The Environment Agency’s Pollution Maps and how not to present environmental information

As part of the Mapping Change for Sustainable Communities project, we organised the first workshop in the Royal Docks area, at the Sunborn Yacht Hotel last Saturday (27/10). The workshop was very successful and, as I usually do in these workshops, I start with ‘what mapping information can we find on the WWW about your locality’. I’ve been doing it now for about 7 or 8 years, but during the period, the Environment Agency’s Pollution Inventory maps never failed me as an example for technocratic dissemination of information which is not helping the people on the ground.

I find that, in all these workshops with people from many communities across London, very few knew about the Environment Agency information, let alone ever accessed it independently had. As the participants are usually from community or environmental interest groups, they are interested in the information – they just don’t know where to find it. I associate this lack of awareness with the fact that users find the information unfriendly and unhelpful, so there is no ‘word of mouth’ effect that leads to more use of the site. As someone in our Saturday workshop declared, ‘these maps are not written in community language or for community use’ – yet, they tick all the boxes of the Aarhus convention

To understand what’s wrong, see the image below, which provides a view of the site on an average monitor (1024×768):
Environment Agency Pollution Inventory.
The header area is so big that all that is left is a fairly small area for the map.

Furthermore, as the full image of the page shows, the map is supposed to offer several layers of pollution data (on the right-hand side) but, as many of the layers include point data about the same site – all using the same symbols which overlap one another – the user can’t see if, in a given location, there is information from multiple categories.
Environment Agency Pollution Inventory
The area of the map is very small (less than 400×400 pixels), and people find it very difficult to locate where they are or where the postcode is that they have selected in relation to the information on the map. Zooming in to the largest scale, or at any stage during the process, the system will run a query and provide information about the specific location only if the ‘learn more’ option is selected. Even as a more frequent user, I fail to click on this option and find the interaction with the system frustrating.

This site demonstrates that the Aarhus model of access to information, which is ‘we’ll build it and they’ll come’, is not sufficient and that a more user-centred approach is required to achieve public access to environmental information.

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mukih

Professor of GIScience, University College London

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