Colour in mapping

By Jo Pratt, MapAction’s Communications Lead

March 9-10 is Holi, an ancient Hindu festival celebrating the arrival of spring with a riot of colour. To mark the occasion I asked the MapAction members for their interesting tips, facts, examples and experiences – anything they felt moved to share – about the use and importance of colour in mapping.

A few people sent me examples of maps they’ve created in which colour was particularly important in communicating and differentiating between different layers of information. Colour can be used to increase the amounts and types of information a map contains without reducing its readability. Divergent colours are often used to differentiate between types of data shown, while sequential colour scales can show degrees of prevalence of a particular feature.

MapAction’s Geospatial Services Coordinator, Matt Sims, shared with me a map of South Sudan he produced in 2014 for our partner ACAPS. He used divergent colours to differentiate between layers of information including data about food security, health and internally displaced people (IDP) movements. At the same time, a sequential colour scale gives an immediate visual indicator of the severity of the food insecurity in each county.

In this colourful 2017 language map of Borno, Eastern Nigeria (below), MapAction volunteer Mark Gillick used divergent colours to show at a glance which groups of IDPs were in locations with a local language other than their own. The map also shows the size and location of each community.

“This is the most colourful MapAction map I’ve made.”
MapAction volunteer, Mark Gillick

Mark also flagged up the use of divergent colour to enhance communication in the London Underground map and the map below from 1895 of different nationalities in Chicago, USA.

1895 map of nationalities in Chicago

MapAction’s Head of Training and Learning Emma Mumford pointed me to a lovely looking and rather fascinating thematic map of age demographics in Switzerland created by mapping blogger Timo Grossenbacher. The sequential colour scale shows how different age groups are clustered in certain areas. It also demonstrates why yellow is generally taken to be a highlight colour, as the yellow and orange areas stand out against the purples.

Thematic map of age demographics in Switzerland

Colour considerations and cautions

I had an interesting chat with MapAction volunteer duo Becky and Andy Kervell. As well as flagging up ColorBrewer as a useful mapping resource, they talked me through some of the issues to bear in mind when thinking about colour choices.

  • Colour blindness – this is quite a common problem. Most people with colour-vision deficiency have difficulty distinguishing between red and green. ‘Red-green’ deficiency affects one in 12 men and one in 200 women globally and can make it hard for them to tell the difference between reds, oranges, yellows, browns and greens. They may also have difficulty distinguishing between shades of purple and may not be able to tell red from black. ‘Blue-yellow’ deficiency – affecting vision of blues, greens and yellows – is another form of colour blindness that is much rarer. This Brilliant Maps blog explores what maps look like to people with colour-vision deficiency.
  • Format, use and context – colours look different on screen compared to paper, so the ways in which a map is distributed and used should affect colour choice. If a map is intended to be desktop printed, questions around the quality and availability of printers and inks arise. If a colour map is printed in black and white, will it still be fit for purpose? If a map is shown via a projector, will details be visible?
  • Cultural significances – colours have different meanings and associations in different parts of the world. For example, in some cultures, death is associated with black; in others, with white. Red can be associated with danger, good fortune or grief and death, among other things, depending on where you are. This is one good reason why team diversity, as well as awareness of and consideration for different cultures, is important in mapping – as elsewhere in life.

Another interesting fact I learned in the course of compiling this blog is that mappers use up a lot of blue ink. Because – oceans. According to MapAction’s logistics manager Andy Punter, who looks after all the kit used by our teams on deployment, we get through three or four times as many cyan ink cartridges as any other colour. So, if you ever come across a map with feathering around a land mass to denote the sea instead of a solid block of blue, thriftiness could be the reason.

This is the first in an irregular series of blogs in which we use an international event such as Holi, as an excuse (as if one were needed) to celebrate the diversity of mappers, maps and mapping.

MapAction appoints new treasurer

Steve Harper, who works as Charities Director at Hays Macintyre LLP Chartered Accountants, recently joined MapAction’s board as treasurer. Steve acts as auditor and advisor to national and international charities and is co-author of the International Charity Financial Benchmarking Report. He is a qualified chartered accountant with the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland and holds the ICAEW’s Diploma in Charity Accounting. 

Greening MapAction

By Liz Hughes, MapAction CEO

The nature of our work means that we are only too aware of the impacts of climate change on the lives and livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable people. Although the causal chain between humanitarian need arising out of climate change and MapAction’s contribution to the problem may not be a straight line, we are, no doubt, a contributor to some degree. And, as an organisation of people with a passionate commitment to improving humanitarian outcomes, it is incumbent on us to take a really serious look at our contribution to the problem.

Towards the end of last year, therefore, an internal working group was created to update our thinking about the environmental impacts we generate during the course of our work, and how we can avoid and mitigate these. In December, the group developed an environmental policy that outlines our commitment to strive for carbon neutrality by 2030. This is both daunting and necessary. In my view, it is absolutely right that we should set such a target. However we don’t yet know the scale of that and what we are going to need to do to tackle it.

Our policy states: “MapAction recognises the devastating effects of climate breakdown and environmental degradation which can lead to displacement, disease, food shortages, water shortages, economic loss, and poverty for people, particularly those in vulnerable regions across the world. Principally MapAction recognises the contributory effect and exacerbation climate breakdown and environmental degradation can have on humanitarian crises. MapAction commits to our own moral and ethical (“do no harm”) responsibility to reduce and minimise our environmental and carbon footprint, whilst supporting those affected by humanitarian crises, supporting Sustainable Development Goal #13 on Climate Action[1] (to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts).

Flooding in Sierra Leone, August 2017

I am very grateful to the working group for developing this policy and taking us forward. There is still quite a lot of work to do to get a clear baseline and some impact measures in place so that, as we embark on this journey, we do so with some clear parameters and actions, and it isn’t just talk.

There’ll be an opportunity for MapAction’s membership to feed in suggestions on what areas we can improve. We will budget and fundraise for this work. We are very grateful for the assistance of Arup, a supportive employer of several MapAction volunteers, including a member of our environmental working group. They are helping us look at our procurement guidelines. Members of the working group are also bringing their workplace experience to bear on this, so its a very rounded MapAction employer and team effort. 

The tasks ahead are both exciting and formidable. When an organisation makes a decision to move forward deliberately in areas like this, things change. And so they should. We don’t always know at the outset where it will end up. But I am really sure it is the right journey to be making right now. 

Diversity and MapAction

Video interview

Earlier this year, MapAction’s CEO Liz Hughes blogged about diversity in the humanitarian and technology/GIS sectors and why it’s important. Since then, we’ve been working to evolve our practices in this area.

MapAction volunteer Bel Hewitt has been involved in shaping our diversity and inclusion policy and helping us to work towards our objectives. The policy outlines MapAction’s commitments, accountability and actions on all aspects of diversity.

Bel lives in the Philippines, so we took the opportunity to catch up with her for an informal chat about where we’re at with it and where we want to get to when she stopped by our UK office on a holiday visit today.