Maps are crucial to research within Human Geography as they give context to demographic information, and through the use of both physical maps and Geographical Information Systems geographers can provide spatial grounding and evidence. Maps also enable human geographers to give visual evidence to support claims which can be manipulated into presentation techniques such as choropleth maps. In this story we will look at the importance of maps in these ways, as well as how maps are crucial to displaying change through time of demographics or landscape.
Perhaps the most obvious explanation of why maps are such a vital tool for human geographers is their uses in the contextualization of data, specifically for locating demographic data such as age structures and employment status. The key component of a map that is so important for this is scale, as by mapping to scale a study area demographic information can be localised and expressed in terms of distance relationships. These spatial relationships are critical to any study as human geography demands research based on spatial phenomenon. An example of how this could be used is in the mapping of census data, with the information grouped by locale and these groups displayed with maps to show proximity. Ordnance survey style maps are best suited for this purpose as they also display services and infrastructure which often complements the demographic data being studied.
Geographical Information Systems are also crucial to geographical research and analysis. GIS gives human geographers the ability to transform basic maps into more specialised data visualisations, whether it be creating a 3D model of topographic relief and adding layers of infrastructure and data, or grouping data and creating choropleth maps or data distributions. These types of data plotting have brought mapping straight into the 21st century and can show innovation and creativity. An example of GIS in use would be a 3D topographic model of a study area overlayed with age structure data and transport networks, with emphasis on highlighting which age groups use each type of transport most often. This would have a wide array of uses such as being able to show businesses where to focus advertising strategy, or to give the government key information about whether their public transport policies are working – both areas where practical human geography is very important.
This creativity is not limited to information systems and can also be found within many other types of maps, indeed the versatility of maps is another reason why they are so important. Maps such as resource maps showing natural resources and secondary outputs are extremely useful within economic geography and likewise political maps focusing on boundaries and borders are useful to politicians and anyone interested in international relations. Thematic maps perhaps give the most room for specialisation, as a map can be tailored to show specific information and in a particular style in order to progress a theme of study, and in this way the map is useful to geographers and it can make data visualisation more focused and effective. It is also possible to map quantitative information in more imaginative ways. An example of this would be distorting the size of UK counties by their unemployment rates – larger for a higher unemployment rate and vise-versa.
Another explanation for the importance of mapping is how maps can easily and concretely show change through time. By looking at maps of the same area over many different time periods human geographers can easily investigate changes in infrastructure, economy and settlement which are all very important facets of population change and development. These changes can be correlated with known periods of time e.g. The Industrial Revolution or linked with stages of the Demographic Transition Model to describe typical changes and non-typical changes that may be unique to an area.
Finally, mapping is a form of data collection and presentation that is completely universal. They are not restricted by different cultures nor language barriers and as such can be used to research and visualise any area of the globe and make international or localised comparisons with equal ease. This is of paramount importance to human geographers as the very nature of geography is to study the world, and to be able to do so easily, efficiently and completely through the use of maps and information systems is essential. The fact that maps are so universal has another key benefit in that it makes them accessible to everyone, not just geographers. This is important to human geographers as it makes their research tools and presentations accessible to the masses, making their work all the more relevant.
To conclude, maps are a vitally important tool for human geographers for both helping with research and presenting data and findings. Research is assisted through the contextualisation of data given by maps and the connections thereby found to development and population structure and growth. Presentation of data is greatly assisted through the use of maps and the creativity and innovations that can be accessed through maps and geographical information systems can greatly enhance a theme as well as the accessibility of research findings, hopefully bringing an awareness of geographical issues to the general population. Of all the important uses of maps, it is likely to be scale that is the most important as it gives a concrete grounding to any research and enables strong spatial connections to be made, which are vital in any area of study within human geography, particularly demographics.