Finding a Doctor in Non-Geographic Space

I sometimes feel bad about this, but I’m going to let a map I just received today jump to the front of the queue, as it was in the right place at the right time. This one comes from my colleague Tim Wallace, who was sitting next to me filling out a health insurance form.


From the 2009 UW Health Directory, located at http://www.unityhealth.com/apps/FindADoctor/

It may surprise those of you who are not from the area to learn that Dane County, Wisconsin, does not look very much like that. The rigid lines of the Public Land Survey System, combined with the Wisconsin River, have left us with something that looks more like this:


Taken from Wikipedia article on Dane County.

Now, that being said, the fact that this map has a very high level of generalization is not inherently problematic. There are lots of very generalized, even cartoonish maps out there.  It depends on the purpose and audience of your map, and sometimes fine details are not important. But I think they significantly overdid it here. It looks rather comic, and this clashes with the professional application (a healthcare provider directory) to which it’s being put. It seems haphazard and only loosely related to reality, and that makes me doubt the rest of the information that goes in to it.

The real lesson from today’s map, which applies to a lot of maps out there, is that it should not have been made. It conveys no useful spatial information. I can’t use it to figure out how to get to any of the UW clinics, and while I can sort of tell where clinics are in relation to each other (the heavy generalization makes that an estimate at best), that’s not really useful information unless you choose your health clinic based on its proximity to other clinics or cities. “I’m sorry, the village of McFarland has asked that I stay at least 10 miles away at all times, so I’ll need a clinic an appropriate distance away.” So, barring bizarre circumstances, I cannot tell how having a map is better than having a table of clinic locations. A table would, in fact, be significantly more useful, because you could use the clinic address to actually figure out how to get there. Not everything that has a location needs to be mapped, or can be usefully mapped.

Also, if you compare the two maps above, you will notice that the city dots for the clinic map don’t really bear a lot of resemblance to where those communities actually are in Dane county. And, in case you’re wondering, I spot checked this against the addresses for the clinics in Belleville and Verona, and it still did not match. The dots have only the loosest connection to reality. If geography really means so little here, why make a map? Again, a table would be better. The only reason the author of today’s map can get away with this level of generalization and haphazard dot placement is because the map is scarcely conveying any geographic information.

The labeling could be better, though it’s not horrible. It needs more consistency in how far the label is positioned relative to the dot. Look at Cross Plains vs. Waunakee. Why not put them both directly under the dot center, if that’s what you’re going for? And this is not to mention the lack of corner positions. It is conventional, and, as I have often been taught, rather easier to read, if you put the label in a corner position — that is, up and to the right of the dot, or down and to the left, etc. Fitchburg is also ambiguously placed — the label is about the same distance from two different dots. Would have been just fine if it were off to the left of the dot. Now, to be fair, not all labeling can be ideal, because geographic realities get in the way. But, the author of this map does not appear to have been strongly tied to geographic reality anyway, so I’m not sure if that’s an excuse in this case.

This map does not need a legend.  A good map title should tell you what the map is about; since this map is about only one thing, if it’s well-titled I should be able to figure out what the red dots mean. If I’m looking at a map that’s titled “2009 UW Health Clinic Locations,” I’m not going to mistake those red dots for bowling alleys. Or cheese factories. Also, the dot in the legend is not only larger than the dots on the map, but a different shape. The ones on the map are more elliptical.

I was a little confused about the statement in the legend that says the communities of Black Earth and Cambridge are excluded — both are in Dane county. Skimming the report a bit, I think it’s because they’re not part of the UW Health Network. In which case, of course they wouldn’t be on the map — why would they bother to mention that? Chicago is also not included on this map, but they forgot to mention that one. On the other hand, if they are in the network, I have no idea why they would be left off. Maybe the author is no longer allowed to make maps of Black Earth.

In the end, this looks to me to be a classic case of “a table is too boring, let’s make a map!” But a table would have been a lot more useful for people who actually want to find a doctor.

One Nice Thing: The author set the county label in a different type than the city labels, strongly distinguishing them from each other.


9 Responses to “Finding a Doctor in Non-Geographic Space”

  1. 1 Tina
    8th November, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    “I’m sorry, the village of McFarland has asked that I stay at least 10 miles away at all times, so I’ll need a clinic an appropriate distance away.”

    You too, huh? *sigh*

  2. 8th November, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    They would probably do better with a simple table of locations.

  3. 3 Derek
    12th November, 2009 at 11:32 am

    Is there something in the water in Dane County Wisconsin that is seriously affecting their cartographic skills? The town of Blooming Grove (the one with the infamous town map meticulously crafted from an Excel spreadsheet) is also located in Dane County. Interesting.

  4. 28th November, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    To be honest, I don’t think a map like this even warrants this kind of scrutiny. If it did then you’d have to inspect every online locator out there and you’d be repeating the same points over and over again. This is so bad it’s “obviously” bad and not much is learned from pulling it apart. I think maps with a) a more complex purpose and b) a higher base level of cartography are going to make more interesting targets for evaluation.

  5. 5 Big Hazel
    10th January, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    I respectfully disagree with David Medeiros…this map may not need lengthy written analysis about what makes it bad, but I appreciate having it pointed out. Average people run across these poor representations of geographic space all the time — representations that are supposed to be making their world easier to understand, not just cluttering it up. It’s worthwhile to call out these “designers” on what they’re doing.

    Hope to see more posts soon!

  6. 13th January, 2010 at 11:50 pm

    I guess my point is that if you need someone else to tell you what’s wrong with a map like this than you need to invest more time in cartographic study to begin with.

    Even a laymen would appreciate the overall uselessness of this map. If you’re looking to create a truly helpful critical review, it might serve to look into more challenging and less obviously flawed cartography. The idea being that we will learn the most from those errors or omissions that we as cartographers ourselves don’t at first see. The things that look right until someone else points them out to us.

    On the other hand calling out really bad maps isn’t a bad idea, maybe this site needs a display section for these maps… no in depth review but just a place to hang the worst of the worst? A “zone of shame” as we used say at CSAA.

  7. 19th March, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    I disagree that a table would have been anywhere near as useful—and certainly not better. This allows Eastsiders to quickly learn where there might be a convenient location, without having to be bothered dismissing Mt. Horeb, as they would in a table. Similarly, it allows folks who live west of Madison to not be distracted by the DeForest listing. It is communicating two-dimensional information; why would you want to reduce that to a one-dimensional list organized alphabetically? You might as well organize it by receptionist’s maiden name.

  8. 17th February, 2011 at 8:39 am

    As a commercial printing “preflighter,” I’ve seen more than a few maps of this sort from our health insurance clients. It’s what comes of having somebody in the office do the system map in PowerPoint.

  9. 9 Sergio R. Mandiola
    30th May, 2013 at 8:05 pm

    This map was first published in the late 1980s by ESSELTE of Sweden, They had a chain of maps stores there, in the pre- Google maps era. if memory serves right I know, because I used to work in the map biz from 1989-93. Rand McNally ( my first map employer) touted this map in their catalog for abortive retail “map and travel” chain . Your critiques echoes mine at he time, but I surmised then the idea was to show physical (elevation) and environmental ( land use) in a “stylized” manner. Additionally as this was Swedish company, they EXPECTED their European clientele to know where all of the busy European cities were.

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