During the COVID-19 pandemic, facts and figures are disseminated at rapid-fire speed. Whether from a trusted news outlet or a news feed, you can't hide from coronavirus updates. The height of COVID-19 saw information emerge as king, and maps as its queen.
Researcher Levente Juhász of FIU GIS Center at FIU Libraries teamed up with fellow researcher Peter Mooney of Maynooth University in Ireland for an analytical study of the use of web-based maps used during the pandemic. Equal parts illuminating and forward-thinking, Mapping COVID-19: How web-based maps contribute to the infodemic, examines the various mitigating factors that contribute to mapping inaccuracies. The article also considers how mapping errors and overuse contributed to wide-spread misinformation.
FIU News spoke with Juhász about his research and why he felt it was important to highlight the inconsistencies in mapping as it pertains to the spread of information during the latest coronavirus.
What made you decide to undertake this research endeavor?
The pandemic is inherently geographic in nature. As a geographic information scientist, I am interested in things like the spatial dimension of this virus, how and where it spreads and how this spread relates to our environment. Since the early days of the pandemic, I was consulting maps, news sites, data portals, and dashboards regularly; and I quickly realized none of these sites provided exactly what I was looking for. The number of options and different presentations of the same data was simply overwhelming and ineffective. Around the same time, the World Health Organization (WHO) released their first concern about what they call the ‘infodemic’—the overload of information, sometimes misinformation about the pandemic.
Finding that they shared similar views on the use and misuse of web base mapping and its contribution to the infodemic, Juhasz and Mooney—also a geographic information scientist—joined forces. They analyzed available online COVID-19 maps seeking to identify the key issues and raise awareness to spark a larger conversation.
Why do you think web mapping has been such a widely used tool during the COVID-19 crisis?
Technology has evolved so much in the past 10-20 years in every aspect of our lives. Mapping and cartography is no exception, and today it has become very easy to create and share maps through freely available, easy to use software and apps. Another main factor is the data itself. The data that has been produced by health agencies and organizations is also geographic, e.g. number of cases by country, the total number of tests by state, etc.
For journalists, state agencies, data bloggers and data scientists, mapping this content is one of the easiest and logical ways to display the information. It just makes sense. Another aspect of the popularity of web mapping is that people trust maps; many are actually fascinated by them. I believe that in some cases, maps are more a tool to attract attention and drive web traffic as opposed to impartial and accurate information dissemination.
What factors should news and media consider when choosing mapping data to disseminate to the public?
Creating effective and useful maps is a complex process that requires careful planning and execution. I believe the most common issues that can be easily fixed are poorly graduated or classified choropleth maps, maps without normalization that do not take into account the size of mapped features, the lack of representation or mention of uncertainty, and the incorrect use of bubble charts and heat maps.
However, using maps in journalistic contexts has a long tradition. It would be beneficial for those in positions to create maps that will be viewed by many to rediscover and revisit guidelines on the use of maps in the news. There are books aimed at reducing confusion in mapping, such as How to Lie with Maps and Maps with the News by Mark Monmonier.
How do you know if the map you're using is trustworthy? How can consumers be more discerning with the mapping information they receive?
The key is to be mindful of what they see and perceive from the information. To give you an example, the level of detail in which the data was collected or published has tremendous effects on the resulting map. It’s possible to zoom in on modern, interactive web maps and inspect neighborhoods or even city blocks. However, if the data that the map portrays refers to the county, this information tells us very little about the neighborhood. Information such as population density and dynamics would be needed to fully understand what a number means for a particular neighborhood. A relatively high concentration of infections within a small area can be invisible on a county map.
What do you ultimately want consumers to take away from your work?
The main take away message would be that collaboration is needed to ensure that web-based maps reach their full potential as useful tools to disseminate information. In reality, I believe that geographers and cartographers, health professionals, journalists, and data scientists should work together to come up with guidelines and best practices.
Apart from this, it is also important to point out that not everything that can be mapped should be on a map. Sometimes presenting results might be better in a tabular format as map visuals might divert from conceiving the real meaning.
Are you planning to work on related topics?
I am working with Suman Kakar and Ellen Cohn from the Department of Criminology on a study that aims to understand the relationship between COVID-19 and crime, which is a perfect example of the kind of collaboration that is needed to tackle a complex issue that requires knowledge in multiple domains.
I'm also interested in the quality of mobility datasets used to make decisions on lockdowns and reopenings. I am currently working with Mooney and Henry Hochmair from the University of Florida on a comparative study of different mobility datasets. I believe that a better understanding of the data is crucial to make informed decisions, so the outcomes of this research will potentially have practical implications.