The power of maps

by Lauren Umek

The technology that we have at our fingertips never ceases to amaze me. If I’m hungry, my phone can tell me where I can get a taco, or a slice of pizza. My phone can also pay for my coffee, allow me to communicate with friends and strangers via social networking sites, beep at me when I’m supposed to be somewhere and most importantly, tell me where I am and approximately how long it will take me to get to where I’m going. Google Maps is probably my favorite and most regularly used piece of technology.

Use of this technology is part of my daily life. I obsessively check traffic, route alternatives, train schedules and potential bike routes. In the summer, when my life is consumed by field work, traveling to various forest preserves in the Chicago Wilderness region, I use electronic maps to tell me which sites I can reasonably visit in a day and in which order. I can even record my location if my GPS batteries die unexpectedly, calculate the number of miles I’ve walked through the woods and estimate how much time I have to get data collected before the thunderstorms hit. Through my travels, I’ve found no technological tool more informative than maps. My family originates from Slovenia, an apparently obscure eastern European country. Thanks to advances in mapping technology and freeware, I can easily share the geography of the country as well as professional and amateur photos, satellite images and historical landuse patterns.

All of this however, describes the most fundamental and traditional use of maps. Where is X? Now, online mapping tools and real time GPS in mobile devices allows for much cooler uses. Some of my favorites, beyond my obsessive traffic checking on Google Maps include monitoring outdoor exercise (map my run, daily mile and the always inaccurate Nike+), nearby food and caffeine (Yelp, Starbucks App), and where my friends (or enemies) are spending their time (Four square, Facebook). Those in the market for a new apartment or home might also check out their new neighborhood’s walk score. Or, when I’m feeling guilty about city living, I’m reminded of this map, showing transportation energy usage as a whole, and per capita to help me get to sleep in my 6 flat building.

Now, as a graduate student studying the effects of invasive species and restoration on ecological processes in the Chicago region, I’m exploring just how useful maps can really be in displaying data. To the right is map I recently generated of predicted degradation. I’m reluctantly sharing this image at the risk of angering friends and colleagues “red” zones and am showing this map as what I think is an example of how ecological data can be attractively displayed spatially. This map, of what I’m calling “potential woodland degradation” was determined by multiplying predicted soil nitrogen availability (from 45 sites) by earthworm biomass and invasive woody species cover (from 15 sites) from subsampled woodlands along a management spectrum in the 4 counties shown. The colors, are determined using spatial interpolation, a GIS tool that allows you to mathematically model (or predict) values at unsampled locations based upon values at sampled points. As a disclaimer, since making this map, I’ve learned that I have far too few sample points to properly extrapolate values to this scale. However, in future posts, I hope to share more properly analyzed maps that display ecological data in a way that can facilitate regional management.

Fortunately, I’m not alone in becoming excited about the communication power and conservation potential of moderns mapping abilities. Just this past week, The Nature Conservancy announced the completion of a 30 year project to map their priority conservation areas across the United States. A screenshot of this map, focused around the Chicago area is to the left, but I encourage you to explore this resource for yourself and your area of interest here.

1 Comment

Filed under Maps, Urban Ecology

One response to “The power of maps

  1. Christine Skolnik

    Important topic! This technology has changed our world and is a powerful, powerful (and quite accessible) research tool. I’d like to see more Humanities applications/publications around mapping (literacy, narrative, public art, hybrid identity . . . )

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