What I’ve Learned about Maps


Why maps? Because maps can take data about what has happened to individuals and instantly transform it into data about what is happening to a community.

In our media-rich world, visual representations of data are well understood by most audiences. Maps are accessible. In today’s world of online services that are ready to use and can visualise your data, map services are some of the easiest to use. Maps also use a visual language that most people can understand. It’s taken me a little while to figure out this latter aspect, but one project really brought home to me the value of maps.

FabRiders has been doing work with the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network (EHRN) on reducing police violence against women who use drugs. You can read more about the project in the blog post “What I’ve Learned about Mapping Violence.” EHRN’s ‘Women Against Violence’ Project has several partners across eastern europe that are documenting police violence. When we created a campaign strategy for the project, EHRN insisted we use a map. I kept asking “why a map?” hoping for an articulation of how a map would support the advocacy effort. They wanted the map because a pin could appear in a location immediately as a report is submitted. They wanted the partners to be rewarded with the visual but also get a sense of how many other reports had been submitted.

The partners have been gathering data about police violence in order to bring individual police officers to justice. The maps themselves cannot, of course, be used in a court of law, and are not that valuable in an effort to bring police officers to justice; but this data has another value. When the data is aggregated from several EHRN members, a data visualization in the form of a larger map is created, showing patterns of violence, such as significant hot spots associated with specific police. This map is then presented to members of the broader community to get their answers to two questions:

  • Do you know this is happening in our community?
  • What do you think we can do to stop it?

When engaging police institutions, on the other hand, presenting the data as information about the community is absolutely critical. Instead of pointing the finger at individuals, the map is used as way to drive dialogue about how to prevent the this violence from happening in the community.

Another aspect about using maps — using geography — as a way of representing information is that it’s relatively easy for most people to look at and understand. I recently interviewed Satyarupa Shekhar from Transparent Chennai about how they used maps in the slums of Chennai to hold a discussion about public services within the community. She pointed out that maps are easier for illiterate people to pick up and use as they can translate the graphics to physical locations. They have used the maps to show residents how services such as garbage collection and paved roads are more prevalent in other neighbourhoods. The maps have helped in getting residents’ opinions on where services, such as public toilets, should go in their communities.

Comparing levels of violence by districts for DMSC's sex worker advocacy efforts.

Comparing levels of violence by districts for DMSC’s sex worker advocacy efforts.

Maps are also extremely helpful when trying to get points across to government and elected officials. To hold officials accountable to what is happening in their constituency, the map will show the boundaries of their districts and what is happening with in it. We used maps as one way of displaying data in a project on documenting violence against sex workers in West Bengal, that were specifically to show politicians the degree of violence in their constituency. In this project, done when I worked with Tactical Tech and the sex worker collective Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), the maps were one of several different representations of the data, each geared for their own audience.

Ushahidi knew the power of capturing violence real time in aftermath of the Kenyan elections in 2007 and their platform has helped many others do the same. However, without real advocacy strategies behind using the maps, these mean nothing. As my colleague, Heather Leson points out, you just can’t throw a map at it. But for advocates and activists who are just beginning to understand the power of visualizing data about their community, a map can be a very easy and great place to start your journey.

Stay tuned to the FabBlog for further learnings on using data in advocacy from our many projects.