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How to map an emergency? The role of cartography in a crisis

An Opinion Piece by Doug Specht, published by Talking Humanities

Covid-19 has brought the world of data-driven crisis management and social organisation out of the shadows. ‘This is an opportunity,’ says chartered geographer and University of Westminster lecturer, Doug Specht, ‘to examine its flaws and ramifications’ and ‘strive towards more inclusive mapping, more inclusive data and cautiously move towards a world in which data can play a part in creating a more just society.’ 

The Covid-19 pandemic has swiftly become one of the principle factors in how we now organise our daily existence, and in the scramble to manage local outbreaks and protect national economies, new ways of collating information ‘to protect the public’ have been rolled out en masse. The pandemic, and our response to it, has brought to the fore many questions in relation to how and who collects, uses maps and understands data. However, this is nothing new.

Epidemiology and mapping have a long history. Early examples include Thomas Shapter’s ‘History of the Cholera in Exeter in 1832’ map and the more famous maps of cholera deaths in London produced by John Snow. These and their authors were credited with bringing a new understanding of waterborne disease and saving many lives, and while we now look back on these maps as being unquestionably useful and accurate, it is the results of the map production, rather than the process that sticks in our minds.

At the time these maps were widely dismissed, and often misinterpreted as supporting the prevailing thought of the time that cholera was airborne. Indeed, Snow’s maps became more famous than Shapter’s not only because they were of London, but because of the evocative story of him striding into Broad Street and tearing off the handle of the community water pump in a bid to stem the disease after his maps were widely ridiculed. Now, as the world grapples with the mapping and tracing of a new threat in Covid-19, once again data and maps produced are being questioned by those who observe them.

The use of contemporary digital tracing apps and so-called ‘big data’ now drives the daily movements of billions of people in a way that we have never before seen. People are being asked to stay home, go to work, wear masks, or send their children to school based on the invisible hand data, and the interpretations and collection of this data can be problematic.

For instance, doctors and politicians can look at the same data to draw wildly different conclusions about the best course of action to take. Issues of privacy, control, vicarious mapping, incomplete data, dark data, prejudice in reading data and inequality of access have all become increasing concerns. Even in the richest of countries, those without a smartphone will be missed from any digital tracing apps designed to protect people. Likewise, the British government’s much contested ‘track and trace’ app has come under fire for its poor track record, but more recently for apparent data breaches. A whitepaper report produced in June 2020, suggested that 84% of British people fear their data will be misused by tracing apps.

None of these issues being faced here are new. Many of the present tactics and methods have already been trialed on the less privileged. Migrants and refugees around the world have long been reduced to data points, tracked by drones; their lives dictated by algorithm, computation, and the biases built into these technologies.

Closer to home, there are those who risk having their benefits denied by a Blackbox computer system, and the issues of hegemony in mapping are highlighted when you try looking for any of the more than 2,000 Mosques or Masjid on an ordnance survey map of the UK. Many communities have long experienced the negative consequences of being seen as data to be mapped, or left off of maps. In 2020, however, Covid-19 has brought the world of data-driven crisis management and social organisation to the doorstep of the whole world.

I don’t suggest here that we shouldn’t be harnessing all the tools, data and resources we can in the fight to save lives during this pandemic. This is not an argument against science, although it may be wilfully misinterpreted by anti-vaxxers and Covid conspiracy theorists, rather Covid-19 has shone a light on the many issues of the data driven mapping of crisis.

This is an opportunity to examine the many of its flaws and ramifications – as we have done in the new University of London Press volume, Mapping Crisis – and should provide food for thought on how data collation is managed moving forward.

Who is missing from the data? Who was never asked, forgotten or excluded? Who loses in data-driven solutions? By asking these questions we strive towards more inclusive mapping, more inclusive data, and can cautiously move towards a world in which data can play a part in creating a more just society.

Doug Specht is a chartered geographer, a senior lecturer and director of teaching and learning in the School of Media and Communication at the University of Westminster. His new edited book, Mapping Crisis: Participation, Datafication, and Humanitarianism in the Age of Digital Mapping, is a fascinating and harrowing topical analysis of how we use technology and data to track people in humanitarian disasters. Published by the University of London Press, it is available in paperback and as a free open access PDF.


Image“12 Months Over the Stirling Ranges” (detail), Grayson Cooke, 2018. A false-colour composite image of Stirling Range National Park in Western Australia. This image has been produced with the support of Geoscience Australia, and with the assistance of resources from the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI), which is supported by the Australian Government.

Doug Specht


Dr Doug Specht is a cultural geographer and educationalist. His research explores themes related to environmental justice, human rights, and access to education, with a focus on the production and codification of knowledge though cartographic artefacts and in educational settings. In recognition of his work, he has been appointed as a Chartered Geographer and Chartered Teacher. In addition, he has been awarded Advanced Teacher Status, alongside being a Senior Fellow of AdvanceHE. Dr. Specht has authored numerous articles and books, including Mapping Crisis, the Routledge Handbook of Geospatial Technology and Society, the Media and Communications Student Study Guide and Imagining Apocalyptic Politics in the Anthropocene. He writes regularly on ethics, environmental and human rights, education, and mapping practices in such publications as WonkHE, The Conversation, Geographical, and for Times Higher Education. Dr Specht is a member of the editorial board of the European Journal of Geography, Westminster papers in Communication and Culture, and Anthropocenes – Human, Inhuman, Posthuman. He is Chair of the Environmental Network for Central America.


15 September 2020
Published By
Talking Humanities
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