Mapping deprivation in England, and how it strengthens Democracy

From the Guardian, today:

Poor and wealthy households in Britain are becoming more and more segregated from the rest of society as the UK faces the highest inequality levels for 40 years, according to a study published today.

A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation provides a groundbreaking geographical analysis of changes in the distribution of wealth over time, and reveals an increasingly divided nation.

What I particularly liked about this story was not the ratification of that which anybody could have told you – that inequality is increasing in Britain, that the Noth/South divide is growing stronger and that urban clustering of poverty is increasing – but the use of so-called cartogram maps in presenting the results:

Guardian Core Poor

Guardian Exclusively Wealthy

These are from the Guardian’s article, rather than the original report (whose images are not so easily-read). Although funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the work itself was by the Social and Spatial Inequalities Research Group at Sheffield University. I found the insanely delightful worldmapper via them, a while back. With these one can compare, for example, carbon emissions:

carbon emissions

with population:

population

with, I don’t know, loss of forests:

forest loss

Neat, no? So far the greatest visual display of information I have seen is Napoleon’s March by Charles Joseph Minard, a man whose position relative to his time blows my mind. The advances in Geographical Information Systems, which I have still to learn, are rapidly overtaking, though. A colleague of mine at the Centre for Health Economics uses it in his research, the bastard.

Empowering voters through statistics

Back to the deprivation report (the Social and Spatial Inequalities Research Group have their own maps page, also). The importance of this is with regard to the dissemination of information, of findings of research. With apologies to all those so philosophically mis-aligned as to believe, still, in Fukuyama (except the psychos and dicks from the Project for the New American Century, to whom no apology is warranted, for anything, ever), the US is not an application of the theory of democracy (big or little ‘D’), it is the embarrassment of the stagnation of representative democracy.

What this form of presentation of analytical results achieves, then, is the democratisation of statistics, demographics, etc. Knowledge, if you prefer, about the social, demographic, socioeconomic, etc. landscape in which we live. And by so doing, enable/empower ‘the public’ to enter, generate or influence the debate about the welfare of their society. I’m not suggesting people are stupid (although I believe Tommy Lee Jones was correct), but there’s a big difference between reading through a vaguely-made-prose set of statistics, and seeing the same information laid out, visually, legibly and accessibly, on a map.

The counter-argument, I would expect, is that it ‘dumbs down’ information, etc. I’m as sensitive to that as anybody else (I see I’m not alone disliking Harry Potter, by the way), but I don’t see this as the same. Some people, many people (most of my bloody students!) just do not respond to numbers. We take most of our information in visually – why not take advantage of that? In this instance, socioeconomic maps inform readers that what they they may thought was peculiar to their town, their class, their times, may (or may not) in fact be systematic, nation-wide: a matter for public policy to address. Consider this quote from the same story:

The employment minister, Caroline Flint, said: “Our commitment to ensuring everyone shares the nation’s increasing wealth has resulted in the rising trend of inequality recently stabilising. Since 1997, 600,000 children and over 1 million pensioners have been lifted out of poverty.”

Standard fare from politicians: have a statistic that supports our argument that we’re doing well, and so are you – even if you, the reader, personally, are not. The context of the quote is missing, though, entirely. For a start, so many children have been born since 1997, and so many people have retired, that those numbers might have turned out purely from demographics, not public policy. Moreover, what we want, why we vote, is for our government of the day to acknowledge, understand and address issues of the day. We won’t manage that by letting government and newspapers tell us what those issues are, while we aren’t able – or do not have the time – to sort through the information to find our own priorities. American readers, for example, may wonder why the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox News, etc. do not carrying stories such as this (mostly it’s because they are shit, while the Guardian is very good).

It’s just a thought. In the meantime, I encourage you to go and play with the worldmapper.

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