Uncertainty and confidence: walking a fine line

Foody states important end-users tend to underestimate uncertainty. Their perceptions of uncertainty, in turn, could prompt greater problems. Yet, according to the article, “uncertainty is ubiquitous and is inherent in geographical data” (115). Thus, the blame game is hard to play when uncertainty can be argued as ‘inherent’. The topic becomes more convoluted when geographic information (GI) systems are assessed. “…the ease of use of many GI systems enables users with little knowledge or appreciation of uncertainty to derive polished, but flawed, outputs” (116). Thus, it is even more important to think twice about generated outputs. Foody mentions data mining’s methods that do not consider the “uncertainty that is inherent in spatial data” (111). We have a tendency to find patterns in data. Therefore, we could create the wrong patterns, but utilize the outcomes as accurate or next to flawless because of an overconfidence that is produced by the systems and databases we create. In addition, these systems have slippery slopes with potentially irreversible outcomes. It reminds me of the infamous case of the northern cod fishery collapse. Here, the problems in the science of the northern cod assessment entailed overestimation of biomass and underestimation of fishing mortality (by 50 percent!). I believe the overestimation and/or underestimation of variables are important to the way uncertainty is perceived. The awareness of uncertainty matters, as noted in the article. The higher the level of awareness is the better.

ClimateNYC mentions social errors in the ‘visualizing uncertainty’ post, which made me think of representation and scale issues. In particular, the decisions Google Maps makes with regards to representing marginalized communities. The Ambedkar Nagar slum in Mumbai, India is labelled in Google Maps as ‘Settlement’. However, ‘Settlement’ disappears at 200m altitude but is visible at 500m. Adding to the ambiguity, at 50m altitude, the Organization for Social Change is mapped but this point is not visible at any other scale. Who makes these decisions when labelling these areas? Is it political? Or do they simply not care?

-henry miller

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