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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Bad Map as Teachable Moment

This week I found a map that's perfect for exploring cartography challenges in online maps. And, it's even an education related map! This map appeared in an article in Wales Online; it highlights a new system for grading secondary schools in Wales. The scheme is referred to as banding.
Band One schools are considered best-performing, with good progress made across all measures.
At the opposite end of the scale, Band Five schools are considered “weak relative to others” and in need of more support.
The map uses different colored symbols for each band. In the article, below the map, is the legend. (It's not a simple thing to put a legend in a map built with Google Fusion Tables, it seems.) The legend reads:
Click points for more info. Key: Band 1 = pink, Band 2 = blue, Band 3 = green, band 4 = yellow, band 5 = red
This legend turns me into a human lookup table! I first look at the map to find a school of interest, then find its symbol color, say blue. Then, I refer to the legend and learn that's band 2. Then I refer to the text I quoted above to learn that band 2 mean "one notch down from the top performing schools." That's great news for the school, but far too much work for me as the map reader!

This map and article are jumping off points for all kinds of great questions for students:
  • Is the map useful? How? 
  • How would you make the symbols/legend more helpful or effective?
  • Would a different type of map or different symbology have been helpful?
  • Are there any spatial patterns in the bands? Can you describe them? Explain them?
After this discussion I'd have students download the data and use different Web tools (not Google Maps/Fusion Tables) to make their own maps with a focus on an effective legend.

A bad map is a great starting point for a hands-on learning experience!