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Mapping skills

Geography (Year 12) - Geography Knowledge

Adrienne Reeder


Maps are a core tool used to communicate in geography. However, they can be complex multimodal texts, each of which may be a different semiotic (meaning-making) system to represent information. Students must be explicitly taught how to read and interpret data presented in maps. Solve a variety of topographic and thematic maps (e.g. physical, political, and social maps, synoptic charts and climate maps) at different scales, including local, national and global interpret and apply data from other types of statistical maps (e.g. isopleth/isoline maps, choropleth maps, proportional circle maps, overlay and dot distribution maps) Geography teachers would be familiar with explicitly teaching the six features of a map using BOLTSS (this acronym represents the first letters of the six features listed below):

  • B – Border: A line around the map to show the edges of the map to prevent confusion with other text

  • O – Orientation: Shows direction using a compass rose or North arrow

  • L – Legend: Key to the symbols and colours used

  • T – Title: A precise name of the map, usually placed above the map or sometimes in the figure caption

  • S – Scale: A measure between the map and real-world usually a linear scale, and sometimes a ratio or statement

  • S – Source: A source is the origin of the data shown on the map so the reader knows where the information comes from.

Grid map

When taking a grid reference, always read left to right along the bottom or top of the map first and then bottom to top along the side of the map. This is particularly important in an emergency.

Four-figure grid references. When giving a four-figure grid reference, you should always provide the eastings number first and the northings number second, much like when reading a graph in school, where you give the x coordinate first followed by the y. An easy way to remember this is that to get the first number, you go along the corridor (horizontal, x-axis, easting) and then up the stairs (vertical, y-axis, northings).

For example, the ‘x’ in the diagram below is square 19 across and square 45 up; therefore, the four-figure grid reference is ‘1945’.

The numbered squares on the chart above have the following four-figure grid references:1 = 18 452 = 19 453 = 18 444 = 19 44

Six-figure map references

To get the six-figure grid reference, you must imagine that the four-figure square is further divided into tenths. In the example below, the grey box is in the four-figure grid reference square ‘18 44’, but more accurately, it is 7-tenths across and 8-tenths up within that larger grid square. Therefore the six-figure map reference is ‘187 448’.

The shapes on the diagram above have the following six-figure grid references:

Grey square – 187 448Red dot – 185 443

To be sure there is no doubt or confusion about which National Grid you’re referring to when you quote the six-figure grid reference, you should put the two letters of the area you are in before the numbers.

For example, you may be at grid reference ‘509 582’ in southwest Scotland. The complete grid reference you should quote would be ‘NX 509 582’ (without the letters, the numeric reference would be repeated in every 100 km square).

Topographic maps

These single-topic maps focus on clearly stated/particular themes (important events or patterns of things), such as population density, rainfall, rain, snow levels, green plant distribution, and poorness. This differs from reference maps, which include roads, mountains, land, rivers, etc., and political edges/borders. (related to underlying messages and morals in a story) maps have characteristics that make (related to space or existing in space) patterns more seen/obvious, shedding new light on the theme in question and allowing for further (understanding of deep things). These maps are (conveniently nearby/useful) when you want to analyse the (related to space or existing in space) distribution of your information or look for any (land-area-based/location) patterns and (moves in a particular way/become popular) within your data sets. They are also an excellent way to search for relationships between data in two locations. There are likely (more than two, but only a few) essential (understandings of deep things) in your data that need to be obvious when viewing it in a spreadsheet. (related to underlying messages and morals in a story) maps let you visualise your location-based information and bring it to life, making it much easier to spot those (understandings of deep things).

Examples of topographic maps are:

Choropleth Maps

Choropleth maps represent data values in geographic areas with different colours and patterns. Data is categorised into classes, with each category assigned a unique colour or design. These maps are best used for Measuring Population Density and Total Population, Visualising Sales Volume and Revenue and Measuring Demographics (Education, Housing, Per Capita Income, Labor, etc.)

Advantages include:

  • Choropleth maps colour-code your data into classes, making it a snap to quickly understand large volumes of data—even when visualising data for multiple regions.

  • Because they are so widely used, choropleth maps mean virtually no time wasted on explanation or specialised training.

  • Choropleth maps are fast and straightforward to prepare, especially with software like Maptive.

Disadvantages include :

  • They are better suited for generalised data and breadth than specific figures.

  • Since the map’s creator determines data classes, choropleth maps can manipulate data to mislead people.

Dot Density Maps

Dot maps have been around for a long time but are still extremely popular due to their simplicity and wide range of applications. These maps are best used to represent large quantities of geographically-dispersed data and analyse density and spatial patterns. These maps illustrate each data point with a dot and are a great way to measure density. Regions with many dots packed close together are easily identified as high-density areas, whereas regions with few or no dots are areas where your data could be better. 

Advantages of Dot Density Maps

  • Dot Density maps allow for more precise visualisation than heat maps.

  • Unlike choropleth maps, you can visualise either exact figures or classes.

Disadvantages of Dot Density Maps

  • Dot Density maps require context. Therefore it becomes more critical to consider legibility and boundary presentation when customising.

Isopleth Maps

Isopleth maps use colours and shades to represent data, similar to choropleth maps. However, they differ because data isn’t grouped within predefined boundaries such as census tracts, counties, or states. Instead, contoured lines divide the map into different areas and show where data levels change. These maps map weather and climate patterns, visualise data for large regions, and measure change over time or distance.

Advantages of Isopleth Maps

  • Isopleth maps are well-suited for large-scale analysis, allowing you to map data without boundaries like state, county, zip code, etc.

  • Isopleth maps are the best thematic maps for natural data like rainfall, temperature, elevation, and other climate variables.

Disadvantages of Isopleth Maps

  • Since Isopleth maps visualise trends over large regions, they are prone to over-generalisation and need more ability to account for sudden or atypical results.

Heat Maps

Heat maps measure density across a map. Like many other map types, they represent data using colour. Darker shades indicate higher-density areas, while lighter shades show lower-density areas. This type of map doesn’t use geographic boundaries. Instead, it works similarly to a dot density map. Plot individual data points on the map with colours assigned based on the distribution and number of points in a given area and primarily used for sales and marketing analysis, Including market research & strategy, measuring the density, concentration, and Intensity of data and discovering market opportunities and underserved regions.

Advantages of Heat Maps

  • Heat maps are the best thematic maps for outbound sales and marketing.

  • Market analysis, including sales trends, market penetration, and coverage, becomes a breeze with heat maps.

  • Heat maps help reveal sales opportunities hidden in your data.

Disadvantages of Heat Maps

  • Heat maps are designed to visualise the concentration of data, meaning they lose their efficacy when used for data with low variance.

  • Like other types of thematic maps, incomplete data can interfere with results. However, when given incomplete data, heat maps are more vulnerable to skewed perceptions.

Interpret marginal information represented on maps, including titles, conventional symbols contained in the legend, north point, numerical and linear scale establish a position on a map using alphanumeric grid coordinates, eastings and northings, four figure area references, six-figure grid references, and latitude and longitude expressed in degrees and minutes establish directions on a map using 16-point compass directions and bearings interpret and express scale in written, linear and ratio formats, and convert scale from one form to another apply the map scale to basic calculations to determine the time, speed, distance and area interpret relief on a map using contours, height information and spot heights to describe the steepness and shape of a slope, including concave, convex and uniform, and calculate the average gradient expressed as a ratio identifies different relief features and landforms, including hills, valleys, plains, spurs, ridges, escarpments, saddles, cliffs, types of natural vegetation cover and hydrological characteristics, including land subject to inundation, perennial and intermittent water bodies interpret, construct and annotate cross sections to show genuine and cultural features on the landscape create simple annotated sketch maps using map conventions, including border, title, legend, north point and approximate scale identify and interpret natural features and cultural features on a map describe the site and situation of the places identify, describe and analyse spatial patterns, including land use, settlement and transport, and spatial relationships between natural and cultural features on maps analyse and describe changing patterns and relationships that have taken place over time.

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