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Mapping Our Future

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Why, with more information available to us than ever before, do those in positions of power seem so unconcerned about the facts when making statements or decisions? Has the sheer quantity of information and the increasing pace of life so overwhelmed us that we no longer have the time or temerity to fact-check when what we hear doesn't make sense? Or has post-modernism, with its doubts about the neutrality or even the possibility of factual information, so pervaded popular culture and our political system that everything has become a matter of interpretation and ideology?

We will have to let future historians sort out the answers to such questions. But for the first time, we all now have a fast and convenient way of pinning down the facts when those in power move from outrageous interpretation to outright fabrication. The world's largest data mapping company --Esri -- has recently made its databases and mapping software available online and accessible to the public, and our politics will never be the same.

Some may see this as just another cache of information in a world already drowning in the stuff, but not so. By mapping data, Esri's software not only simplifies and helps us visualize complex information, but also -- and maybe most importantly -- it lets us combine databases and overlay information in ways that reveal things that belie what we often hear from the media or from those in power who have something to protect.

At the annual Esri user's conference in San Diego last month, where over 15,000 digital map mavens gathered to hear about the latest advances and to talk about best practices, the political implications of making all of this information publicly available received relatively little comment. But the consequences for those who like to perpetrate public falsehoods were there -- literally mapped out -- for all see.

Look at the maps of which states receive the most Federal aid and which have the greatest positive return on what they pay in terms Federal taxes. And then look at the voting records of such states, which show many of them as the most consistently supportive of politicians promising to cut Federal spending. Maps like these show how much political ideologies can run counter to the actual self-interests of people, while revealing issues all too rarely discussed, such as why do those states most dependent on the government seem to resent it the most?

These online maps also reveal places where the people and their politicians seem strangely at odds. Take the health care debate. Overlay the maps of where the largest percentage of people live without health insurance, where the highest levels of ill health occur, and where the politicians most opposed to the Obama Administration's health care law hold office and you will see how much the two coincide. Given the health data, you might think that the governors in states like Texas and Louisiana would embrace any effort to increase the health insurance coverage of their citizens. But the good of ordinary people does not always align with that of those in power.

We have seen the consequences of this in the Arab Spring countries, where citizens armed with information and images available online have overthrown one dictatorial regime after another and where, in places like Tunisia and Syria, the crowd sourcing capabilities of new media make rebel forces almost impossible to defeat.

But elected officials here who seem to count on people not paying attention to statements that have little or no basis in facts will no longer get away with this, now that the ability to map so much information so easily has become available to everyone with access to a computer or smart phone. Nor will citizens who insist on the government leaving their communities alone be able to avoid data maps that show how government aid often helps and rarely hurts the places that need it the most.

This could change the political conversation of this country in profound ways. Doubt the reality of climate change? Look at the Esri maps and Landsat photos of the speed with which the polar ice sheets have disappeared or the extent to which drought has struck formerly productive agricultural land. Question the value of public assistance to families? See how the density of single-parent households in a city like Philadelphia aligns with the incidence of crime. Or wonder if the Federal stimulus had any effect? Check out the map of where the stimulus money went and how those same areas have done better economically since the downturn.

Japan offers a cautionary tale of when those in power try to conceal such information. The map of the radioactive plume from the explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plant shows that rather than contaminate the area surrounding the plant, where evacuations occurred, the plume followed the wind and contaminated areas as far as 25 kilometers away, where people remained in their homes. Efforts to keep this map a secret failed, leading to calls for the responsible official to step down.

We all use maps to chart our course in life. And now that "maps have come alive and become pervasive," as Esri President Jack Dangermond puts it, we may all be able to chart a better course politically as well as personally for ourselves.

Thomas Fisher is Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.