Mapping as a Moral Act

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that a budget is a moral document. There is always genuine disagreement how to allocate limited resources, as there is genuine disagreement how to live ethical lives. A budget reveals one’s value system and recognizes that life involves difficult trade-offs. And it isn’t just about what appears in the budget; the absence of possibilities is an ethical choice as well.

Adapting this idea, this past January at Geography 2050: DC, I shared that I believe “mapping is a moral act.” One might also say that a map is a moral document, but the point is largely the same. There is a limited amount of information that any map can contain. The choice of what to include and how to communicate it reveals one’s values. Maps make claims about how we ought to be seeing the world.

How Google represents disputed borders

There are obvious examples, such as whether one includes Tibet or other disputed territories on political maps. We’ve seen other examples in the past weeks, such as whether a heat map helps us understand disparities by showing COVID mortality rates by race and ethnicity.

Health disparities existed in Chicago before COVID

I’m not suggesting that every map has profound moral implications or that every map one makes reveals one’s true inner life. But patterns of what and how things get mapped and will emerge. And patterns do tell us something more important about one’s character. A single lie may not make someone a liar, but a pattern of behavior certainly does.

This idea is all the more important as new software provides the ability for nearly anyone to engage in this work, as we’ve seen with video production. As in most of my ethical work, I’m far more interested in building structures that help us get things right rather than simply criticizing what goes wrong. To that end, I’d love to hear what it might take to build a system where the ethical implications of mapping are an assumed part of the work, as they are for many other professions.

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