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4. Ethics of Mapping Continued: Questions to Consider

Important ethical decisions that every mapmaker must consider are:

  • What data should I use? If you choose to use data that’s already collected (e.g. Census data), are you using it because it’s the easiest to access or because it’s the most appropriate data to answer your research question? What are the limitations of using data that hasn’t been collected or managed by you?
  • How should I classify the data? What categories will you create? For example, if you are working with racial demographics, will you report on the categories such as Latinx, non-Latinx White, non-Latinx Black, Latinx White, Latinx Black, etc, or will you provide broader categories such as people of color and white? What are the implications of choosing more general categories?
  • At what resolution or scale should the data be aggregated? If you are studying a phenomena at the neighborhood level, how do you define the boundaries of a neighborhood? Is it based on the school district, the Census Designated Place (CDP), the voting district, or maybe a boundary that doesn’t have a formal delination, such as a sense of community among people?
  • What are the implications of aggregating the data at a certain scale? For example, let’s say you are studying the differences between urban and suburban areas. If you aggregate your data at the level of counties, what could be missing from that representation of the data? Is something happening at the level of the neighborhood or town, which could prove useful to answer your research question? This is not to say that the smallest scales are always the best to work with, but rather to suggest that when we aggregate data, we need to be aware of what distinctions we are hiding in the process.
  • What colors and symbols should I use? Should you represent a population in red or blue? Red normally signals something that is alarming, while blue is a more neutral color. These subjective cartographic design decisions greatly impact viewer’s understanding of the map. For more guiding questions on ethical decision making, please see “Ethical Decision-Making”, a robust resource put together by the “Community of Earth Educators.” Quote: "We conceive 'mapping' as a practice, an action of thought in which the map is only one of the tools promoting an approach and deep analysis of social, subjective, and geographic territories." (Dúo Iconoclasistas) With all of the subjective decisions that go into mapmaking, those working in the tradition of feminist GIS and critical cartography have stressed the importance of contextualizing one’s map. Maps do not speak for themselves. We need to add context that allows the viewer to understand all of the decisions that were made while making the map. This form of transparency will help tell the story that you are trying to communicate.

Further Resources

For more about the history of mapping, and to learn about current countermapping projects, see these resources:

Challenges for lesson 4

Assignment: Challenge

Have a look at this map of vaccination by county and state. Imagine the map in red instead of green. Do you think that might shift some people’s feelings towards the vaccine, even if on a subconscious level? Also, have a look at the two different maps—one aggregated by county and the other by state. How does the level of aggregation change what the map tells us?

Workshop overall progress