The new noise maps for England are yet another example of how environmental information is presented to the public in ways that do not make sense, and, I suspect, alienate rather than include people in understanding the state of their environment.
A few weeks ago, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) release their modelled noise maps for main urban areas of England. There is no doubt about the popular interest in these maps – the site collapsed on the first day of publicity due to demand, and the message ‘Due to the popularity of the site we are currently experiencing very heavy load’ is on display. This also happened to the Environment Agency when they released their ‘What’s in your backyard?’ and flood maps in 1998.
Yet, the maps are as difficult to understand as the previous version of the London noise maps that were released in 2004 (see image below from the now defunct site).
In the new maps, the maps are smaller in size than the London test site (occupying just 29.2% of the screen at 1024×768). They are either too generalised (Rail noise) or are detailed but without street names and landmarks (Roads), and, although noise is experienced as a combination of the impacts from industry, air, rail and road, the site gives no option of seeing all the layers together!
While the site makes it clear that the data is just modelled and was produced for strategic purposes, the message that ‘Users are strongly encouraged to read the explanatory information’ is not immediately visible – you need to scroll down to see it! Furthermore, the site does not explain what this ‘strategic assessment’ is – strategy of whom? For what end?
I do have sympathy with the designers, and I know from personal experience how difficult it is to display this information with all the political and organisational pressures, but without end-user testing and improvements the release of this information in such an inaccessible form can lead people to feel even more disenfranchised about environmental information…