The Scale Issue in Social & Natural Sciences, Marceau 1999

In Marceau’s piece, the issue of scale is discussed at length (no pun intended), and raises many good points. Scale and complexity truly go hand in hand, as complex systems can be invariant to scale (fractal characteristics) – a strange but intriguing phenomena.

While the two topics are inherently linked, the issue of scale comes up much more often, as it is very visible (scales at the bottom of maps) and important (“zooming” in and out on Google Maps, for example, to see the “bigger picture”). That being said, just because map users know what scale is, does not mean that they understand how it changes the information represented on the static or dynamic interface.

Marceau stresses the important of recognizing the Modifiable Areal Unit Problem (MAUP) – an important statistical error born from the aggregation of data over (typically) large swaths of area – and correcting any spatial analysis that may be affected by it accordingly. I do not pretend to fully understand the geostatistical implications of the MAUP, but I do agree that it is indeed a problem, and am happy that someone who understands the problem mathematically is working hard to find statistical solutions for it.

It is interesting to think about how the increasing use of dynamic interfaces such as mobile applications is changing how we reconcile issues of scale. As we can “zoom” in and out so easily, developers of future maps will have to generate many tiles to accommodate the users’ requests of displaying information at various scales. And to generate these tiles, we will have to really work through the MAUP, and by “we”, I mean not just “map makers”, but map users and map builders too. Will we have to include warnings at the bottom of these dynamic maps that “objects on map may not be closer than as they appear”?


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