A Critical Look at Interactive Mapping Online

(written by Intro to GIS student, J. L.)

With the growing popularity of Google Maps and other digital earth platforms, it seems that there are an increasing number of interactive applications available to Internet users. Many are targeted at consumers and/or travelers and others are geared towards activists and those seeking to better understand the world around them. One example is the Crisis in Darfur project, a partnership between The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Google Earth. Another example is an interactive map of child poverty across Canada.

To understand exactly what sorts of information one is getting from these sources, one may want to question the way in which it is displayed. Consider the example of the child poverty map. This interactive map allows you to click on the province and “see how your province compares” with others. The information is derived from Statistics Canada’s 2005 figures and provides the total number of children living in poverty, as well as percentages, such as “children under 18 below low-income cutoff.” Unfortunately, the way in which this information is depicted can be rather misleading.

First, the map does not provide any information on sample sizes and for Alberta, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador (half of the provinces), “Statistics Canada warns of small sample sizes.” Second, although interactive buttons are displayed for the territories, when one clicks on the point, there is no information about child poverty available. Further, aggregated information is given for all of Canada, but when one clicks to see the information he/she discovers that the “[s]urvey does not cover residents of the territories and people living in institutions, on Indian reserves or in military barracks. Thus, considering the often extreme inequities experienced on Aboriginal reserves throughout the country, the statistics are most likely grossly underestimating the levels of child poverty in Canada. A student of GIS may also wonder about the oversimplification of the data. The differences in concentrations of poverty between rural and urban areas and within urban areas themselves are non-existent on this map. Thus, one can not critically assess “how his or her province compares.”

In conclusion, although interactive maps allow the user to become engaged in the learning process and hopefully become better informed about the world around them, as with any information that one acquires on the Internet, one must be critical of the content and delivery to assess the accuracy and presentation of the data.

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