Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Beware – bad maps are coming

We will all be exposed to a lot of maps in the coming days - some good, some bad.

In a time of crisis media outlets rush to produce maps to illustrate what is happening in the war. Some news outlets will have huge maps on the floor of a studio somewhere that commentators will walk around on top of like giants. I even noticed the other night that ABC news had some sort of computer-generated map that enables the camera to ‘fly’ over Iraq

As I see it there are three ways that a good map can go bad –

To much information. A great temptation when making a map is to put every bit of available information on the same image. The resulting information overload makes it glean any relevant information from the map.

News producers should determine what the commentator is discussing and find a
map that fits the topic. When a map includes cities, town, waterways, roadways, ethnic concentrations, allied forces, Iraqi forces etc. all on one image it is virtually impossible to sift out the appropriate information.

The wrong information. There are many things that can be shown on a map. The key is for the correct information to be expressed on a map at the right time.

I recently saw on the local news a map that showed the waterways of Iraq but no roads. This would be fine if the topic at hand was invading Iraq by rowboat. However, at that moment the commentator was discussing the potential plan for the allied forces to gain control of the main highway that runs north to Baghdad. As far as the viewers could tell no such highway exists. Hopefully, in the coming weeks news producers will make the effort to select the appropriate map for the point that is being made.

Forgetting the purpose of the map. This happens when the mapmakers are so very proud of the technology they have created that they forget to use it in service of the goal of a map – to rapidly communicate information.

The worst example of this that I have seen was on ABC. On Monday evening Peter Jennings demonstrated a ‘new map’ that gives the impression that a camera is ‘flying’ over Iraq. It is very cool technology and perhaps they will be able to use it effectively in the future. Unfortunately the first time out it was a disaster. The camera zoomed in on the wrong sections and was inevitably about 20 seconds behind whatever Peter Jennings was referring to. One can hope that Peter and his team takes a few minutes to practice using the map before it comes into heavy rotation.

When I see a bad map on TV it is time to change the channel. Hopefully news producers will take the time to use the right map at the right time.


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