Pitfall #1: Encouraging Propaganda

Maps are not facts. They are also not objective. Rather, maps are a way of telling a story. Historically, maps have been used as a way to tell fictional stories of land ownership and the need for intervention of allegedly “weak”, “underdeveloped”, or “undemocratic” states. With this history in mind, the first pitfall many social justice mapmakers encounter is an uncritical reliance on the tools, funding, and agendas of the government to communicate. For example, in this map series released by the World Bank, entitled “Visualizing Inequality,” a dataset demonstrating the percentage of adults in each nation who have passed standardized tests in math, reading, and science in a nation is visualized. Instead, the irresponsible visual only serves to imply that the regions which are greyed out are not ones we should think of as intelligent or educated in their present state.

Moving forward: We should avoid relying on maps that the government produces to legitimize their agendas, and instead look to the maps of public non-profit interest and research groups. This is especially true regarding international politics. We cannot trust multinational financial institutions with a history of destabilizing nations to classify who is “educated”.

Similarly, this map, like many “informational” maps, fails to explain the data’s source, the justification for why this dataset was chosen to represent “education,” or any historical context for the information presented. It does not invite viewers to understand and break apart the separate pieces of information represented. Instead, it encourages us to take a quick glance and internalize its takeaways as “fact”. 

Moving forward: Digital maps should include a guide which helps users to understand the underlying dataset being represented, the source and potential interests of the data collectors, and the decisions behind different aesthetic decisions in the map. Truly just maps should always encourage users to think of the visualization as subjective representations designed for a reason, and let viewers decide what to do with the information at hand.

For example, in the context of this map, why was the level of education grouped into three types of colors rather than by more hues? What does that communicate about who is included in the “we” and who is included in the “them”? Further, why was this information represented on a national scale when rural urban divide? What language were these tests provided in? Who decides what meets “basic” skills competency? Is there a way to come to a truly international standardization of education?

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