Meaningful Maps

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Andy Dearden
Sheffield Hallam University
Scot Fletcher
Handspring design, Sheffield, UK

People are often unaware of the state of the world around them. [especially "invisible", second-order or abstract relationships] Many of the important issues for the community, the environment and for humanity are difficult to see. To improve the world, we must understand the current situation, highlight the important factors, and help others to understand the issues. How can we collect up to date information and present it in a way that people find easy to understand?


This pattern is useful for community groups, advocacy groups and campaigns that are working to improve the world around them. This might be about local environmental quality, promoting international respect for human rights, basic needs such as clean- water or nutrition, or access to opportunities, in a neighbourhood, city or country. Groups need to target their resources carefully to achieve the maximum impact. They also want to communicate their concerns and encourage others to support their work. To be effective they need to reveal hidden relationships.


To act effectively to improve a situation, we need to understand that situation. Using a map can act both: as a way of monitoring the current situation in an area and showing how this is changing; and as a way of presenting the issues to other people to raise their awareness and encourage them to support the work. The image above is based on the Green Apple Map of New York City

Examples of using maps in this way include: Green Maps ( of cities which can show information about local open space, green transport options, pollution problems, renewable resources, sustainable or fair-trade businesses, or cultural facilities; the State of the World Atlas (Kidron et al., 2003) which includes a large set of global maps covering topics such as political systems, transnationals, climate change, biodiversity, human rights, war and peace, malnutrition and life-expectancy; locally produced maps such as the Sheffield Food Map (Fletcher et al. 2005), which shows locations of community cafes, healthy and socially responsible eating places, opportunities to grow food, buy seeds or get advice on growing, and places to get advice on healthy nutrition, cooking and health.

It is important that the map is easy for readers to understand. Distinctive icons, graphs and other visual features should be designed to represent the key topics. The Green Maps project ( provide a set of icons that can be used for maps concerned with environmental issues. Displaying such icons on a map can make inequalities between different areas easy to see. The image below shows the tip of Manhattan on one of the Green Apple Maps.

It may be helpful to make the map available on the Internet, but in giving the information away freely, you need to consider how the funding to keep the map up to date will be sustainable.

It is important that the map is seen as a reliable source of information. The project needs to define a clear set of criteria for what is / is not to be included on the map. These criteria should be publicly available.

The map also needs to be kept up to date, so the project will need to identify a person or group of people who will be responsible for assessing items against the criteria and revising the map on a regular basis. On-line versions can be made database driven.

To ensure that the map is seen as unbiased, the mapping project must be careful to remain independent of political or commercial interests that might be interpreted by a reader as influencing the content. This can make it difficult to use advertising as a source of funding for the project. Alternative sources of funds may be selling the printed version of the map, providing the map to schools or education centres in return for a fee, funding from local government or planning authorities.


Create a map that displays the information you care about in the area where you are working. Design easily readable icons and visual features to make the map interesting to look at, and the facts easy to see. Establish a group of people to maintain the map so that information is up-to-date, and you can monitor how things change over time. Ensure that this group are able to give unbiased reports, independent of pressure from interested parties.

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