Following on from my various posts about using maps for advocacy, I’m blogging from DRC following a workshop with 4 partners to learn how to create and use GIS maps in their work.
Thanks go to Map Action (@MapAction) for their continued support to this learning process.
In my last blog, cleverly titled Mapvocacy (continued), I wrote about how important it is to select the right type of map for purpose, audience and context. Given the various power cuts throughout our workshop and the sensitivity of some of the data we were working with, I think everyone felt pretty happy that we decided to go with an offline (open source) programme called Quantum GIS.
Now, of course, maps can be used for lots of different purposes. Plenty has already been written about using maps for programme development or humanitarian response but surprisingly little has been documented about the communicative power of maps for advocacy. So you’ll forgive a poor Advocacy Accompanier for focussing on the latter.
I’m still new to mapping but I’d like to share a few of the things I have learned from this experience so far:
With great power comes great responsibility
One of the primary things that emerged from the workshop was how easy it is to misrepresent data on a map- intentionally or unintentionally. Some of the more common problems we came across when experimenting with our data were:
- Where we have no data
either because we’re not collecting data from x place or because we weren’t able to collect it. If you’re mapping incidences of conflict, for example, it’s very easy to give the impression that there is no conflict in x place when perhaps there is an awful lot but you just don’t have any data about it!
- Where we show only a selection of the data
Some of the best maps are the simplest ones where we choose to focus on one aspect of a wider data set. However, by doing this we lose the wider context. For example, if I show a map showing the number of gold mines in one province, the audience could be mislead into thinking there are no other resources in that area. Equally, if I show the same map with two different variables e.g. number of gold mines plus average family income, the audience will assume we’re trying to demonstrate the link between the two.
So, in short, a map in isolation from some kind of explanation of what it does and does not show is a dangerous thing. While maps can allow us to communicate a clear and powerful message to decision-makers, with great power comes great responsibility. We have to make sure that the message our map is giving is the message we actually want to send and that we set it in its broader context.
Plan ahead (or cry later)
The second major learning point that came out of this experience for me was about the paramount importance of forward planning before starting to map. This might seem like common sense but I think it’s worth the reminder that, rather than trying to crowbar a map into our work as an afterthought, we should be thinking as early as possible about:
- Purpose: what do I hope to achieve by creating this map?
- Audience: who will use this map?
- Message: what do I want my audience to know after looking at my map?
- Data: what data do I need to show to communicate that message?
From experience, let me tell you that you don’t want to be in the situation where you want to map x,y, and z data and realise you haven’t got it! By then it’s either too late or you need to redo your data collection to make sure you get it. Either way, it’s not a great situation to be in.
Ideally, if you want to use mapping for advocacy, you need to be thinking about it from the very beginning of your programme- both in terms of what data you want to collect and how you store/organise that data. Thinking about these things well in advance will save you all manner of headaches later on!
Product vs process
And as a final reflection, one of the limitations of GIS is that it might give us a pretty product but it loses some of the advantages of more participatory approaches to mapping. From some of our experiences in other countries, where partners are working with communities to create maps, we have seen that there is real value in the process as much as the product itself.
As GIS is of a technical nature, the reality is that only a limited number of people will have the necessarily skills to create maps. A longstanding and recognised risk of GIS therefore is that the process can easily become quite high-level and withdrawn from community experience. I think this risk can be mitigated to some extent by ensuring that the data that feeds the map is rooted in community experience and by sharing the final map products with the communities.
That said, we should also recognise that participatory maps are not always the most appropriate maps e.g. for anonymous reporting about sensitive data, and so this may not always be a problem. We should also note that participatory mapping can be a very lengthy process. So, it’s swings and roundabouts really and it depends on what you want to achieve with the map that should dictate whether the product or the process is your priority.
Overall, we’ve learned a lot but the real proof, as they say, will be in the pudding. We’re not in a place yet to offer any evidence about the impact of maps for advocacy in DRC. This is a learning exercise for us and our partners but we’re really looking forward to testing some of our assumptions and seeing what happens.