How Mapmaking Facilitates Improved Storytelling

Mapmaking has helped government agencies tell better stories

In the late 1800s, Charles Joseph Minard created a map charting the losses suffered by Napoleon’s army in their attempted conquest of Russia in 1812. Edward Tufte, world-renowned expert in data visualization, refers to Minard’s visualization as “one of the greatest ever.” Minard’s chart is a great example of the power of storytelling through data visualization.

The visualization shows how at the beginning of the war, the French army boasted a formidable army of nearly 422,000 soldiers; by the end of the failed invasion the army was reduced to 10,000 soldiers.

On the far right of the map, you see Moscow and a thick black bar depicting the number of soldiers in the French army. As you progress to the left following the bar, you see the bar diminish in weight, graphically showing the lives lost as Napoleon retreats from Moscow. The lower half of the visualization also shows the temperature, highlighting the harsh climate that the French army faced while returning to France.

There is a certain power to this map. It tells the grisly story of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, and the horror that plagued the French soldiers. The map connects time, location, weather to tell a narrative through data.

Just like Minard, Esri, the leader in global geographic information system (GIS) technology, is helping to tell stories through geography. During an interview with American Public Media’s Marketplace podcast, Jack Dangermond, Esri president, highlighted the power of maps:

"When I look at a map I am hunting for a story. What is the map trying to tell me? The stories of maps range from simple things: where I am, how do I get there, what elevation are we at, descriptive kinds of stories, context stories to analytic maps- like the best place to locate a store, hotspots for biodiversity, this is where the diseases are spreading, these are stories. Good cartographers can actually craft good stories, using mapping as [their] story telling framework."

Dangermond’s compelling take on maps could not be more accurate. Maps are fundamental to understanding our world, and when you leverage emerging technology like GIS, you can bring data to life and work to improve public sector decision-making.

At GovLoop we’ve created many resources that are showing the power of GIS and helping us to better understand our world. Below are some of my favorites, in case you missed them on the first round.

  1. Throw Out the Playbook, To Win the Super Bowl You Need Maps!
  2. 10 Steps to Create More Resilient Communities
  3. Decision Making with Real-Time Data
  4. Creating a Stronger Democracy: GIS on Capitol Hill [Infographic]
  5. Tailor-Made: How GIS is Powering Innovation for Global Aid
  6. Protecting and Preserving Our Natural Resources With GIS

What strikes me as amazing is the diversity of GIS applications. With GIS, subjects like public safety, public health, transportation and global aid have been transformed.

Everything in government is tied to location, from permits, housing codes, delivery of health care programs, education programs – all have an element of geography to them. By understanding the connections between geography and service delivery, agencies can gain new insights to improve the efficiencies on their programs.

Government is faced with complex challenges and must learn ways to unlock innovation from data. With GIS, agencies are given a solution to better understand our world, and transform communities through improved decision making.


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When 
Esri was founded in 1969, it realized even then that geographic information system (GIS) technology could make a difference in society. GIS helps people to solve problems at local, regional, national, and global scales. Access maps and apps at ArcGIS.com. Be sure to check out all the
 GIS resources produced by Esri and GovLoop.

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