Maps and graphics boost impact of environmental information

By Bjorn Alfthan and Riccardo Pravettoni, UNEP/GRID-Arendal

Bjorn, researcher: On Monday 6th June, we had the opportunity to visit IFAD and discuss our work. As a collaborating centre of UNEP, our mission is to “communicate environmental information to policy makers, and facilitate environmental decision-making for change”.

Thankfully, we were advised to keep the presentation short to leave room for discussion afterwards. And discuss we did! It was enlightening to discover some of the challenges IFAD has in terms of communications, both internally and externally.

Measuring the impact of communication products was one. This is also a theme that we regularly touch on in our organization. We hope to have demonstrated that some forms of communication can have direct impact. There is considerable evidence that our graphic-intensive Rapid Response Assessment series, for example, has successfully raised awareness and understanding of the issues each title addresses. Although evidence of policy impacts is harder to track, there are also some convincing cases from our work.

However, measuring and identifying impacts – rather than simply outputs - are generally quite hard to do - because of process time lags, the difficulty of tracking the absorption of specific information by diverse end users before they take decisions, and/or because decisions, especially those related to the environment, are rarely taken on the basis of single information sources.

Clearly, no way of communicating the environment offers a magic wand in having immediate impact (in the policy arena or elsewhere) – but our experience at UNEP/GRID-Arendal has shown that certain visual/graphic forms of communication do work better than others.

Riccardo, Environmental Cartographer: What is the best way of communicating environmental issues? What is the meaning and the role of a map? Where does art meet information

For me the importance of “form” on the impact of content on an audience must be stressed. As style characterizes the success of a written text (in science and in literature), a good and appealing visual representation - it could be a thematic map, a diagram, a chart or an info-graphic document in general - is a key factor in communicating complex issues in a limited amount of space and time.

A great lesson learned from the guru of data, Edward Tufte, shows how an ill-prepared visual representation of information can (inadvertently) hide key facts or trends. The example at left is believed to have contributed to the fatal explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger back in 1987. It didn't convey to the decisionmakers the high risk of failure of the "0-rings."

One way of presenting environmentally sensitive information is through the use of analytical maps and graphics that “compress” multilevel information into something concise and effective - and where all the elements have as a common goal the communication of an environmental message in the most efficient way possible.

The art is in layering and grouping data and information that then conveys a clear message: easier said than done! Incorporating communications / mapping efforts in any research or project team activities from the outset can be key to a high impact outcome.

Do know of any excellent examples of graphic environmental information with high impact? If so, thanks for sharing them with us here.