This page discusses individual maps users.  It complements the page on persons who produce and distribute maps and those who use maps for their research and presentations.  It is part of the larger collection of pages on Map Use

The Individual Map User

Users are those persons who turn to a map for a particular reason. Each user brings a particular set of experiences and talents to the task of using maps. Many of these users are experienced in the use of the maps and know the possibilities and limitations inherent in the maps they produce and employ. Others are less informed about the nature of maps and do not have the knowledge to either take advantage of the information inherent in the maps or may have a tendency to try to get more information from maps than is inherent in the maps.

In the section on Map Use Communities we discuss the many different types of maps that are produced to serve groups of map users. For individuals to participate in some types of activities or professions requires that they develop skills in using the maps that are part of doing that activity. Thus, to become a geologist the individual must learn to use geologic maps which are an integral part of this science. The same is true of meteorology and geomorphology. Similarly, naval and aero navigators will learn to employ maps and charts or they will not be able to function in their daily tasks. Although each of these professionals has to have a basic functionality with maps and charts, there will be inherent differences in the ease and skill which some people bring to the task compared to their colleagues.

Some dimensions of individual map users are discussed in the paragraphs below:

  • Motivation and Knowledge
  • Scale, Generalization and Selectivity
  • Map Literacy, or Graphicacy
  • Limitations, Distortions and Responsibilities
  • Availability of the Appropriate Map
  • Matching Uses to Maps
  • Blindness and Visual Impairments
  • Mobility Impairments
  • Children and Youth
  • Non-Users by Choice
  • Innocent Bystanders

Motivation and Knowledge: We can say that persons who have cause to use maps to carry out their job or other tasks they want to take on have a motivation to learn how to use maps to accomplish specific goals. In the process of using maps in pursuit of these goals the individuals will learn some fundamental concepts inherent in maps.  And, their knowledge will build as they use maps over time.  However, we note that the person who becomes comfortable with the one type of map or family of maps is not necessarily comfortable with all other types of maps addressing other subject matter.  It seems that the individual user has to have some knowledge of the subject being mapped as well as a desire to get something from using a map.  Some persons have to be considered expert map users.  Experts have a set of skills and strategies that they employ to perform different map use tasks.  The knowledge and motivation of the individual user is a factor in map use.

Scale, Generalization and Selectivity: Maps are representations of information in a spatial context.  Maps portray larger areas as significantly smaller objects.  We can think of a map as a macroscope, a tool to let us zoom out and see things we cannot see with the naked eye.  Only maps and globes let us see the whole earth at one time.  No map shows everything that exists in space and therefore maps are selective in what they show.  As such then, maps require generalization which is a form of abstraction.  Every map we see is a product of selectivity and generalization.  How do users relate these representations of reality to the real worlds in which they make their decisions?  We know that some users much more proficient at this than others.

Map Literacy, or Graphicacy: Many users assume maps are correct, in large part, because it is very difficult to gather evidence to counter the representations shown on maps.  Yet, maps are crafted by humans and as such may contain biases, errors, interpretations, and misrepresentations similar to those found in news articles, books, television programs, advertisements, and all other forms of human communication and documentation.  Developing the ability to use maps critically is considered comparable to being able to read text critically - what some call graphicacy and literacy.  Sometimes we refer to our users as being map literate.

It is appropriate for literate users to ask who produced a map and why the map was produced. Those who produce maps may use maps to promote particular biases or for propaganda purposes. Some maps contain errors, misrepresentations, or distortions through ignorance on the part of the map producer or because of technical problems in production or reproduction. A number of writers in recent years have examined who produces many of our maps and why they are produced. This has caused us to re-examine the ways persons, institutions, and organizations have used maps to shape and influence the larger community.

Education of map users is a worthy goal of the cartographic community. However, carrying out that education does not seem to be working. Muehrcke (1996, 277) notes that ". . . less than half of the adult population in the United States can perform even the most basic tasks related to using maps."  He contends that to achieve our educational goal we need ". . . to focus directly on the idea of mapping. This means to stress mapping logic and the relation between map and reality over all else." (ibid., 278)

Limitations, Distortions and Responsibilities: Muehrcke among others contend that when the individuals make their own maps they will learn more about maps and mapping than when looking at maps made by others. With our access to computer based mapping tools individuals are now making their own maps. With this power in the hands of the individual, hopefully we will see a more map literate population. One thing individual map makers will have to confront is the inherent distortion in maps which ". . . can be our friend if we know how to use it effectively." (ibid., 275)

Map users have to take some responsibility for the proper use of maps. As Muehrcke notes "No amount of safety features can prevent the harm caused by misusing tools." (ibid.)  Users must learn to handle mapping tools effectively and responsibility. Gersmehl (1983) reflects on how one of his maps was misinterpreted and what he could have done differently to minimize misuse of his map. While the users did not make effective use of his map, he recognized that some of the blame might have been of his doing in the design of the map.  But, even if he had a better design the map might have been misused.

Availability of the Appropriate Map: We know that in many cases the maps people use for various tasks are not the most appropriate maps for that task but they are the maps that people have available to them. There may not be a better map or there may be better maps but the user does not know about their existence or know how to get access to those maps. There is an analogy to what people use to pound on something when an appropriate tool is not at hand. Many times a knife, coffee cup, or shoe will work to hammer something into place. In other situations, only the appropriate type of hammer will get the job done. The same can be said for maps.  It is the responsibility of the user to know if the map at hand will suffice for the task.

Maps are dated and are only current at the time the data are compiled. There are many stories of individuals using out of date maps and getting in trouble because they did not appreciate the temporal nature of maps. For historical questions that map may be appropriate but for many tasks the age of the information on the map may be of concern and detract from the appropriateness of the map for the task. Understanding the temporal aspect of maps is one dimension of becoming map literate. There is a similar question relative to the scale of the map. When the data are not at a large enough scale then we know some users will interpolate (or extrapolate) to fill in details in an attempt to give a `more accurate' map, although there is no basis for any greater accuracy.

Matching Users to Maps: It is important to have systems to inform the public of what is available and then provide a product to meet the needs of the potential users. Map producers, map dealers, and map librarians try very hard to spread the word but they are not always successful. In addition to spreading the word, for those persons who are not cartographically literate, there is the task of getting the user to define and articulate needs sufficiently to match the user with the most appropriate map or maps. Matching potential map users with the appropriate map is no easy task.

Blindness and Visual Impairments: Any discussion of map users must include all of those persons who have one or more impairments that limit their ability to use maps in the same ways as those who have no impairments. Blindness is the most obvious impairment for the use of maps that most of us read. Considerable effort has been devoted to developing tactile maps to accommodate those who cannot employ their eyes to see. Then there are those who are not totally blind but are so visually impaired that normal maps cannot be used. Color blindness is still another impairment that limits some persons from being able to take full advantage of many maps. The ICA Commission on Maps and Graphics for Blind and Partially Sighted People focuses on this community of users.

Mobility Impairments: Maps in the traditional form are large and may be somewhat cumbersome to manipulate. Users in wheelchairs and persons with other physical limitations may need special accommodations to use maps efficiently and effectively. And, when using maps as navigation aides, many persons with these limitations want their maps to show them possible routes of accessibility and potential impediments to mobility. Thus, the useful map for the impaired may be somewhat different from those maps accepted by those with full use of all of their facilities.

Children and Youth: Children represent still another community of potential users. The Commission on Children and Cartography reflects the ICA's concern with the way young people learn to represent their world and learn about their world in the graphic form of maps. It has been shown that children as young as six years of age can relate their local community to graphic representations as maps. As they get older children are able to handle the more abstract representation of ever larger spaces on smaller scale maps.

Non-Users by Choice: In a discussion of individual map users we need to recognize those persons who choose to not use a map for a particular task when other people instinctively turn to a map to approach the same task? We know little or nothing about why some persons do not use maps.

Innocent Bystanders: The innocent by-stander is still another individual who is affected by maps and map use activities but who may not know that he or she is involved in the process. Gershmel (1985) reflected on a series of maps that were made over the years based in part on a map he published. With each subsequent map a different interpretation, or an error, was made. Ultimately, maps were made that influenced some political decisions with implications for individuals in certain regions. He concludes that innocent by-standers may have been affected by the design and interpretation of a number of maps. He considers what he could have done differently so that the people who read his maps would have understood the subtleties in his maps and not made any misinterpretations. This paper points out that we are all map users, even if we make no overt attempt to view maps.

References Cited

Gersmehl, Phillip, 1985, "The Data, the User and the Innocent Bystander: A Parable for Map Users, Professional Geographer, 37(3), pp. 329-334.

MacEachren, Alan M., 1995, How Maps Work: Representation, Visualization, and Design. New York: Guilford Press.

Muehrcke, Phillip C., 1996, "The Logic of Map Design," in Clifford H. Wood and C. Peter Keller (eds.), Cartographic Design: Theoretical and Practical Perspectives. New York: John Wiley & Sons, pp. 271-278.

You are at the bottom of the page on Individual Map Users.  This is one of three pages on the uses of maps.  The complement of this page is the page on Producers as Users of Maps.  I present my introduction to map users in the master page of Map Use: The Many Dimensions.



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