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ACLU v. Maps

April 8, 2010

How far would you go to prove your point? How much would you distort your data?

Turns out, that if you are the ACLU, pretty far.

Now, in general I am quite sympathetic to the ACLU and its whole defending civil liberties thing. Sure, they take some stands that I am uncomfortable with, but this is not a political blog. This blog is all about maps. Unfortunately, the ACLU has made a few maps that I am uncomfortable with too.  Take this one for example:

Now is probably right about the time you start asking yourself whether the author of this blog is insane, or perhaps just has a bone to pick. What could possibly be wrong with this map? (other than the fact that 2/3 of us in the U.S. live in a constitution free zone – scary!)

Simply put, it is this – the author has chosen to include some cities on the map such as the bustling metropolis of Shelby, Montana (metro pop 3,216) and Glasgow, Montana (metro pop 3,253), but omit cities like Cincinnati, Ohio (metro pop 2,198,000) and Tulsa Oklahoma ( metro pop 1,035,000).

Sometimes I wish I lived in a blimp hangar. Then I think of the heating bills.

This would be the same as if I were making a map of big local buildings and included my apartment but not nearby Mountain View’s epic Hangar One.

Now obviously, the point of the distortion on the map is to fill in cities all throughout the orange Constitution Free Zones, and it is pretty hard to find cities along our northern border to do that. Still, why should it be done in the first place?

The map got a lot of play in the press and on Digg etc. a couple of years ago. No doubt the distortion helped add weight to the alarming headline. One can almost see it now, the casual reader looking at the map, first finding their home city, likely within the orange zone and wondering where all of his freedom went, then looking around at all the other cities, thinking “wow, this is a huge problem” and maybe even joining a facebook group in protest. Would this person have thought less of the problem if the residents of Shelby and Havre were not there on the map, in the orange zone with him? Probably not.

One could still argue that this map is simply trying to make a political point and that the inclusion or exclusion of certain towns from the map is justified. However, it leaves the ACLU open to the argument that the organization distorts reality and simply tries to scare people to get their support (much like the people they vilify).

So, the final judgment call is whether marginally strengthening your point by distorting reality – saying a town of 3216 is more important than one 683 times its size – is worth it.

I say no.

Do you say yes? Maybe? Comment below.