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Ethics in mapping

A question I’m often asked is ‘what is the right way to map this data?’, and my answer is always ‘it depends’. There’s no right or wrong way to design a particular map. There aren’t even many hard or fast ‘rules’ in cartography. So with an abundance of design choices the key to making a truthful map is establishing what the message needs to be in relation to the audience, and then translating that into the design. In this blog I outline how we might think of the ethical dimension of map-making as a way to frame our work, and as a set of values we might hold personally and professionally to deliver well-intentioned, useful maps, and which are designed for purpose.

All maps have the power to lie. With such power comes great responsibility on the part of the map-maker. Understanding how to remain objective, be thorough, and be able to justify decisions is a vital aspect of good cartographic practice. Discussions, debates, and statements on the value and purpose of maintaining an ethical approach to making maps have been ongoing for decades. A recent discussion of relevance for the production of cartographic products was clearly articulated by Obermeyer (2021) who identified four types of ethics, namely professional, code-based, virtue, and practical. These are, to an extent, overlapping but they establish reasonable rules and behaviours, norms, boundaries, the conditions for honesty and integrity, fairness and competency, as well as what to be and how to have good internalized intentions that lead to positive results and actions.

The more recent Locus Charter seeks to improve the standards of practice in the geo-sphere more generally and lists ten founding principles that are intended as a call for action, and a mantra we can abide by as geo-professionals more generally. It’s worth exploring the descriptions in detail but in outline, these principles are:

• Realize opportunities
• Understand impacts
• Do no harm
• Protect the vulnerable
• Address bias
• Minimize intrusion
• Minimize data
• Protect privacy
• Prevent identification of individuals
• Provide accountability

The British Cartographic Society (BCS) are one of the few organisations that I am aware of who specify a code of ethics for members (including myself as a Fellow of BCS) to abide by. Ratified by the BCS Council in July 2020, it’s a community-driven core set of values framed around five main themes namely:

• Honesty
• Integrity
• Competence
• Respect
• Responsibility

I encourage you to head to their site for more detail on each of these but they are sound principles and a strong guiding philosophy. They might seem obvious. Perhaps they are. But how often do we actually consider them directly in our map-making endeavours?

In my first Esri Press book Cartography. I also explored the issue of ethics, and the sort of behaviours that might establish ethical cartographic practice. It’s also a constant theme in my latest Esri Press book Thematic Mapping where I explore 101 ways to map the same data, each of which reveals a different story. By demonstrating the breadth of possible design choices I reveal how wildly different maps can portray the same facts. Depending on your choices, you’ll deliberately, or unintentionally, lead the map reader into a specific understanding of the data as revealed by your map.

Sometimes maps might be regarded as ineffective and poor because they may fail in varying ways and to widely varying degrees. They may be accidentally disingenuous about the content; use misguided construction or techniques; or they may even be deliberately designed to be persuasive or propagandist. Whether accidentally or deliberately, it’s entirely possible to make a map in ways that might misconstrue meaning and raise questions about the authority of the map, the veracity of the message, and the intentions of the map-maker.

But maps are made by humans, and are therefore inevitably going to contain errors. Errors may result from oversight, poor judgement, or an over-reliance on software defaults but, sometimes, as a consequence of deliberate action. Mapping is not an exact science; there is no single correct way to make the map, and neither is there a wholly incorrect way (though some techniques can be applied incorrectly or poorly). Maps can misrepresent even when the motive is to work toward a map that minimizes the potential for misunderstanding.

Borden Dent defined a potential code of ethics for mapmakers in his excellent book Thematic Map Design (2008), which I updated and modified in Cartography. I think they provide a useful practical way of thinking about, and applying the concepts that are described by Obermeyer, and in The Locus Charter, and the BCS code in the practice of making maps:

• have a straightforward agenda, and purpose;
• strive to know your audience (the map reader);
• do not intentionally lie with data;
• show all relevant data whenever possible;
• don’t discard data because it might be contrary;
• strive for accurate portrayal of the data;
• avoid plagiarising; report all data sources;
• ensure symbols don’t bias the interpretation of the map;
• the map should be able to be repeated by others;
• be attentive to differing cultural values and principles; and
• don’t let defaults drive your design.

I’d also add that as practicing cartographers we might also remain aware of our own shortcomings. We sometimes make mistakes (I certainly do!). We should own them, apologise when necessary, and make right any errors where possible. We might also recognise that we can’t possibly know everything, and seek advice, and support from peers where necessary. Getting eyes on unpublished work is a critical component in checking the map. Critique is valuable, both the giving of, and receiving, and being open to others having ideas that will improve your work.

What I do feel is important is that most of these codes, whether a list of ideals in a book or something more formal, should be principles that guide us, and not regimented ‘rules’. I like the BCS effort but it’s not heavy-handed, and there are far more map-makers in the world than BCS members, or members of any society for that matter. The world has moved well beyond professional cartography being governed by societies and professional organisations anyway. A community driven approach that makers of maps of all types, and of all experiences, can view as helpful in guiding their own work seems like a good way to help us all in our work.

Particularly in a post-truth world our individual, and collective professional and ethical responsibility is to be guided by overarching advice which guide us to deliver maps that people can genuinely trust. As I said in the opening, all maps lie, but some maps lie more than others, and minimizing the spectrum from gratuitous to accidental lies has to be paramount. The little white lies we infuse maps with to make the main message clearer, and which do no harm – I’m fine with those, that’s cartography!

About the author

Ken is an academic cartographer and geographer from the UK, and since 2011 he teaches, talks and writes about cartography, and makes maps to demonstrate map design at Esri. He considers himself a professional 'cartonerd', educated with a Bachelors in cartography and a PhD in GIS and health geography, and over 30 years experience designing curricula, and teaching map design and GIS. He has presented and published an awful lot and is in demand as a panelist and keynote. He blogs (cartoblography.com), tweets (@kennethfield), is past Editor of The Cartographic Journal (2005–2014), and past Chair of the ICA Map Design Commission (mapdesign.icaci.org 2010-2018). He’s won a few awards for maps, pedagogy and kitchen tile designs. He is author of the best-selling book 'Cartography.' and leads the Esri MOOC on cartography which has been taken by over 110,000 students interested in making better maps. His new book 'Thematic Mapping: 101 inspiring ways to visualise empirical data' has been described as amazing! He snowboards, plays drums, builds Lego and supports Nottingham Forest.

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