Geography 970

January 31, 2010

Drone Attacks Mapped . . . with pushpins?

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Tim Wallace @ 10:50 am

Right, so we all know that one telltale sign of a mashup is the use of a pushpin to signify just about anything.  In a way, I get the pushpin icon.  It makes sense, right?  When you go to that restaurant in Coastal Maine (yeah, Cook’s Lobster House), you enter through a vestibule where a big map emblazoned with pushpins hangs on the wall.  The pushpin carryover works in mashups.  After all, physical pushpins were the primary tool for these restaurant wall maps.  These wall maps were mashup prototypes.  The maps were put up with the intent of being peppered with user-generated content from any number of different contributors.  If that’s not a mashup, what is?

But here’s the thing.  No one was walking into Cook’s Lobster House and placing pushpins locating U.S. Drone Attacks in Pakistan since 2004.  I mean, why would they?  That would be . . . well, insensitive?  Inappropriate?  Awkward?  Or all of these things and more.

Pushpins maps were used to generate hype about just how far flung restaurant patrons were. The pushpins themselves were used almost explicitly to locate a person’s hometown, not the site of a bombing or drone attack.

This Google Maps mashup is one of the most popular on the web right now according to Google Maps Mania.  Many people are being exposed to this type of misplaced symbology.  So, I have to wonder if what is actually being mapped sinks in to the viewers.  Call me old fashioned, but a yellow pushpin doesn’t quite carry the weight of “20 killed in the village of Mami Rogha in North Waziristan by a US Drone in June of 2007”.



  1. Pushpins have a certain practical advantage, too, in that they can mark a small point feature while still being large enough to easily see.

    Though, as you say, there is quite the mismatch between bright green/red pints and military destruction. I wonder how many readers would pick up on that — I’m afraid they may be so used to pushpins that they might not think about the inappropriateness of the symbology at all, or its dehumanizing aspect.

    Comment by Daniel Huffman — January 31, 2010 @ 11:34 am

    • I totally agree with that. I bet that users are accustomed to pushpins. I just wonder if any of what the map could/should convey is lost in the use of a pushpin. Perhaps the users don’t care either way. But I would love to see some kind of study done that reveals what people get out of pushpin maps v. a map with more “appropriate” symbology. Hmm . . . 970 final group project? Redesign some pushpin maps to determine if people read them differently?

      Comment by Tim Wallace — January 31, 2010 @ 11:56 am

  2. Semiotic theories aside, it’s likely that any attempt to represent the type of destruction would be seen as politically biased. Using symbology such as tombstones, skulls with crossbones, small outlines of children, body parts for dismemberment, etc. would certainly add detail to the map. But even if the use of the symbology accurately represented the data, it’s likely that the map would be seen as having a political agenda. That said, doesn’t it stand to reason that using pushpins shows a political bias in the other direction? Should it be more alarming that using pushpins has become the de facto standard?

    Comment by Jeremy White — January 31, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

    • Yeah, I wouldn’t recommend mapping with blood splatter. To my mind, that would be too far in the other direction. I think what I find so disconcerting is that pushpins are used more than dots. A dot (at least usually) is a fairly vanilla, middle-of-the road symbol. Pushpins add a sense of cartoonish whimsy that simply does not work for all subject matters.

      Comment by Tim Wallace — January 31, 2010 @ 4:49 pm

      • Really? You’re boiling down the argument to: dots vs. pushpins? I thought the issue was more about representation of density and clustering to get across the point of the map. In the example posted here, I’d say that the take home message seems to be that the bombings are not evenly spread out. Pushpins and dots share some disadvantages in communicating this message: overlapping points actually get de-emphasized, clickability can be affected, they require color or size variables to get across additional data, etc.

        Is the argument between pushpins and dots, or is it between alternative visualizations for clustered point data? (heat maps come to mind)

        Comment by mattmoehr — January 31, 2010 @ 6:36 pm

  3. Agreed. The larger debate should not be boiled down to pushpins v. points. I was just pointing out one thing that I personally find disconcerting about the pushpins. It has nothing to do with data density, scale or any other cartographic design issues (which could equally be debated).

    If someone presented me with a 3 visualizations of the locations of where people I knew (friends or enemies) died – one using skulls to represent the locations, one using pushpins and one using dots – well, I’d wonder who in their right mind would use pushpins or skulls.

    Comment by Tim Wallace — January 31, 2010 @ 7:35 pm

  4. […] unkind, emotionally inappropriate, unnecessary detail A colleague of mine, Tim Wallace, alerted me to the existence of this Google MyMaps mashup of US drone attacks in Pakistan: Click to go to the […]

    Pingback by A War without Humans « Cartastrophe — March 22, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

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