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Tuesday Thought Leadership Teardown: A Map is Just a Map

“Everyone” is not an audience: the first platitude of communications.

An important variation on this “everyone” theme: “x, y, z, and anyone else who….”

Effective research communication requires making choices — immediately — about who your audiences are, and then understanding which messages and products will give them exactly what they need to make a decision.

Researchers and even research communicators know this — and then they forget it when it comes to maps and infographics and interactives.

Because visuals are magic, right?

The recent CityLab piece “Mapping Where Traffic Pollution Hurts Children Most,” by Haneen Khreis, an assistant research scientist at Texas A&M, illustrates what happens when you lean too heavily on a map to do your hard communications work for you.

Khreis is writing about asthma in US children — a huge problem, as she quickly details in the piece:

  • More than 6 million children in the US suffer from persistent asthma;
  • Asthma costs the US economy more than $80 billion annually — and the burden is highest on families with asthmatic children; and
  • Previous studies have consistently shown evidence linking air pollution from traffic to childhood asthma development.

But there’s an even bigger problem: “Despite this emerging evidence,” Khreis writes, “the burden of childhood asthma due to traffic-related air pollution is poorly documented. Very few studies explore the geographic and spatial variations.”

So her research team set out to fill this gap. They took data on US childhood asthma incidence from CDC surveys and overlaid spatial modeling of US concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, which Khreis calls “a strong sign of traffic-related air pollution.”

The result: A heat map detailing the distribution of childhood asthma due to nitrogen dioxide on a county by county basis in 48 US states and the District of Columbia in both 2000 and 2010 (both below, 2000 on top).

You can see that there was a substantial decline in childhood asthma over the decade. It was actually 33 percent overall — “a major win for public health,” says Khreis, who goes on to list multiple potential causes for the decline, including

  • More fuel-efficient vehicles;
  • More stringent regulation on nitrogen oxide emissions; and
  • Potentially, reductions in total vehicle miles traveled due to the recession.

However, 141,900 US children were still suffering from persistent asthma in 2010 due to traffic-related air pollution — almost 20 percent of all childhood asthma cases. (In addition, Khreis’s team “found children living in urban areas have twice the percentage of asthma cases attributable to nitrogen dioxide exposures as compared to children living in rural areas.”)

So, clearly: Something must be done for these children.

But what? We don’t know, based on how Khreis concludes the piece:

“Our estimates underline an urgent need to reduce children’s exposure to air pollution. We hope that our analyses and heat maps will better inform policymakers, transportation agencies, medical associations and anyone else interested in learning more about the burden of childhood asthma due to air pollution.”

Putting the best possible spin on this conclusion, we ourselves have to conclude:

  • There are a lot of audiences and Khreis and her team aren’t focused on any particular one;
  • Those audiences are being left by Khreis and her team to fashion their own takeaways in terms of policy solutions or other interventions to prioritize;
  • The map so forcefully communicates the need for urgent action that that urgency will override other questions — such as:
    • What might this map look like today, in 2019?
    • Are all the best ways to solve the problem in urban places the same, or will they vary from place to place?
    • Are the ways to solve it for urban areas different for those in rural areas?
    • Are there analyses on the most cost-effective options?
    • Why does this map’s spatial and geographical documentation sharpen the urgency to address the childhood asthma problem? Is there something about the problem that needs a clear depiction of its concentration in urban centers before action will be taken to solve it?

In the end, Khreis’s piece isn’t thought leadership: it’s the announcement of a map. Which makes it an odd choice for both CityLab and The Conversation, where the piece was first published. Both outlets specialize in research-driven opinion and reporting.

But in announcing a map of data on an urgent problem, her piece points up the shortcomings of…just announcing a map of data on an urgent problem.

Decision makers need more. So do the rest of us.

Takeaway: Maps, infographics and interactives aren’t magical, no matter how clearly they depict a problem. You can’t put them out there and expect your target audience to find them and connect the dots to action. They need audience targeting, framing, accompanying arguments and recommended solutions to work.