“The power of geographic and spatial information design is often an untapped resource. Much work done by advocacy organisations has some “spatial” element to it and includes data that can, when approached creatively, be easier to explore and understand when mapped or displayed visually”
Tactical Technology, Maps for Advocacy
I’ve written about the power of maps for advocacy before. I was particularly interested in how some of our partners were using the good old pen-and –paper-made map, and in some cases, 3D maps to get their advocacy messages across to decision-makers.
As well as these sorts of ‘social maps’, there’s a whole world of experience to learn from about using electronic mapping for advocacy and this is something that we’re starting to pilot in with some of our partners in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
In eastern DRC, a number of our partners are engaged in local level conflict monitoring work to inform advocacy. Partners have been collecting huge amounts of data and it has been quite difficult to organise, analyse and present that data in an effective way to inform and influence their target audiences.
Given the importance of the spatial dimension of this data, electronic mapping seemed like a possible solution to these challenges. So, we teamed up with NGO Map Action to pilot this work and explore the idea in more detail.
In this blog, I’d like to share some of the (many) things we learned during this experience.
To anyone wanting to map, my primary advice would be: know what you want to do before you start. This might seem blindingly obvious but the most important thing I learned is that mapping is not a solution in and of itself. It’s a tool. So, it only works well if you’ve thought about what you want to use the map to show and who you want to see/use it.
In this way, planning out carefully who the intended audience of the map will be is really key. An advocacy strategy or stakeholder analysis can cope with much more diversity in this regard than a map can. What we found in DRC was that we were trying to make a map that would work for all of our target audiences: online and offline, international and local.
Of course, what we found was that some types of maps are better suited to certain audiences. So, if you’re trying to speak to a businessman in a local market in Zambia, you might be better off with a printed map, whereas if you’re trying to reach a teenager in south London then an online interactive map is possibly more suitable. However, there are also certain practical factors that limit this choice even further. In DRC, we found the internet connection just wasn’t good enough for online mapping anyway!
Another challenging question we came across was how much data to include. And again, we found that this issue was closely linked with the question of audience. How much data does your audience need for the message you’re trying to send? So, for example, if you’re trying to help Dave in south London to understand the extent of the conflict in DRC, he probably doesn’t need the data to be broken down by village. Whereas, if you’re trying to help village chiefs understand the indicators of conflict in their village compared with neighbouring villages, giving provincial level data isn’t going to be very useful.
There’s also an issue of security linked to this, particularly when talking about sensitive issues like conflict. Is there a risk to people on the ground if you give too much detail about where conflict is happening?
Of course, there’s also a general question here about ‘how much data is too much data?’. In terms of immediate impact, it can be more effective to have a map that clearly shows one or two key messages. However, that approach isn’t so suited to delivering complex messages and there is a danger of oversimplifying the data.
This is certainly something we found when looking at how we could present our conflict data. If we create a map that shows the number of incidences of conflict but with no reference to the impact of those incidences e.g. number of deaths, then our map could easily give a false impression of the severity of conflict in certain areas. We also discussed how we could qualify the map to explain that the absence of data in certain areas does not mean there is no conflict in those areas, but rather that we are simply not collecting data there.
At the other end of the spectrum, webmaps (an interactive, online map) can give you the option of putting huge amounts of data all on one map. It then allows the user to interact with the map as s/he likes and select/show/hide the information that is most appealing to them. The positive side of this is that it’s much more engaging and interactive but it also means that you are giving up a certain degree of control of your message and risk your data to being interpreted more subjectively.
In this case, partners have decided to pilot GIS maps in their work. This will allow them to work offline (for practical and security reasons), and to quickly adapt the map for different audiences and for different messages. In terms of format, GIS maps would also allow partners to print off maps to physically take to meetings at village level but also to create jpg images to complement advocacy reports for national/international audiences. But (there’s always a but), a note of caution here is that GIS is completely dependent on a database system i.e. it only works if you have a well-organised database to link it to.
A final challenge that we’re also facing is what base maps to use e.g. what coordinates do we use to say where a given village is? Collaborating with others is important, both in terms of avoiding duplication (if someone else has already done the work), and in terms of information sharing. It seems sensible to use the same geocoding as others in so far as possible to make it easier to share and compare data collected by others.
Despite all these challenges and lessons learned, I’m personally feeling pretty energised about the potential for maps to enhance advocacy work in this case and feedback from partners was overwhelmingly positive.
So, watch this space to see how our partners get on and whether using maps makes any difference to their ability to engage with decision-makers and influence change- which is ultimately what we’re trying to get at!