Data rules our world in many ways, particularly during election season when a plethora of different maps pinpointing survey data are seen daily on media websites

ESRI Cartographer Ken Field created 32 different maps for the 2016 presidential election results, and each one showed a different amount and pattern of red and blue, despite the outcome of the election being constant.

“Software is politically agnostic. It won’t automatically create a map that tells one story over another. It’s the person behind the software who’s going to be able to morph the story into whatever it is that you want to tell. So there are opportunities when you’re making a map to be objective, and that, I guess, is always the objective: to be objective. But the way you play with the data can help shape a different type of map, or a different shade of map,” Field explained.

The way in which the map is designed will impact how a map is read. Larger objects are bigger or brighter or darker than other objects on a map, meaning there is “more” of that on the map. It’s easy to play with the data to reflect whatever message or story someone wants to tell, he said.

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For instance, “There was a very famous photograph taken in the White House just after Trump won where the map of his victory has been placed on the wall. A lot of noise was made about that map saying, ‘This is a really partisan map. It’s got a lot of red on it.'”

But that doesn’t mean the map is wrong, just that it’s not particularly truthful.

“It’s a perfectly valid map. It just uses data manipulation and symbols and color in a way that supports the view that the Republicans have this great swath of red across the entire country. A lot of people, a lot of Democrats sort of were crying foul and saying, ‘Well that’s not the result ,’ when it actually was the result. That map isn’t an incorrect version of it. Of course, if [Hilary] Clinton had won, a completely different map using exactly the same data would’ve been hung in the White House just because it supports different visual perception of the results,” Field said.

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Using maps and data to support a specific point of view isn’t a new phenomenon.

“With political mapping of course, most times you’re possibly coming from a perspective, where, maybe in the news media, you want to support a particular editorial narrative, or as an individual, you want to maybe support a particular candidate. Or, maybe, even a candidate wants to portray his or her politics in a way that supports their narrative and appeals to their base. With a map, you can do that, you can bend the truth to a particular shade of the truth,” Field said.

“If you look back in historical cartography, and we don’t have to go back very far, World War II has some absolutely stunning examples of what might’ve been called then ‘propagandist cartography,’ and you see a lot of German maps expressing how successful they were being in the war effort. There were also maps by US allies. We were very good at portraying how successful we were being and none of those maps were necessarily incorrect, or untruthful, they were just portraying a very specific side of the story that appeals to a particular person,” he said.

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There can be positive reasons for creating a map that shares only part of the truth. “If you’re in a war, you want to rally the troops. You want to gain support back home. You need to do a lot of things in order to make a scenario that paints a picture you’re being successful in your efforts. We might not call it ‘propagandist’ anymore. You might call it persuasive mapping. You might want to persuade people there’s a particular truth that emanates from the map, which then leads to people understanding things in a particular way. This is something I’m quite keen on, this idea that maps are a very, very rarely right or wrong. They can be wrong, if there’s a technical error, or the data’s not been processed correctly, and it’s therefore been portrayed in an incorrect fashion,” he said.

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Political maps have a real potential to be used for good or evil, Field said.

“The clear example of that is when [Donald] Trump got into the White House, and if you remember this news conference where he handed out the maps of his victory, and he was quoted as saying, ‘Look at all the red, that’s us, didn’t we do great,’ or words to that effect. He wasn’t wrong, the map that he handed out was an accurate map, it’s just that it used classifying of data and the representation of the data through symbols and color in a very specific way, that meant there was more red on the map. It gives the appearance of something that perhaps bends the truth slightly, towards the narrative he was wanting to push,” he said.

You can learn from maps.

“Maps have been used throughout the ages to support decision making, and what we’re often doing when we do that, is we’re using data sets from a past point in time to inform something we might do in the future. We have many, many instances of maps that you can find not just online, or in our living-atlas product, but many, many, many thousands of themes of information of situations from the past. Now this might be very historical, or it might be data that’s been collected in the last few weeks that show a particular situation. The point of those maps is for you to be able to study them, and make decisions based off of them,” Field said.

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One of the ways that politicians could use maps to their advantage is learning how to target their efforts to persuade people to vote for them.

“I would want to look at the map of the areas in which my constituents are, and I could use that map as a way to better understand how to go about targeting my time better, or my team’s time better,” Field said.

“One way you could do it, is you identify areas that are perhaps extremely partisan for you. Historically, let’s say an area has voted 90% for your particular party in the past, and you can make a strong argument to say, ‘Well, maybe we don’t need to go and make that much effort there because chances are, on the basis of probability, these people will probably vote the same way again or very similarly,'” he said.

That leads to the issue of swing states and counties. “The areas where over history, perhaps there’s been maybe only a 5% swing back-and-forth, and they’re the key places. They will be the places to identify where you might want to target your best efforts, because if you can persuade these places which tend to vote 50/50 or 51/49, you can just change maybe 1- or 2- percent worth of people’s voting habits. You pick up that place, and because that place ultimately goes into states and electoral college seats, that’s how it works,” he said.

Field said, “That’s how you can use the map; it’s by studying a past situation, and then using that to inform your decision making, whether it’s where to target people’s votes from, or whether it’s to identify places for conservation aims or whatever it is, where to identify siting of new health services. These are all themes that geographical-information systems with data, with good cartographic approaches, can help to inform.”