A War without Humans

A colleague of mine, Tim Wallace, recently alerted his classmates to the existence of this Google MyMaps mashup of US drone attacks in Pakistan:

Click to go to the actual map

This map is the poster child for emotionally inappropriate symbology. A lot of people think of maps as simply carriers for data. But they do more than transmit information — they influence our thoughts and our feelings as well. They’re artwork. One point symbol is not as good as any other, and I believe that bright red and green pushpins are completely unacceptable for a map about death, and war, and terror. These are human lives we are talking about here, not regional sales numbers in a spreadsheet. This map is dehumanizing. This map makes war look tidy and fun.

The internet has brought a lot of changes to cartography. Data are cheap, distribution is cheap, and access to the technology to make maps is opening up to more and more people (though we would do well to remember that the touted geoweb revolution is still confined to the iPhone-toting wealthy western elite — click here for more of my thoughts on this). All of this is, to my mind, good stuff. But, right now, the tools are still in the formative stages. The problems with this map are not really the fault of the creator. They had a data set that they wanted to get out there and share with the world. Google provided them a free, easy to use tool to accomplish this. Ideally, better tools and better cartographic education would be available to the new influx of people interested in mapping their world, but the above shows that we’ve still got a long way to go.

And, of course, this data set is all laid on top of an unnecessary satellite photo, along with some roads that will mean nothing to most readers. But, that’s par for the course with these early days of free web maps. It is my hope that the mapmaking infrastructure will continue to improve as demand for custom mapping applications rises.

Finally, I should point out that the yellow and green pushpins are largely indistinguishable to certain types of color vision impairments.

I am glad the author made this map and shared it with the world (I am, in fact, using the data in a personal project of my own). The problems are largely forgivable and understandable. But they are still serious problems, and we need to be aware of the effects this map can have on us when we look at it.

12 Responses to “A War without Humans”

  1. 22nd March, 2010 at 3:44 pm

    I don’t know the politics or ideology behind the map but one can read something into the use of the pin colors: yellow for strikes prior to 2008 (and not politically assigned an administration), red for the Bush admin and green for the Obama admin. Not a great way to avoid a sense of bias in disseminating sensitive data.

    Assuming those were the only colors available (and the author wanted to at least appear neutral) you could have used them in a time order fashion, green to red for oldest to most current by the three designated time periods.

    Overall I’m not as outraged about the symbology. It’s not very effective, but I don’t read it as supper insensitive, but that really depends on who the intended audience is. It would help to know more about who made it, why and who for.

  2. 2 Well,
    23rd March, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    what would you recommend instead? Little explosion symbols? Human skulls? Circles?

    • 3 Daniel Huffman
      23rd March, 2010 at 2:20 pm

      I think that something as simple as a circle is preferable. It’s not very death-like, but at least it lacks the whimsical connotation that a bright pushpin has. Human skulls or other morbid icons can be even more effective, but run a risk of going the other way — if you make it too cartoonish you risk making it look like a mockery. A lot of death imagery is that way, actually. We’re used to making fun of death and laughing at it, so it’s a challenge, to my mind, to get people to look at it seriously. A bit more realism to those symbols would be necessary, at the least.

      This is something I am actually playing around with re-making, myself, though I’ve not had the time to really start at it. My own preference is to go with something austere and dark, which I think moves away from whimsical connotations and puts readers in a mood more receptive to unpleasant data. Dark outline human figures might be effective, but I have yet to put them there and see if it plays as well on the page as in my mind.

      I should probably have put these ideas in the post as a more constructive suggestion next to the critique.

  3. 23rd March, 2010 at 4:35 pm


    Apart from pushpins being stupid symbols on pretty much any map, whether or not they are inappropriate here on some emotional level is certainly debatable, you’ll probably agree. I’m with David above in not taking issue with them in that regard; and what’s appropriate for this map depends on its purpose and intended audience. You want a death map, but you’re just one guy.

    But what’s more interesting is that you seem to advocate as a general rule deliberately and consciously seeking to evoke some particular reaction from the map reader. I know that some time ago we all quit believing that any map can be neutral and objective. And granted, you did comment that simple circles would be sufficient here. But it seems you prefer that we embrace the emotional power of maps and run with it. Am I reading too much into your post?

    I’m down with recognizing that power and avoiding unintended messages, but (to extrapolate your arguments a bit too far) the notion of the all-powerful cartographer swaying minds with his every map sort of rubs me the wrong way and just like certain mapping “rules” sounds like the kind of talk that cartographers make as they struggle to justify their own worth and existence these days. Sometimes a map really is meant just to show where things are, and it should be judged on how effectively it does that. Maybe a map can’t be neutral, but it can be worth getting as close as possible.

    Anyway, the short version is that I don’t think we can usually castigate someone for failing to send a certain message with a map.

    • 5 Daniel Huffman
      23rd March, 2010 at 6:26 pm

      Yeah, I think I was probably pretty harsh there (I checked around with people before posting and they were all like, “no, you’re not being harsh,” but I think they were feeling harsh, too. Not that this is anything but my own responsibility).

      I think that my approach to cartography, especially over the last three months, has become very oriented toward emotion. I would agree with you that maps can’t be neutral, and I think that people who want to get as close as possible have a fair point, but right now my interests are occupied by works that take the lack of neutrality and run with it. I’m leaning in a Bunge-esque direction (though, hopefully without the Stalinism). Though, I suppose that’s not possible to really be emotional with every data set, since some are kind of boring. I’m in a sort of…humanist phase, perhaps you might call it? Most of what I’ve been focusing on lately is how maps affect people, how they produce a connection between the reader and the topic, and how they make people feel. This is tied probably to my feelings about digital cartography, and my fear of its dehumanizing influences. But that is all another subject, which I would be interested to take up with you.

      I don’t necessarily want a death map…I think if this were mapped with simple points and were more neutral feeling, I would have perhaps been fine about that. The clash between the sort of whimsical presentation and the subject matter is just very jarring to me. Though that can be used to good effect in a sort of ironic fashion, if you have the right audience to pull it off.

      Anyway, you make a fair point, and I would probably have backed off the strength of this some if I had been less…in the moment. But I would keep the sentiment.

  4. 6 Tim Wallace
    24th March, 2010 at 1:33 pm

    Let’s face it – Google’s palette (of both colors and icons) is “playful”. And, here’s something else we should probably face – not all topics are playful. I agree with Andy that “sometimes a map really is meant just to show where things are”. But . . . should I draw a map of the Trail of Tears using Unicorns and Rainbows to “show where things are”? I know a pushpin is not a unicorn, but I’m with Daniel here. When a topic is this heavy and tied to real human emotion, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to take greater care when choosing how to represent it.

    Nowadays, this may too much to ask. And I don’t think any of us can criticize the maker of this map. How the heck else was he supposed to make this map in Google’s MyMaps? Perhaps he could have used different POI symbols from the the Google Maps Icons Library (http://code.google.com/p/google-maps-icons/)? Hmm . . . I’m not sure that would be any better. Some of the icons being offered up there are even more offensive than a cartoon pushpin (notably, this one: http://google-maps-icons.googlecode.com/files/rape.png).

  5. 24th March, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    Well, Tim, we’ll see how you feel about pushpins after I jab you in the neck with one! You’ll come around to my side, I know it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: