Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

“It is not down on any map. True places never are”. How are accurate social maps constructed and how do they construct knowledge about places that they represent?

  Peter Craigon (2012 cohort)   www.nottingham.ac.uk/~psxpjc

My research in concerned with examining the processes that go into creating thematic maps of social issues and how these maps produce construct knowledge of the place(s) they represent. This focuses on the issue of accuracy to anchor the issues at stake to see how it is variously constructed in different contexts throughout the process of the production and use of social maps. This will encompass the collection of geospatial data for topographic map production, the collection of authoritative social data, for example to create measures of deprivation or other social issues. These official accuracies will be compared with map-based representations of social issues created by people’s experience and knowledge of an area in which they live or work. This will give insight into the multiple nature of accurate representation of social issues and how these are portrayed over a map.
The approach to examining accuracy will be in line with the field of critical cartography. This challenges the view of maps as objective ‘scientific’ representation of geographical reality that communicate the message of a cartographer to a user through a graphical means. Instead, drawing on literary theory, critical cartography treats maps as texts whose content is inherently subjective challenging their claims to be objective representations of reality. This widens the scope of the consideration of maps away from the map to the circumstances of its production and use. This approach to maps origins lies in the work of Brian Harley [1], particularly his paper on ‘deconstructing the map’ and has been developed more recently by figures such as November et al [4], who argue that maps should be seen in a navigational rather than mimetic way, focusing on how maps provide the user with a series of signposts to navigate the world, rather than as a direct correspondence with the world, questioning the validity of questions of accuracy when considering a map. Kitchin and Dodge [2,3] advocate a challenge to the ‘ontological security’ of the notion of the map highlighting how different ‘mappings’ emerge as a result of the nature of the production and use of a map with each use of the map resulting effectively in a new mapping. The assessment of the accuracy of social maps (if this question is still valid) therefore requires my research to consider social maps in a much wider context of production and use. As the scientific objective security of a map is being challenged my research will through the studies outlined below seek to point towards an alternative ontological approach for social mapping that can accommodate its contested multiple, fluid and emergent nature. My research is primarily empirical in nature, addressing these questions of accuracy and ontology through real world studies outline below:

Ordnance Survey ethnographic study of the construction and preservation of accuracy through data collection. - This study conducted at Ordnance Survey gives a description of the process of capturing geospatial data for mapping and other products. It focuses on how accuracy if defined and preserved throughout the process in order to produce accurate mapping.

Representation of Uncertainty on maps – how does visualization affect the knowledge people gain from a map? -This online study, which has much in common with cognitive mapping approaches, examines how visual representation of uncertainty affect users understanding of the social issue of deprivation. The purpose if this study is to examine how people derive knowledge from a choropleth map and how the visual representation affects this. This study will potentially reveal a method of representing uncertainty that least distorts the understanding of the underlying issue of deprivation. Having said this it is of more interest to the overall research to explore how people derive knowledge from a social map

Office for National Statistics (ONS) – collection of accurate social data – Having conducted a study at OS to understand how accurate geospatial data is produced, I plan to conduct a counterpart series of interviews to gain an understanding of how accurate social data is collected and produced in practice. For this I hope to interview individuals within the Office for National Statistics to gain an understanding as to how social statistical measures are created. I also hope to gain an insight into data visualization within the ONS to gain an insight into how and why data is visualized and presented across maps as it is and the purpose of this.

Representation of social issues and comparison with official accuracies - vernacular mapping – In line with the multiple nature of accuracy, examined throughout my research I plan to try and access some vernacular accuracy about the social nature of place in a cartographic form. This will involve asking participants to produce their own social map based on their knowledge and experience of a place. They will do this by colouring a map according to their judgement of deprivation in the area. These representations will then be compared with official representations to see how they compare

Focus group – Following these studies a series of focus groups will add context to the findings to these studies to examine how people understand these social maps and discuss some representations that have been created through the counter mapping exercise outline above.

The findings of these studies will be placed in context with reference to previous work and critical theory to show how accurate social maps are constructed and the knowledge that people derive from them and what this tells us about the ‘work done’ by social maps in the world. This will enable the exploration of alternative ontological approaches to be made to accommodate the nature of social mapping as revealed through the research.


  1. Harley, J.B., 1989. Deconstructing th e map. Cartographica, 26(2), pp.1–20.
  2. Kitchin, R. & Dodge, M., 2007. Rethinking maps. Progress in Human Geography, 31(3), pp.331–344. Available at: http://phg.sagepub.com/cgi/doi/10.1177/0309132507077082 [Accessed July 14, 2014].
  3. Kitchin, R., Gleeson, J. & Dodge, M., 2013. Unfolding mapping practices: a new epistemology for cartography. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 38(3), pp.480–496. Available at: http://doi.wiley.com/10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00540.x [Accessed August 5, 2013]
  4. November, V., Camacho-Hübner, E. & Latour, B., 2010. Entering a risky territory: space in the age of digital navigation. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 28(4), pp.581–599. Available at: http://www.envplan.com/abstract.cgi?id=d10409 [Accessed December 11, 2014].

This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (RCUK Grant No. EP/G037574/1) and by the RCUK’s Horizon Digital Economy Research Institute (RCUK Grant No. EP/G065802/1).