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How maps can help effective policy communication

Blog | Wed, 17 Mar, 2021 · 10 min read
Data workshop, Bac Kan Province, Viet Nam

Spatial analysis is key to informing area-based planning and decision-making, such as national REDD+ planning. Spatial analysis helps decision-makers investigate and visualise spatial patterns, making it a crucial tool for informing decisions on the use of land or sea.

For more than ten years, the UN-REDD Programme has been supporting countries in their mapping efforts through technical workshops and the development of capacity-building materials as part of the wider REDD+ planning process. Maps can help people identify suitable areas for REDD+ strategy options that lead to reduced emissions in ways that also deliver other important benefits such as biodiversity conservation and clean water provision.

Well-designed maps can convey spatial information and findings in a way that is accessible to policy-makers and a wide range of other stakeholders. By contrast, poorly considered maps can create biased messages and restrict a user's ability to scrutinise the underlying data. New guidance from the UN-REDD Programme has been created to help make maps that are effective tools for policy communication.

Mapping choices can communicate different messages

Anyone making a map is responsible for both the underlying data and deciding how to present it. Many choices have to be made, from how to process to how to simplify the data. Based on these choices, two maps using entirely the same data could present totally different messages.

For example, understanding the distribution of a country’s natural forests is important in the REDD+ planning process. The map below, from a 2013 study by Runsten et al, illustrates how the precise biophysical definition of forest used in an analysis can have very different implications.

New guidance on mapping and other visuals

The map on the left assumes a forest definition with 5m tree height and includes montane and lowland forest, open and closed woodlands and mangroves, but excludes thickets and bushlands. The map on the right assumes a forest definition with 2m tree height and includes thickets and bushlands, in addition to the other forest types.

New guidance on mapping and other visuals

Building on years of experience in mapping and spatial analysis, the UN-REDD Programme has developed a guidance document called How to Present Complex Data on Maps and other Visuals for Effective Policy Communication: Using visual tools and spatial information to support decisions for REDD+ implementation. This is aimed at helping users make maps for more effective policy communication.

In the context of REDD+ planning, the document incorporates knowledge gained from working with more than 20 developing countries to build capacity and analyse where REDD+ actions could result in additional social and environmental benefits. It also highlights the different type of maps required, depending on the stage in the planning process, as well as other national goals and priorities. The UN-REDD guidance document is designed to help users understand the considerations required to make informed choices throughout the map-making process, such as whether a map is the right communication tool, how to present the information and avoid bias. Such guidance has already helped countries better plan for and implement REDD+ and identify places suitable for a range of forest conservation, sustainable management and restoration actions.

One example is the capacity-building support provided to technical teams in Viet Nam developing provincial REDD+ action plans. Combined with a participatory approach, maps help identify potential locations for implementing relevant policies and measures for mitigating climate change. They also contribute to a successful REDD+ planning process. Maps are used in various ways throughout the planning process, including providing relevant information in an accessible way to multi-stakeholder groups, ensuring local knowledge and perspectives are captured and considered and communicating results to policy makers.

In Costa Rica, a series of spatial analyses were developed to evaluate the potential of four REDD+ implementation options derived from its National REDD+ Strategy. Maps were produced to present the summary results to policy makers to help inform decisions on REDD+ implementation.

Further examples can be found in this storymap.

Key mapping considerations

While the guidance document focuses on map production, using examples of maps produced under the UN-REDD Programme in different countries, it is also valuable for anyone looking to visualise complex data. However, maps should be used together with other communication approaches including documents, discussions, tables and graphs.

The new guidance document covers a range of important considerations, including:

  • When should maps be chosen as a visualisation technique?

  • How can maps influence decision making?

  • The use of different types of map for different purposes

  • Guidance on data processing, generalisation and classification of data

  • Making a map with appropriate data layers and a visual hierarchy

  • Using colour and making colour blind friendly maps

  • Advice on the use of different map projections

There is also a series of checklists to help with map design and quality control, for example highlighting important elements that should be included on a map and other elements that should checked before a map is signed off and published. These simple quality control checks are intended to ensure that the maps produced meet a required standard.

Accompanying this document is a series of tutorials which have been used to build capacity in a number of countries to produce datasets and maps relevant to spatial planning for REDD+.

In a decision-making environment, clear and accurate presentation of materials is essential. Policy makers have limited time to digest complex information, and a map can be an extremely effective communication tool, if done well. In REDD+ planning, spatial context is very important as a range of relevant policies and measures will be required to tackle different drivers of deforestation and forest degradation, barriers to enhancement, conservation and sustainable management of forests. The local context is extremely important and being able to analyse and display spatial data and combine it with local knowledge can lead to a more robust planning process. This guidance document brings together the experience of GIS experts at UNEP-WCMC and technical teams working across countries, providing a wealth of guidance illustrated with examples of where maps have been an effective policy communication tool.