One of the most accessible climate data maps possible just popped into my inbox

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 20, 2023
An example of a choropleth map showing the Black proportion of the population in shades of blue and the Hispanic proportion in shades of red, based on the 2010 Census. Creator: Bplewe. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

Steven Bernard, the Financial Times’ (FT) Senior Visual Journalist, recently created one of the most beautiful climate data maps I have ever seen to illustrate the temperature anomalies that caused extreme weather events around the globe these past two months.

For obvious reasons, I can’t put the FT map on here but if you can, do take a look. It’s here (paywall).

One of the high points of Mr Bernard’s map is its accessibility because, in Mr Bernard’s words, it’s “a choropleth map”.

Say what?

He helpfully explains it as follows:

“Nerd note: a choropleth map displays geographical areas or regions that are coloured, shaded or patterned based on a data variable, such as income per capita]displays geographical areas or regions that are coloured, shaded or patterned based on a data variable, such as income per capita]

“The benefit of using this palette is that it is accessible to the colour blind. Colour blindness or colour vision deficiency affects around 1 in 12 men (8%) and 1 in 200 women (0.5%) so it important to take this into account when choosing a colour theme for data visualisations.”

The intention to communicate to colour blind people is laudable. There is a deep, unmet need for clear and unambiguous communication of climate data, in accessible form.

Most people understand the world through storytelling in words and images, rather than rows of numbers, probability statements or technical graphs. So it is crucial to find ways of translating the technical language of a scientific report into something more engaging. It’s a fact that a visual artist can convey the concept of sea-level rise better than any graph.

So too Mr Bernard’s choropleth map.

We need more of these to cover every aspect of the climate emergency.

Scotland’s Climate Xchange, which connects climate change research with Scottish policy, has noted the “informational deficit model” that characterises debate and discussion. It says that it is wrong for communicators to assume that a lack of information and understanding explains the lack of public concern and engagement and all that’s needed to move people to action is more information and explanation. The result, says Climate Xchange, is that  we get “too lost in the data”, managing both to bewilder readers as well as shame them for their ignorance.

And if they’re colour blind too, they really won’t get it, unless it’s a choropleth map.

Also read:

Vanuatu: life in the world’s most climate-endangered country

Bill Gates has gone from 0 to 100 on climate change and it shows in the words he uses

Can managing climate change ever be good business?

As Paris pact turns five, climate change is the new cold war

Climate refugees is not a new term but get used to hearing it more often