The British Library are currently hosting an exhibition called Beautiful Science, showcasing a history of data analysis and how it has been presented. As quantitative data have become more and more plentiful, two challenges are posed: how to interpret, and how to communicate. Notable among the stalls are a variety of maps, demonstrating the increasing influence of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) Mapping. The rise of geographical mapping can arguably be attributed to its excellence in meeting both challenges. It offers both a powerful tool for accessible data visualisation, but also an analytical method for thinking about social, historical or epidemiological issues in a different way.
Parliamentary Trust across Europe, from the European Social Survey
Cluster analysis of food charities in the West Midlands
Growing appreciation of the importance of spatial influences across multiple disciplines in recent times has coincided with a rapid increase in the accessibility of technology that facilitates exploring research questions in a spatial way. These two trends have coincided to produce what has been described as a ‘spatial turn’, in a variety of fields. Social science has been no different, witnessing a boom in spatial thinking, with an increasing recognition and focus on the effects of geographical location on social phenomena.
Mapping has long been of interest to social theorists. In fact, the practice of mapping itself is value laden. Translating the globe of the Earth into a two dimensional map is often likened to peeling an orange and trying to flatten the peel. This ‘flattening’ process is called projection. There are many types of projection, but all of them result in some form of distortion, which at times has led to controversy. The most recognisable projection is called Mercator, produced in 1569 and which Google Maps and others are based on even now. However, Mercator has been decried as an imperialist distortion, as it exaggerates the size of Europe and North America in comparison to that of Africa and South America. However, a much vaunted alternative, the Gall-Peters Projection, which purports to be a ‘true’ reflection of the globe and often adorns left-leaning bedroom walls, is no less skewed, but in different ways. There is no way to flatten an orange without getting some juice in your eye.
Nonetheless, mapping techniques are of great value to the social sciences, both in the interpretation and presentation of data, and provide an exciting way to think about and communicate social issues. Maps are familiar to everyone, and thus provide a highly engaging and accessible way of presenting many different types of information. Software packages, like the freely available Quantum GIS, offer increasingly advanced ways of analysing the effects of geographical proximity on social phenomena.
At NatCen, we are increasingly using mapping for both data visualisation and as a tool for analysis. A spatial modelling approach to the location of gambling machines has been developed, and we have produced maps exhibiting measures of wellbeing, political trust and perceptions of personal safety.
Data from the Wellbeing in Wales project
Mapping was also a central aspect to our project exploring FareShare, a charity who distribute excess food from supermarkets to local food charities. GIS techniques were used to analyse the FareShare distribution network, assessing how successful FareShare are in terms of supplying food to charities in areas with greatest poverty and health deprivation. Geographic location is crucial to such an operation, both due to FareShare’s emphasis on redistributing excess fresh food, and also due to the vulnerability of those who rely on FareShare food, largely consisting of groups unlikely to be able to travel significant distances to access it.
FareShare distribution centres and patterns of deprivation in Great Britain
While the increasing need for charity provided food is a cause for alarm, FareShare’s rapidly growing efforts to combat it are clearly impressive, with over three quarters of the most deprived areas in Great Britain within an approximate catchment area of a FareShare depot. In fact, over half of the most deprived fifth of neighbourhoods across the country were found to lie within 2km (a twenty minute walk, or a short bus) of a charity distributing FareShare food.
Geographical factors are consistently found to have significant influence on a variety of social problems and trends. GIS mapping has increasingly given us a tool to thoroughly analyse and communicate this influence in ways beyond just tables of numbers.