Tundi's Take: The Allure of Fancy Maps - Do They Present False Promises?

The Skimmer on Marine Ecosystems and Management

By Tundi Agardy, MEAM Contributing Editor (tundiagardy [at] earthlink.net)

We are light-years ahead of where we were just 20 years ago in terms of collecting, analyzing, and using spatial information to support marine management. I remember a time, not so long ago, when understanding of where the important areas were, and what areas were being used, was derived by drawing lines on big maps, then overlaying one transparent map on another to deal with complexes of information.

Then GIS came along and the big old maps were rolled up and put away. "Transparencies" were transformed into data layers - where the computing power of ever faster and more capable machines could answer the basic "where" questions. We now have software packages that can analyze in any way we instruct, and we have special decision-support tools to help us decide how to direct spatial management. We even have artificial intelligence, for those (unlike me) who have enough "natural" intelligence to know what to ask the powerful computers to do.

The ontogeny of mapping demonstrates just how far we have come. We have maps that display different data layers simultaneously, highlighting what we want to focus on at any point in time. We have maps that present not only real information (data), but also information derived from models - where the imagined is made to be almost real by showing it on a map. We have animations that can show changes over time (historic or predicted), and we have three-dimensional mapping, which can get us a lot closer to understanding how coastal and marine systems are structured, used, and changed by that use.

Fancy, information-rich maps are sexy - we cannot help but be seduced by them. But how integral to EBM is the investment of data collection, data management, and computing time that creating technologically sophisticated maps requires?

EBM is in some way always spatially explicit, and maps are integral to planning and to communicating management. But low-tech methods can also deliver the needed information, especially in the early stages of EBM. Expert opinion is often used to create the data layers that can show where ecologically important areas, vulnerable areas, or at-risk areas are. Importantly, such Delphic processes can also point to knowledge gaps. Conversely, fancy maps run the risk of portraying marine ecosystems as comprehensively known, presenting false promises regarding the reliability and uniformity of information.

Scientists are not the sole proprietors of information that is crucial to EBM. The information that resides in the minds of users of coastal and marine resources is just as immensely valuable. Though not as flashy, the maps that are generated through community mapping, user mapping, and surveys of traditional ecological knowledge and perception are critical to inform what needs to be managed where. So don't throw away those big old dusty rolled-up maps just yet. Harnessing every tool available and using different approaches to answer the "where" questions will yield even richer results than those alluring high-tech maps alone.

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