normalized. It shows totals. Choropleths need a rate or ratio. It was pointed out to me that the map uses Congressional Districts as boundaries and that means the populations are 'roughly' the same so it's all ok.

I'm afraid 'roughly' doesn't cut it. Each Congressional District represents about 711,000 people but you'll notice it's also split by state boundaries so, in fact, it's the data per state that's reapportioned into roughly equally populated areas. That'd be fine for mapping if you discounted Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota which encompass one Congressional District each. But they have populations of 1 million, 584,000, 740,000 and 853,000 respectively. None of these population totals can be easily split further without resulting in numbers even further away from 711,000 but it means the map of totals fails to respect these differences. This means the visual message is warped when you're trying to compare across the map. The primary function of the choropleth is to support visual comparison and unless you accommodate the underlying discrepancy in populations it doesn't.

The problem is exacerbated because those States are very large anyway so they inevitably dominate the map. Also, because the map uses the inappropriate Web Mercator projection those northern states are enlarged in relation to the rest of the country too - a further warping that our brains won't adjust for in deciphering the map's message.

There's plenty of other techniques that the map's maker could have used - cartograms, proportional symbols, dot density, hex-binning and so on. Each have benefits and each have drawbacks. The authors said they "wanted to stick with the district boundaries so people could see which district they reside in". So they chose to go with geography so people have less of a barrier to understanding the map. Fine - but the consequence of that decision is you have to be prepared to deal with the inherent cognitive bias and work hard to mitigate it properly.

Even if you think I'm being too nerdy about the issue of totals on choropleths (I'm not) then think about it this way...the map suggests around 3,400 as the bottom value of the highest class in the legend per Congressional District that's a lot of people right? Three and a half thousand of them.  As a percentage? Less than 0.5% and, frankly, that doesn't make the map nearly as persuasive.  Dig a little further:

So the upper class actually goes from 3,400 to 51,652.  And look at how tiny that little place is in downtown Los Angeles. 51,652 people all crammed into Congressional District CA-28 which you can hardly see, compared to 1,620 in North Dakota which you can really, really see. The choropleth doesn't help at all here. A different technique altogether would help. But even at 51,652 that's only 7% of the population. Still not exactly a huge proportion.

The data is also a little misleading. Libya cannot be extracted as a separate country from the American Community Survey used as a source for the map so the 'Other North Africa' designation was used - meaning people not on the banned list are included in the map. How many? Hard to know.

And reds? Hey, this is a sensitive issue. I mean a really f*cking sensitive issue. Red is not the colour to use because it's value-laden. We process it in a particular way and it means 'danger'. If the map is supposed to be an impartial display of the data then red is not the colour to use.

Finally, a friend of mine noted to me that they were concerned that the map even existed given it shows WHERE people on the banned list live. Popups even provide broken down summaries by country.  I countered by suggesting that at Congressional District level there's enough generalization to mask real locations but I take the point and it raises an ethical issue for cartography. In a time of unpresidented [sic] political turmoil, is it morally OK to publish this sort of map just because you can easily scrape the data? What purpose does it support? Given the general outrage that the ban on entry from nationals of 7 countries is tantamount to a partial ban on Muslims then the map could easily incite or inflame the situation further. If the intent is to be impartial then you have to be ridiculously careful to ensure you do just that and this map doesn't. Unless you are setting out to be explicitly persuasive or even propagandist, cartographers and map-makers have a responsibility to make maps that are not misleading and when dealing with sensitive subject matter it becomes crucial.

I am absolutely sure that the map-makers here actually had the opposite intention because they include contact details for Congressional Representatives - presumably as a call to action to encourage people to call in their opposition to the ban. Trouble is, for every one that might go to that effort there will be many more that look at a sea of red and interpret it differently. That's the power of maps.

As it stands the map is dangerous. It shows where people live that are currently on a banned list and that serves no purpose. It uses a good technique but poorly which is nothing more than creating visual alternative facts. It uses the wrong projection which exacerbates the problem. It uses slightly dubious data and, certainly, a bad choice of colours. I'd ban this sort of mapping. Period.


  1. When I saw the tweet without any context, my first thought was "they're showing where people from the banned countries live and encouraging people to call their elected officials and ask them to get rid of the Muslims."

  2. Thanks for taking the time to read the blog and comment on the map. I want to address the concerns you raised. While I think a lot of the criticisms you offer are valid - your tone, to me, suggests you are trying to to be incendiary about the situation and not constructive.

    Let me be clear about the intent - I’m appalled at the actions by the Trump administration and thought if people knew how many of their neighbors were from these countries, they might want to take action and let their elected officials know that the executive order was unacceptable. My company, Azavea, has a strong social mission to do good - and my intention, along with my company’s, would never be to incite violence, hatred, or division. I chose to use Congressional districts as the display unit because of our company’s work related to districts and elected official data. Also, that’s where the action was most important - people knowing how many foreign-born are in their district and calling their representative to remind them of that. Could the map be interpreted for the opposite? Perhaps, and the intent might not have been clearly spelled out in the narrative. I just simply don’t agree that showing per capita or percentages is relevant for the message I was trying to get across.

    Your other points about mapping are valid, but I think you are nitpicking about the details. Web mercator projection was used because it’s the standard in Carto, a web-mapping platform. The choice of color - using a scheme of pinks, similar to red - could be interpreted as negative. I’m going to update the map to change the color.

    Finally, this wasn’t meant to be a grand exercise in cartography. If no one produced a map unless they got every single detail right based on the principles of cartography (many of which are debatable, as you recognize the drawbacks with other ways to visualize this data), we’d see a lot less experimental and interesting data out there. Let’s also not forget that many would like to eliminate or abolish portions of the Census. If that happened, we would never have access to the vast amounts of enlightening data it produces. We should be publishing and mapping this data even more, so people understand its relevance.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to reply. First, the whole point of my blog is to point out CARTOGRAPHIC issues, not to make a political statement or question yours. I can see where you're coming from and I acknowledged that fact. You can probably also see that I stand firmly with you. However, all my points about the cartography stand scrutiny and are cartographically without question. It's my profession and area of expertise. i know very little about many things but on this, I know a lot which is why it grieves me when these sort of maps appear...maps that have the potential to do good things and borne out of a good motive, but which are poorly designed.

      The sort of responses I always get to these sort of critiques are 'it's the software default', 'you're nitpicking', 'if we never made the map who would' etc are just not acceptable. Find a way around it to make the map properly - or find someone who can do it for you. that's why cartographers exist - to take great ideas and ensure they are designed properly.

      I'm afraid saying that per capita or percentages is irrelevant misses the point. Totals cannot be used in choropleths. It's a fact.

      Publish and map...yes, absolutely. But do it right, rather than just do it. That's my point.

  3. I understand your point about choropleth maps, but I would insist that Congressional districts *do* normalize data to an extent that mapping totals can be acceptable.

    I don't understand the level of snark and use of language such as "dangerous map" and "alternative map" to someone on the same side as you and in the same industry. We can work together, educate and learn from each other without the attitude.

    I look forward to meeting you at the next conference!