Avoidance Mapping: What It Is & Where It Fits in the Cartography Cube

“… we all try to steer clear of certain places and people, whether we’re aware of it or not.” (Source)

Currently, my preferred route home is through a residential estate. Its definitive characteristic is close-knit houses, children playing outside and a few ‘vibandas’ (makeshift stalls). Perhaps it’s the sense of community that draws me here. Or maybe it’s because after so many years, the place remains unchanged.  

Unlike me, not everyone prefers this route. Some avoid it despite—or perhaps because of—the things that draw me. While our routes change based on different circumstances, the common ground is that they’re determined by the things we’re trying to avoid. 

Mapping the Things We Avoid

What if we could create a map of the routes we follow and the people/ things we avoid? 

Well, that is what members of the Perfect City working group did. At a workshop, they asked people living in New York City (NYC) to draw maps of what, whom, or where they avoided. The result? Avoidance Maps.

I first heard about avoidance mapping on episode 034 of Isn’t That Spatial podcast.

The idea of creating maps based on people’s experiences with navigating the city intrigued me. For some reason, it made me think about the cartography cube, and the space avoidance maps occupy therein. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Why Produce Avoidance Maps?

Maps help people see what isn’t obvious from tables/ text. But what would make someone spend their time and effort producing avoidance maps? 

In this case, creating avoidance maps made the participants understand who they were in NYC in a new way. Specifically, the avoidance maps were:

  1. Useful in seeing how the ability to navigate a place successfully depended on knowledge of the place and the feeling of belonging
  2. Provocative because they showed that what/ whom you avoid says as much about you as avoidances themselves
  3. Creative because they led to formation of new narratives about the city from different points of view

Above all, the maps helped to see how gender, race, class, and geographic backgrounds inform “belonging” in the city.

“It turns out mapping what we avoid also shows us where we feel we belong.” (Source

Understanding the Cartography Cube

In response to the divergent definitions and views of visualization by cartographers, Professor Alan M. MacEachren formulated a graphic representation of visualization. It was based on treating cartography as a cube, hence ‘cartography cube’. 

MacEachren’s cartography cube

The cartography cube deals with kinds of map use—and not kinds of maps. Therefore, based on how a map is used, it may occupy any space within the cube. 

“The fundamental idea is that map use can be conceptualized as a three-dimensional space. This space is defined by three continua: (1) from map use that is private (where an individual generates a map for his or her own needs) to public (where previously prepared maps are made available to a wider audience); (2) map use that is directed toward revealing unknowns (where the user may begin with only the general goal of looking for something “interesting”) versus presenting knowns (where the user is attempting to access particular spatial information); and (3) map use that has high human-map interaction (where the user can manipulate the map(s) in substantive ways – such as effecting a change in a particular map being viewed, quickly switching among many available maps, superimposing maps, merging maps) versus low interaction (where the user has limited ability to change the presentation).” (MacEachren 1994, p. 6-7)

There are two extremes in the cube. Geographic visualization on one corner and cartographic communication in the other. While all maps contain both visualization and communication, the major difference is the emphasis on visualization or communication at various locations within this space. Emphasis is determined by the primary use of the map—which affects the approach to map design.

Where Does Avoidance Mapping Fit In the Cartography Cube?

Looking at where the avoidance maps by NYC residents fit on each axis of the cartography cube:

Private vs public map use

I would say that avoidance maps occupy the private map use space. This is because the maps were used to help individuals/ small groups of individuals to think spatially. In this case, the maps helped residents, urban planners and architects think spatially about belonging in the city.

Map use directed towards revealing unknowns vs presenting knowns

The avoidance maps were meant to show what it looks like steering clear of certain places and people. It was an exercise designed to lead to conversations about gentrification and displacement, safety and perception. It’s a lens through which to look at bias, belonging, and other subjects. 

By mapping the things people avoid, the maps reveal how different people experience and access urban space. Therefore, avoidance maps are directed towards revealing unknowns.

Map use that has high human-map interaction vs low interaction

According to MacEachren, map use can’t take place without some level of interaction. Furthermore, while the use of a computer increases the level of human-map interaction and hence visualization with maps, it isn’t always necessary. Maps can be interactive if they’re drawn in a way that aids visual thinking/ mental visualization. Nevertheless, computer tools expand the possibilities for interaction and hence visual thinking.

Even though the avoidance maps were two-dimensional images hand drawn on paper, they were nonetheless interactive in the sense that they enabled one to mentally visualize the things/ places being avoided.

Note that I don’t dispute that if the maps were represented on a computer, they would be more interactive—and even allow for integration of additional data such as imagery. What I’m saying is that their display on paper doesn’t make them non-interactive.

Other Thoughts…

Photo by MA7EO on Unsplash

When I first read about avoidance maps, my first thought was how great it would be if everyone shared their avoidance map publicly. What would we learn about urban spaces? Would we discover issues we didn’t know existed before and therefore deal with them?

On further reading, I realised that while mapping represents reality, it also affects how we construct this reality. Sparke called this the proleptic effect of mapping which he defines as: “the way maps contribute to the construction of spaces that later they seem only to represent.”

Making me pose the question: “If people in my (your) community publicly published their avoidance maps, would this affect the things and places I (you) avoid?” My answer is yes. I’d avoid things and places avoided by the majority—a case of a map affecting the reality it represents. What would this mean for urban spaces?

What does your avoidance map look like? Where would you place it in the cartography cube and would you be for or against publicising avoidance maps?


This article has also been posted on Geohub blog.

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Why Is It So Hard to Get the Geo Message Across?

Use these tips and practical challenges and see the way people look at you change dramatically


It's hard to get the geo message across


Remember your interview process for your “GIS Expert” position at the MNC you’re working at? 

An MNC! Sure, their main business isn’t GIS. Still. What an opportunity. 

… was it really that long ago…?

You were so hopeful and swore you’d change the way people think of geospatial. Everyone says it’s important and yet… it’s always an afterthought.

(Bit like copywriting, if you ask me. People realize they need words once they realize other things don’t seem to work.)

Are people even interested in what you’re doing? Why is your job an afterthought? Or a line item, at best?



Just because it’s your thing, it doesn’t make it other people’s thing too

Think back to the last time you went shopping for a bicycle pump. 

… if you haven’t needed one because you don’t have a bicycle, stay with me…

You go to Decathlon and face an entire aisle of pumps. You don’t want to buy the cheapest (who buys the cheapest, it’ll probably break after the first use?). You also don’t want to buy the most expensive pro-version, either. 

You only need it just in case.

So you ask a salesperson. He’s about 25 and he’s cool. He loves talking about bicycles and pumps. He goes into a 5-min lecture on the difference between models. 

Is it rude to stop him? I’ll never spend that much money on this.

You listen politely, afraid to admit he left you even more confused than before. 

I just wish there were only 3 pumps available. Cheap, mid-price and pro. Why is this so difficult?

In the end, you take the 2nd cheapest. 

I mean, who buys the cheapest? And you’re not a pro. 

So 2nd cheapest it is.

Do you see how people coming to you for geospatial stuff are like that version of you in the bike shop?

All they want is a quick map with all the hospitals in town and what do they usually get? 

A long list of things they can get from you because you can totally do that for what they’re looking for. 

Heck. You even give them more suggestions — you’re just helpful and you can see how those would help them even more.

Is it rude to stop you? All they wanted was a quick map…

So they stand there politely and thank you for your help. They’ll send you an email soon, but first, they have to go back to their desks and read through your list again. They never realized you do… all that? 

Not just maps on apps, symbols, and… data? Isn’t that what the IT people also do? Maybe they shouldn’t have asked you at all.

A couple of days pass and you get an email with their request — ignoring everything you told them.

All they want is a map.


Is this ever going to get better? 

What do you have to do to get your voice heard?



Educate your prospects

If you educate people around you, you’ll get better prospects walking up to your desk — better questions and relevant problems and less selling on your side.

Here’s the thing though. You’ll have to do the educating part yourself.

Even if that means stepping out of your comfort zone.




Are you even visible where you work? Apart from the GIS and IT departments, do people know who you are?

If not, how do you think they’d know what you do, for whom and why?

But I smile and say hello to everyone in the lift. Plus accept everyone on LinkedIn. I mean, I’m even connected with that marketing person, Kelly or Kelsey?

It can be uncomfortable, especially for introvert-type people, but you really do have to make a better effort. 

Next time you share a table with someone at the cafeteria, instead of mumbling about the weather or the latest sports as your best attempt at “visibility”, say,

“What are you working on these days?” 

Expect a stare.

“Just asking. I’m making June the month of “What can GIS do for you”. I’m asking everyone what they’re working on so I can pitch something mind-blowing I can do for them. My boss said to go ahead.”

This can go a couple of ways:

  1. If they’re willing, they’ll talk. 

Don’t offer to solve their problem. The purpose of the conversation is to… well, start a conversation. Don’t jump to conclusions or offer to solve their problem before they finish their lasagne and salad.

2. If they look at you weird, say,

“That’s okay if nothing comes to your mind right now. Just send me an email if you do have something you need brainstorming on.”

Tuck into your pasta and talk about the weather and sports. 

You’ve done well. You’ve gone out of your way.




Anyone can do this. 

Read a book. Listen to a podcast. Write a line of code. Follow someone on Twitter.

Go over to a Gdoc and write up a one-pager about it. 

Templatize. Make it fun. Add 3 screenshots.

Send it to all your team and your boss. 

Subject: “Something I learned from X. A 1-min read.”

Now go over to Twitter and post a few lines about your findings.

But I’m just a nobody. I don’t even know what I’m talking about.

Even if that’s true there will be people 10% behind you and what you’re saying is brand new to them. 

The people who already know what you’re saying will appreciate your efforts and will remember you.

The rest? 

You can’t please everyone. 

Welcome the rest, too; they’re teaching you an important lesson.



The Rule of 7 (formerly known as the Rule of 3)

Back in the 2000s, all respectable marketing books talked about the “Rule of 3.” 

People have to see you, your name or your picture three times before they feel they know you (even if they don’t personally do). 

All marketing campaigns were crafted with this rule until a couple of years ago.

When things changed. 

Everyone’s competing for attention in today’s new attention economy…

You now need to be on someone’s radar at least seven times before they recognize you — and you can move from cold to warm status.

The bad news is that it’s up from three. The good news is that they don’t have to talk to you seven times or reply to your Tweets and emails seven times.

They just need to see your name/profile picture seven times.

Challenge 1: Implement the Rule of 7. Post seven times this month on LinkedIn and tell me you didn’t make any traction, make new connections or start a single conversation as a result.

Seven little seeds this month and watch those plants grow…




Your personal Value Prop

Job title:

“Geospatial Analyst”

Sure. But what can you do for people?

Can you summarize it in two sentences? If you were a website, what would your hero section be?

John Smith

Geospatial Analyst

GIS stuff as and when you need it. 

Click here.

How would people know outside of your department what you do from this?




They’ll know when you tell them

Challenge 2: fill in this template and memorize it. Print a copy and display it at your desk. 

Watch people respond to it. 

It’s a conversation starter magnet. 

I do ………………. for ……………..

(geospatial jargons and phrases the rest of the world doesn’t know are not allowed).


I analyze data for environmental people who need a visual representation of it.

Good. Can we make it better?

I analyze data for environmental people who need a visual representation of it because it would be hard to explain to people otherwise/that’s the best way for that data set.

Longer, but better. Can we cut it down?

Data analysis for everything environmental. Hard-to-explain concepts in easy-to-digest visual forms.

Totally making this up — but you get my point. You just went from Geospatial Analyst to a concrete thing you can give to people without weighing them down with the how.

Challenge 3: Put this up in your cubicle/workstation and wait for people to ask about why it’s there. 

Make it your Zoom background.

Include it in your LinkedIn profile tagline.

Try to fit it into the very next email you write to someone.

Say these words when people ask you at family gatherings what it is you’re doing these days… again?

Bonus challenge: make it visual and use it as your banner on your social media.



What’s next?

When you’re comfortable doing all this, at your next weekly meeting suggest (yes, you!) that you’d like to be featured in the next company newsletter and talk about the department.

Offer to make a five-minute presentation on a passion project you’ve been working on.

Find a charitable organization that needs geospatial help and call upon people to join you.

Keep trying. Put yourself out there and remember, you can’t please everyone. But there will be some that you’ll impress along the way.

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