Editor's note: Are maps losing their integrity?
In a “post-truth” era of “fake news” and “alternative realities” scientifically sound information has taken on new value for those who care about facts and quality insights. Mapping’s long history and relationship with scientific domains, be it the mathematical principles which underpin it, or its relationship to statistics and geography/geology, has lent it similar authority – even despite map design’s ability to deceive.
In recent years there has been much discussion about crowdsourcing information and how to validate and integrate such information with authoritative data sources and national spatial data infrastructures. But mapping, like many other fields of information, is driven by public demand, appeal and use – that is how Google became a prominent geospatial company. In this case, it’s not the most scientific data that wins users, but the most user-friendly.
Maps have become a “single source of truth”, especially owing to their ability to integrate various datasets in an easy-to-understand way. But what happens when maps contradict each other, and what does that mean for the geospatial profession?
A recent example is the distinct differences between two air-quality-monitoring mapping services:
, which maps global air quality using data from the monitoring devices the firm sells to the public; and the South African Air Quality Information System (
) of the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA).
Over the last week (17 to 21 June 2019) SAAQIS has shown areas across South Africa, and around Johannesburg specifically, to have “Good” to “Moderate” air quality. To the contrary, Johannesburg was featured on the AirVisual homepage every day of the week as one of a handful of global outliers for its “Unhealthy”, “Very unhealthy” and even “Hazardous” air quality.
With both services offering similar visual indicators, and neither offering easy-to-understand explanations of how their map/data is derived, users are undoubtedly more likely to use and believe the better-designed AirVisual map, which claims global authority and is easier to use and integrate via apps, application programming interfaces (APIs) or website widgets.
Institutional authority used to be one indicator of information integrity, but with the DEA’s tarnished reputation following its (
attempt in May 2019
to amend the Minimum Emission Standards upwards, who do you trust?