DHC Weekly Blog 8/26: What you show matters!

Hello all! I’m not sure if you were all aware, but there are fires in the Amazon.

I’m Taylor, by the way. I’m the new post-baccalaureate fellow for the Digital Humanities Center with an introduction post to come soon. Before that, however, I want to talk about a subject near and dear to my heart: the Amazon Rainforest.

In this week’s blog post, I’m going to review two maps of the fires that I have seen on social media. One is from Business Insider and the other is from a British news site called Express. There is a lot of media coverage of these fires and, as such, I’d like to take the time to go over how important data visualization is in this coverage. Our previous fellow, Sylvia, made some great guides about mapping tools and I’d like to expand that conversation. Maps can fundamentally change the way that information is reported and interpreted. Remember, there is no such thing as a purely objective report.

SOURCE This looks… bad

Above is a map that I’ve seen circulating a lot over social media. It depicts South America with a large swath of red. There isn’t a caption to this image as it was originally from a video. When you look at this, it looks bad… really bad. The way the data is portrayed suggests that the fires in the rainforest are, actually, just one, catastrophically huge fire that threatens to consume the entire country. It opens eyes. It has a sense of urgency. People see this and are ready to get on a plane. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this sense of urgency, but the data is portraying a situation that is not the reality of Brazil right now.

SOURCE: The caption on Business Insider was “This map shows every fire that has started burning since August 13th across South America. Courtesy of Global Fire Watch”

When you see this map, it still looks bad. It still gives a sense of urgency; however, if you look at the caption and more closely at the map, you see that it is not just one big fire, but hundreds of little fires. Not only this, but the caption explains that these are all of the fires since August 13th. While the caption doesn’t say that some of these fires are now out, it does at least suggest this.

The difference in these maps is important. The map from Global Fire Watch and Business Insider portrays a situation that is much closer to reality. There is not one fire ravaging the Amazon, but many little fires. This data visualization is important because there are so many articles right now that are telling different stories. None of them are entirely wrong. They’re using different data and it’s confusing.

The situation in the Amazon is that there have been many fires this month. Many of which have been started intentionally for agricultural purposes. When you put up a map like the first one, people think it’s a natural disaster. It isn’t. What’s going on in the Amazon is human-led deforestation and, while tragic, it is no accident. We need to shift the conversation to why those fires are started in the first place and how to move towards sustainable development. Portraying these fires as accidental obscures the need for a candid conversation about business interests and how they impact the environment.

You may be thinking, “Wait, Taylor, this is all science stuff. What does that have to do with digital humanities?” And to that, I say, “everything.” While these maps may be portraying an environmental issue, what we learn from it is relevant to all disciplines. When you use maps for a project, know that you are responsible for how they are read. As previously mentioned, no map is free from bias or agenda. It’s easy in disciplines that aren’t “hard sciences” to get the brunt of the subjectivity critique, but the fact of the matter is that even “hard sciences” are subject to biases and should go about research carefully.

As researchers, in any discipline, it is important to realize the power of data visualization and to need to wield that power responsibly.

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