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Monday, February 22, 2010

Climate Change Mapping: Keep it Simple, Stupid!

In the previous post, I wrote about the challenges of presenting complex data on the risk from sea-level rise and climate change to people who are looking for 'simple' answers and guidance.

One of the main take-away messages that I got from day 2 of the National Climate Change Forum is that local authorities really are asking for (demanding!) a national, coordinated set of data and decision support tools to help them assess the risks coming from climate change, confirming the points made in the previous post.
This exposes yet another aspect of the tension between the scientists, who love dealing with complexity and uncertainties, and the public & local authorities, who want simple, straight answers, unambiguous numbers and understandable messages. A point that was raised repeatedly at the forum. Mind you, most of the journos need short and simple messages too, which is why they love quoting Tony Abbott, a Bondi Surfer, and Lord Monckton, rather than Penny Wong, Tim Flannery or the IPCC. But that's beside the point.

The key questions local authorities need to answer to do their risk assessment are, "where will it happen", "when will it happen", and "what will the damage be"?

To our industry, that screams "GIS". And for such a large and diverse audience: "Online Mapping". And if we succeed in depicting complex risk patterns on a map (as discussed in the previous post), and overlaying that with affected population, property and critical infrastructure, we're well under way.

One BIG word of caution though: for an online application like that to succeed, it needs to be a true "decision support tool", that includes mapping capability. The last thing we need is another online GIS, "by GIS boffins, for GIS boffins". And that's actually not that easy. As an example, I once made the mistake of succumbing to a client's request to add 'Layer Control' to the spatial visualisation tool we were building for them. Never mind that the target audience would typically have next to none GIS experience. Ever since, we were in repeated discussions on how to customise this capability and write long training manuals to explain its functionality to the poor deluded users. Who would have been fine without the thing in the first place!

Try and find your way around this! (source: https://mapguide.osgeo.org/images/MapGuideAjaxViewerHiRes.png)

Let it be gone. The decision support tools that councils, local planners etc. need to manage the risks from climate change will be extremely user friendly. That means pointy, targeted and devoid of any unnecessary functionality or jargon.

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