Friday, August 22, 2014

The Worst Map of the Week

I don't usually criticize maps on this blog. Google Maps Mania is mainly concerned with interesting on-line maps and maps which are experimenting with new or original visualization techniques. This means I tend not to concentrate on the cartographic failings of the maps featured on Google Maps Mania.

Yesterday's Van Gogh map post is a good example of this. This map is never going to win any awards for excellence in cartography but the Van Gogh map is an interesting experiment in using the new Mapbox GL mapping platform. It could therefore be very useful as a demo map for any developers who are starting to explore Mapbox's new map library - so it gets no criticisms from me.

However cartographic critics do play an invaluable role in sharing and encouraging good cartographic practice. Kenneth Field's Cartonerd is a great blog for anyone who is interested in good and bad cartography. Kenneth's constructive criticisms of published maps are really informative and he regularly explores the common cartographic mistakes made in maps. This recent post on the Gaza Everywhere map is a great example of how Cartonerd's observations can actually lead to a map developer creating a better map.

I am going to make an exception today however, in my 'no criticism' policy, for a map by The Daily Telegraph which has really annoyed me. I'll let Cartonerd criticize the cartography if he wants - I want to concentrate on the map's horrible social prejudices.

The Daily Telegraph has mapped the 'best places' to live in England and Wales. To make this map The Telegraph has created its own 'index' based on five social and economic criteria. Average Weekly Incomes and Home Ownership levels make up two of these five criteria. Therefore the map places a huge weighting in its judgement of the 'best places' to live on areas having no poor people or people who don't own their own homes.

On first reading about these criteria my first thought was that The Telegraph was making a really nasty judgement in deciding where the better places to live are, assuming that if you have the choice it is better to avoid living anywhere near poor people. I then wondered a little about whether this judgement might actually be true. It is entirely possible that the nicer places to live become beyond the means of people without high incomes. The 'best places' to live attract more people and the market drives up the price of property and the area eventually becomes dominated by people with high incomes.

To be fair to the newspaper The Telegraph's assumption might be not that an area is better because it has no poor residents but that the better areas have higher incomes because they eventually become unaffordable to anyone without a high income.

To test this hypothesis I looked at the rankings for areas around where I live in East London. In The Telegraph map Redbridge is declared a far better place to live than Hackney. Hackney scores very low on the home ownership and average income levels while Redbridge scores very high on both criteria. Hackney is therefore declared a less nice place to live because it has too many poor people.

Given the choice however I don't think I'm alone in thinking that I would far rather live in Hackney than Redbridge. Hackney is a far more vibrant and exciting community than Redbridge, with far more options in terms of restaurants, night-life and cultural activities.

Herein lies one of the problems in The Telegraph's criteria for deciding where the 'best places' to live are. My experience is that areas with low income and home ownership levels are often the areas which are the most exciting to live. These are the areas, in cities in particular, which often attract the young, the artistic and the dynamic start-up companies looking for cheap rent.

In fact I look at The Telegraph's The Best Places in England and Wales and find that in the areas I know about I would far rather live in the places that The Telegraph claims are the worst places to live than in their 'best places'. But I guess that could be down to my own social prejudices and the fact that I don't necessarily despise people on low incomes.

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