Thoughts on Roth (2009)

The concept of uncertainty rarely occurs to me when looking at a map. In Roth’s article, he frequently refers to the visual representation of geographic information uncertainty, but doesn’t explain it in detail or give examples. He describes the different typologies of uncertainty categories from the literature. Roth makes a case for McEachren’s typology of uncertainty categories. His argument is based on the inclusion of all uncertainties “influential [to] decision-making,” interoperability, and quantifiability. Roth fails to explain why previous typologies were lacking in any of these categories, and it seems that McEachren’s list is simply broader.

Roth doesn’t give any methods for representing these uncertainties visually. The results from the focus group seemed to conclude that the largest gap in the reality-to-decision flow is representation. I found interesting the distinction made by participants between a textual disclaimer for uncertainty and a cartographic representation of uncertainty. I agree that a disclaimer allows the viewer to absorb the information presented with a grain of salt. I think that most users can understand the concept of uncertainty (even in a geographic context), but representation is the more apparent barrier.

Participants in the focus group also seemed to dismiss geographic uncertainty as something that should be disregarded. If this attitude is as common among decision-makers as the article supposes it to be, therein lies the problem. If it can be proven that decisions made acknowledging geographic uncertainty versus disregarding it are “better,” then decision-makers must be made aware of the discrepancy. Although Leithner and Buttenfield (2000) seem to prove that uncertainty representations expedited the decision-making process, the decision-makers involved in Roth’s focus group were not of the same mind, claiming that knowledge of uncertainty decreased their confidence in their decision. I think more research and education needs to take place among decision-makers and evaluating the validity of informed and uninformed decisions.

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