Mapping for Decision-making

Sarah K. Fortner, Wittenberg University & Thomas F. Shipley, Temple University
published Nov 16, 2018 1:34pm

Addressing wicked challenges like climate change, natural hazards, and water resource planning requires working across and between time, space, jurisdictional, institutional, management, and social networks to improve societal outcomes (Cash et al., 2006). Thinking about time, space, and complex systems are key foci of geoscience education (Kastens et al., 2009) that make our discipline especially important to problem-solving. But while we feature programs designed around these learning goals, we may not be providing our students with what they need to work with communities facing the consequences of our planning and response networks. Improving connectivity between scientists and the community is central to science literacy and improving community outcomes (NAS, 2016). If we seek to build science literacy in our courses what are the strategies that help our students build criss-cross (i.e. across disciplines and from science to socio-cultural structures) and cross-level thinking (i.e. between levels. e.g. moving between patch, region and globe)? We have the opportunity to reinforce central learning of the geosciences and build connectivity across scales and socio-cultural structures. There is some evidence that geoscience educators could do more to connect earth systems and processes to local decisions. Recently, 263 geoscience faculty responded to a survey assessing current civic and societal issue practices in courses and programs (Fortner and Wilson, 2018). One question asked: Do any of the courses you teach require students to make connections between the geosciences and societal decision making? Faculty were asked to respond yes, no, or unsure at global, national, regional, state, and local or campus levels. Below are the yes responses.

Frequency earth issues are taught at specific scales

Faculty most frequently taught societal connections with decision making at global scales (75.9%) and responses fell as the scale decreased. Less than half (45.6%) of all geoscience faculty reported teaching societal connections at local or campus scales. Interestingly, 80% of those who teach societal issues at local scales also teach at all other levels. Faculty who teach societal decision making in a local context are also more likely to criss-cross between geoscience and socio-cultural perspectives central to science literacy. Those who reported teaching earth issues at local levels were 35% more likely to report that they included diverse or underrepresented minority perspectives in their courses and 36% more likely to include current regulations and legislation. Exploring local geoscience society issues may make criss-crossing more likely. For example, community development initiatives may be ideal places for land use or stormwater planning. Local code ordinances may impact vacant lot development. Issues like community development may be how the community relates to the geosciences. This idea of improving connectivity to the issues that are at the front of community conversations aligns with ideas of Van der Linden et al., 2015 on tips to improve public climate engagement. A focus on present local connections, experiential activities, social group norms, near future positive outcomes, and pleas to support intrinsically valued outcomes all help build trust and connections (Van der Linden et al., 2015).

Spatial education may be an important entry point for instructors who would like to provide earth and environmental science students opportunities to gain skills and habits needed for decision-making. New mapping tools like the EPA EJScreen Tool (more info) , the National Climate Change Viewer, SoilWeb , the EPA Stormwater Discharge Tool and FEMA's Flood Map Center, make criss-cross and cross-level analyses possible with a click. Working with the GETSpatial team has cultivated new awareness for me of the need to identify what challenges my students and decision-makers experience as they use these tools and others to work across scales and between levels. One strategy the climate research community uses to aide decision-making is merging multiple factors such as climate conditions and vulnerabilities onto a single map to reveal "hotspots" intended to guide decision-making. This practice now explores many criss-cross or cross-scale relationships (deSherbinin, 2014). Hotspot map constructors and users face challenges uniquely associated with criss-cross and cross-level analyses (e.g. not understanding the resolution of the mapped information to a decision at an accurate spatial or temporal scale) (deSherbinin, 2014). For example, while SoilWeb may provide relevant information about soil fertility, texture, or other factors relevant to county scale land management, soil would need to be sampled at the plot scale in order to best assess where to install rain gardens because the resolution behind the model is too low for small plot decisions. Many tools like SoilWeb don't have readily accessible ways to communicate heterogeneity or uncertainty. Decision making may be easier if there is a good spatial or symbolic agreement between how information is presented and the decision process (Dennis and Carte, 1998). For example displaying data in a spatial context improves decision making speed and accuracy over tables or graphs (Dennis and Carte, 1998). The EPA EJScreen Tool (more info) allows for adjacent space analyses of distinct properties. For example, in one window you can view lead paint indicator and in the other the ratio of income to poverty level. Both are spatially organized by tract and use parallel bins (% occurrence with respect to state or national distribution). This alignment of how information is spatially organized and described may make the EPA EJScreen Tool (more info) particularly useful to new users because it improves recognition of and reasoning about spatial correlations by supporting the alignment of two spatial variables. Note, when users zoom in or out of one map the scale of the adjacent map changes in parallel. This may make criss-cross and cross-level analyses easier as it facilitates working at multiple scales at matched levels (i.e. equivalently zoomed to the same scale). Nevertheless, spatial correlation is a challenging skill and some users might also grapple with the unfamiliar units or assumptions involved in the data they are comparing. When looking at maps of sea surface temperature anomalies most of my students are able to identify El Niño even if they incorrectly describe the maps as showing temperature and not a departure in temperature from a long term average. Therefore, it is likely that some users may come away with conclusions needed to improve decision-making even if they haven't developed a full understanding.

In sum, we highlight opportunities and challenges to bringing natural and social sciences together to support community decision making: 1) the special skills of geoscientists are central to translating spatial tools to broader audiences, 2) aligning spatial tools with community priorities (i.e. local scale geoscientific work) likely improves their usefulness and enhances student thinking about the system of change. Finally, 3) defining priorities depends on who is brought into decision-making discussions.The freely available OpenStreetMap has already generated new forms of crowdsourced maps that have emerged from the decision making priorities of grass roots efforts (Holder, 2018). This is exciting, because it highlights the potential for spatial tools to better serve community outcomes. Cash et al., 2006 points out that working across and between scales generates research and implementation ideas needed for innovation and resilience. Thinking about how we educate to improve criss-cross and cross-level analyses and connect with our students and communities is central. In my classes, this has already inspired student and community-interest informed maps (e.g. soil nutrients, heat island, recycling, bike racks, soil lead) and sharing county-level analyses from open source mapping tools with community partners.


  1. Cash, D. W., Adger, W. N., Berkes, F., Garden, P., Lebel, L., Olsson, P., Prichard, L., & Young, O. (2006). Scale and cross-scale dynamics: governance and information in a multilevel world. Ecology and society, 11(2).
  2. Dennis, A. R., & Carte, T. A. (1998). Using geographical information systems for decision making: Extending cognitive fit theory to map-based presentations. Information Systems Research, 9(2), 194-203.
  3. de Sherbinin, A. (2014). Climate change hotspots mapping: what have we learned?. Climatic Change, 123(1), 23-37.
  4. EPA, EJScreen Tool,
  5. FEMA, Flood Map Service Center,
  6. Fortner, S.K. and Wilson (2018). Civic engagement in our classes, programs, and outreach practices: Implications for supporting science literacy and our workforce
  7. Holder, S (2018). City Lab. Who Maps the World?
  8. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2016. Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  9. National Research Council. 2012. Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  10. OpenStreetMap Contributors (OSM), 2018 OpenStreetMap
  11. SoilWeb: an online soil survey, U.C. Davis,
  12. USGS, National Climate Change Viewer, Climate Research and Development
  13. Van der Linden, S., Maibach, E., and Leiserowitz, A., 2015, Improving public engagement with climate change: Five "best practice" insights from psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, v. 10, no. 6, p. 758-763.

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