New Map, New Danger

Yesterday, everyone was abuzz about a blog that was listing all the membership details for the BNP, a very far right wing political party in the UK. What was amusing listening to people’s reactions was that everyone’s first comment after “I know/don’t know that person!” was “When’s the first google map’s mashup going to occur?”.

And lo, TechCrunchUK reports about one such BNP map mashup. It’s a garish red pin nightmare of a map.

Quickly and interestingly the owner has taken it down. He says:

I have decided to take down the map. Many people have commented that the map does give a false impression of accuracy, despite my making this clear, and I’m tempted to agree. I do not want to single anybody out and by removing the accuracy from the map it is possible that it ends up incorrectly implying a property contains a BNP member. It has been suggested that an inaccurate map that doesn’t make that clear is worse than publishing the list itself, and I think that’s a reasonable comment.

To replace the monster of a map on that page, there is now a kernel density map of bnp members, which of course mirrors the spread of population in the UK.

Other maps work a bit differently: aggregates numbers by postal district, so individuals cannot be identified. Google spreadsheets are also online, like one that shows number of BNP members per county.

There are some interesting comments on the TechCrunchUK post, which call for more meaningful information, comparison with population density, ethnic minority populations.

The original blog with the list is now taken down, and the mashup too – and quite right too, it’s not OK to identify and vilify people just because they believe in something nasty. The Guardian Blog comments with some concerns “And what if data from the Sex Offenders Register was leaked and put on a Google Map”, (something which is done in the US).

So the release of this data and the use of “neogeo” tools is a prime example where you can point and say, “Yes, that map is dangerous”. I’ve talked about this before – the attitude of “If we let anyone make a map, then it could end the world!”.

But also a prime example where you can say “You can make a much better, useful and helpful map” where you can use that data and compare it to deprivation, population density, voting results, etc. (Of course, this does not justify the release of the data in the first place).

This “New Map, New Danger” viewpoint can be found on recent geowanking mailing list discussions. It’s frequently heard from traditional geographers, the teasingly named “paleogeographers”. It can be a strong argument to restrict access to data and tools. “If people made dodgy analysis about where to X, then it would disastrous!”

The focus seems to be about the tools – things which NeoGeo has helped more people to be able to use. All geographers should be encouraging the development of geography to people. It’s not enough to say, “to make a map is bad” it needs us to teach those to make good meaningful maps.

That’s not to say that people are not advising on how to do meaningful stuff, we are seeing such things now, the Geocommons crew for example are making a good step in this direction.