Maps and Mental Models

If you look at really old maps, many of them are not to scale. You may have a detailed drawing of England and then some dinky little representation of France showing "France is kind of over there" and in some corner it says "There be dragons here."

These maps were not just useful representations of geographic information, they were artistic renderings of mental models. The size of England relative to France didn't tell you anything about their actual sizes. What it told you was the relative importance of each to the mapmaker and the amount of information they knew about each.

If you lived in England, you knew a lot about England. What you knew about France might boil down to "It's over there somewhere. I've never actually been there and details about what is in France aren't important to me."

The professional field of mapmaking has matured and we now have standards and you don't typically see maps like that anymore, but maps remain artistic representation of mental models that provide a framework for sharing information. What you want to share and how you view that information still profoundly shapes your map even if your map is more likely to be to scale these days.

We have sayings like "A picture's worth a thousand words" and "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Somewhat akin to such ideas, a map is an information-dense means to efficiently and effectively communicate a wealth of ideas and the design of a map also tells you at least as much about how the map maker saw the place as it does about the actual place.

If you want to do community development work, understanding the value of maps as mental models and communication devices is extremely helpful. A good map can really boost the power of a web page or printed brochure tremendously.

We have a number of pithy sayings and anecdotes surrounding the idea that if you want something that communicates a lot of good information briefly, it really takes a lot of work to develop something like that. One of those is the saying "I would have written a shorter letter if I had had more time."

A good map will tend to be kind of like that. In order to do something information dense that is easily digested by your audience, you need to do a lot of work on your end and the amount of time you put into that will most likely not be obvious to other people.

This post is a rewrite of a previous posts which was intended to build on a post called Profile Your Community and Set Development Goals. That post includes a quick and dirty profile for Aberdeen, Washington.

It's quick and dirty because I have actually spent upwards of three years doing research to profile the community and develop a website that would work as a valuable tool for community development work. So that one post really only scratches the surface of what I know, what I wish I could make happen for the town I live in and so forth

It took me more than three years to develop a good website for Aberdeen, Washington in part because I had to find good quality technical resources available for free under a Creative Commons license, such as the maps by Stamen Design. Eclogiselle exists in part to gather together such resources and try to give other small communities a leg up on their development process.

Maps are excellent tools but many people know little about them. If you have no formal training with maps, I highly recommend this little video as a twelve minute introduction to some essential concepts that you really need to understand if you are going to work with maps as part of your community development work.


Defining The Pacific

The website I developed and had used as an example of a good site is currently offline in part because it has no real purpose. The research it was based on was done with a particular organization in mind and I don't actually work for them, so the site doesn't actually say "We do economic development work. Get in touch if you have a business in this area or are looking to start one."

It's essentially a mock up and that has questionable value in my mind for a variety of reasons. I'm wondering whether or not I could give it a real purpose of some sort (beyond just using it as an example of my work).

Good design doesn't simply look good. It is purposeful.

In large organizations that use GIS, you sometimes end up with a map shop This is a department that only makes maps.

They tend to make bad maps because their only purpose is making maps, so they try to make them pretty because that's the only piece they have any creative control over. While a good map will tend to be described as beautiful, a beautiful map isn't necessarily a good map.

So the purpose for the map will determine what kinds of information goes into that map and how it gets organized.

For small communities, especially for unincorporated communities, local businesses are often de facto doing local development. They provide essential services and sometimes are serving functions that might normally be served by the city government if there were one.

So if you are reading this because you are a business owner in a small community, you might want a map that shows people where you are.

You will need to think about your target audience and how they relate to that info. A map aimed at locals will look different from a map aimed at tourists coming in from elsewhere.

You may need to think about how outsiders will relate to local information. You may need to think about how your location relates to major infrastructure, like the nearest highway, harbor or airport.

Another scenario: If you own a hotel or similar, you may want to create a map to show nearby tourist draws. This might be a very different map from the one described above.

This might be more like a Disney style map with pictures or drawings showing local tourist destinations and giving an estimate for how far that is from your hotel. Like maps of old, this map might make no effort to be to scale.

A map is a communication tool. A good map will readily convey to your target audience the information you want them to have.

Doing that requires you to have a clear idea of what you want to tell them and a fairly good concept of what your target audience will need in order to be able to readily understand that information.

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