How to Lie with COVID-19 Maps

… or tell some truths through refined cartography

In his seminal book “How to Lie with Maps”, Professor Mark Monmonier illustrates how map makers can intentionally or inadvertently convey falsehoods using misguided data selection and cartographic design options. In an era of widely accessible, easy-to-use online mapping tools, misleading maps are becoming ubiquitous. Maps of COVID-19 statistics, along with associated graphs and data tables, which have become a focus of public attention this year, are no exception. Therefore, I want to take another look at the pitfalls of the popular choropleth map.

Screenshot from with data updated as of 2 November 2020. Note this is an example of how NOT to map COVID-19, see text!
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Corona Crisis – Tunnel Vision vs Comprehensive Risk Assessment

Summary of a Leaked Report from the Crisis Management Unit KM4 of the German Ministry of the Interior (BMI)

Mainstream and alternative media in Germany are brewing with news of a leaked report assessing the German government’s crisis management with respect to COVID-19. The liberal-conservative magazine Tichys Einblick first published extracts of the report that was circulated by its author, a civil servant who has since been suspended. Another alternative media platform, Die Achse des Guten, documents that a draft of the “corona paper” had been presented internally as early as March 23 and the minister’s office was approached by the report’s author on April 25, but as the report continued to be shut down, the author decided to circulate it more widely and it was eventually leaked. The Ministry responded with an unusual Sunday press release dismissing the report as a personal opinion. Interestingly, nine eminent medical experts who were consulted in preparing the report issued a press release of their own on Monday, stating their surprise that the Ministry seems determined to continue ignoring expert analyses of the collateral damage of the COVID-19 response and fail to substantiate its claims that the protective measures taken were effective and are continuously being reassessed.

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COVID-19 Counts and Curves – A Developing Case Study in Data Classification and Normalization Issues

It is heartening to hear Ontario’s Premier Doug Ford explain that “we must listen to what the data tells us” about the threat of the novel coronavirus. Commitments from politicians to evidence-based decision-making are refreshing, even though it is well understood that the data (a plural word) do not actually speak to us, unless we ask the right questions of them. In the case of COVID-19, numerous analysts – myself included – have been playing with ways to visualize, interpret, and even predict the curves of confirmed infections, tests conducted, deaths, and cases resolved. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly clear that the underlying data are fundamentally flawed and should not be used for public information nor for executive decisions that drastically interfere with our freedoms to live a healthy life, move around, assemble, or conduct business.

number of fatalities
case-fatality rate = ———————————
number of cases

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Pandemic Panic vs. Democratic Freedoms

Why Germans are more concerned than most about a COVID-19 lockdown

I have never been a supporter of Germany’s conservative parties but their leader, Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel, is making German politics great again, at least seen from across the Atlantic. In a rare, televised address to the nation on 18 March 2020, Dr. Merkel urges her “dear fellow citizens” to voluntarily practice the hygiene and distancing measures recommended by public health authorities. At the time, there were some 12,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 28 deaths in Germany.

Dr. Merkel’s speech can be seen as a last attempt to avoid enforcing stricter isolation rules. There is a unison of voices from politicians, epidemiologists, and the public calling for the “total shutdown” of society to stop the coronavirus spread, both in Germany and over here in Canada. Merkel however conveys a deeper understanding of the risks of social isolation. She characterizes COVID-19 as the greatest challenge faced by Germany since WWII – not in general terms, as was wrongly reported, but in terms of a challenge that requires every single person’s solidarity and commitment to flattening the curve. Merkel acknowledges the degree to which limitations on non-essential activities are already invading not just our personal lives but our understanding of a democratic society. She refers to her upbringing in totalitarian East Germany and the struggle to fight for the freedom of movement that is now effectively being withdrawn. She established that “such restrictions can only be justified if they are absolutely imperative” and “these should never be put in place lightly in a democracy and should only be temporary.”

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Reflections on OpenStreetMap

The second Canadian OpenStreetMap (OSM) developer event held at Ryerson’s Geography department started today with a series of presentations and workshops introducing students and members of the broader community to OSM. Toronto OSM guru Richard Weait gave another one of his engaging OSM-or-nothing speeches, telling tales of trap streets and mappy hours. He also got attendants to edit the OSM data and submit a few new features based on their local knowledge of their neighbourhoods or the university campus. Geographic Analysis student, GIS consultant, and blogger Michael Markieta guided us through the querying of the OSM “planet file” from a PostGIS/PostgreSQL database and its mapping in the open-source Quantum GIS package (see photo).


As most of you will know, OSM is a global volunteer project to create a free geographic base dataset. OSM data have been shown to be more detailed and accurate than commercial data, at least in some areas of the world. There was some interesting discussion this afternoon about potential liability issues due to inconsistencies in OSM data used in professional applications. The concern that OSM contributors could be held liable for erroneous contributions was countered by noting that commercial data vendors provide their data “as is” in just the same way, and that their data are out-of-date most of the time. That certainly seems to be true for my car navigation system! Still, the possibility of downloading OSM data for a professional map at a moment where a misuser has modified or deleted information that has not been detected and reverted by the community makes me uneasy. Also, the thought that detail in OSM, e.g. in rural areas, may depend on whether or not there is an avid mapper living in the area, is unsatisfactory.

Further, the challenges resulting from free tagging of new features were brought up at today’s event. There are support sites such as and the map features list on the OSM wiki, but I cannot help but think that the OSM community is repeating mistakes that were addressed (at least to some degree) by research, development, and best-practice in GIS over the last couple of decades.

Whatever your position with regards to these issues, OSM is playing an increasingly important role in government and business. Our students need to know about it, and I think today’s workshops went a long way to achieve this awareness. Thank you to Mike Morrish and the Student Association of Geographic Analysis (SAGA) for their tremendous support in organizing this educational event and for sponsoring food and drinks today.

From a research perspective, OSM is a fabulous subject too. My interest in it was discussed in a section of an earlier post about volunteered geographic information (VGI) systems. The OSM developer weekend is focusing precisely on hardware, software, and provider/user issues that are not well explained by the VGI label, but captured within our concept of VGI systems to be presented at the 2013 AAG conference.

Awards Season

Regular readers of this blog, if they existed, would have noticed a new static “page” listing various awards, scholarships, and bursaries for students in Cartography, Geography, and GIScience. January/February and the spring seem to have clusters of deadlines for these competitions, in which we will see more Ryerson Geography students participate this year!

Today, Ryerson University officially announced the recipients of the research awards handed to faculty members, and you will find yours truly as one of two awardees from the Faculty of Arts: Ryerson maintains a comprehensive approach to faculty contributions to knowledge, which is labeled as Scholarly, Research and Creative Activity (SRC). This year’s Faculty SRC Awards recognize outstanding achievements by faculty members in the 2011/12 academic year.

I would like to acknowledge my students, who continue to play a significant role in my research program, including those in our BA in Geographic Analysis and Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) programs. For example, both peer-reviewed journal articles contributing to the above SRC Award were based on MSA students’ major research papers. As always, details on my team’s scholarship can be found on my homepage,, and many publications are posted with full text in Ryerson’s institutional repository,

Call for applications to the MSA program

‘Tis the season… of admissions to graduate programs and I want to share the call for applications to the MSA program that I am sending to colleagues across Canada :

I am emailing colleagues who have provided reference letters and advice to students from their institutions applying to our Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) program. We are always very grateful for your assessments and I would like to thank you personally for the time and effort spent speaking with your students about graduate school and writing those letters.

I would be grateful if you would again recommend the MSA program to your senior undergraduate students. The program homepage at contains relevant information for prospective applicants. Graduate funding is provided based on incoming qualifications, research interests, and time of application – first-consideration deadline is January 13th, 2013.

The MSA program is an intense one-year program with strong connections to potential employers in the Toronto area, as well as a rigorous research component. A range of research themes, in which MSA graduates have recently published or presented, are listed below. Also listed are additional areas of interest of potential MSA supervisors.

Recent graduates were employed by major retailers and banks (e.g., Canadian Tire, McDonald’s, Walmart; RBC, Scotiabank); environmental and health agencies (e.g., Ministry of Environment, TRCA; St.Michael’s Hospital, Toronto Public Health), police services, GIS vendors, and spatial data producers, or they are pursuing further graduate degrees (including MBAs and PhDs).

Thank you for forwarding this call to your students.

Kind regards,


Selection of recently published MSA research by field of study:

– lake and river sediment contamination
– wildfire modeling
– land-use change detection
– the urban heat island
– urban reforestation
– renewable energy site selection

– Canadian retail trends
– consumer segmentation
– the effect of business improvement areas
– spatial patterns of TV consumption

– access to primary health care
– newcomer health services planning
– local news coverage
– food deserts
– the geospatial web
– public participation GIS

(See details at

Additional areas of interest of potential supervisors include:
– agent-based modeling, self-organizing maps
– economic geography
– environmental justice
– ethnic retail
– geographic visualization
– immigration and settlement patterns
– neighbourhood wellbeing indices
– real-estate valuation
– transportation planning

(See also for program faculty members.)

News from the Sabbatical Front

Wikipedia tells us that a sabbatical is “a rest from work”. And in our collective agreement, Ryerson University “acknowledges the importance of sabbatical leave to the intellectual vibrancy of the Faculty and therefore of the University.” Indeed, the triad of a professor’s duties in teaching, research, and administrative service is often shifted towards teaching and service, because many research tasks are more flexible to schedule than courses and committee meetings, and therefore tend to be postponed if time is scarce. In stark contrast to the introductory note, a sabbatical is NOT a year off (as some of my non-academic friends are thinking), but a year (or half-year) focused on research with no teaching and service duties.

Having half days or even full days available for writing has been a unique experience in the first two months of my sabbatical. The outcome so far: five journal articles under review, by far the most I have had “out there” simultaneously at any time in my career. Two of these are with Master of Spatial Analysis (MSA) students who completed their major research papers in August/September; one is with a former student in collaboration with Toronto Public Health; one is with a former postdoc in collaboration with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health; and one is led by a colleague in collaboration with the Injury Prevention Research Office at St. Michael’s Hospital. In addition, I have worked on a manuscript with an MSA grad from two years ago in collaboration with a colleague in Ryerson’s School of Journalism, as well as another manuscript with a former Geographic Analysis student of mine. These are still in progress, and several more manuscripts as well as a book project are lined up for the coming months!

Perhaps the most exciting outcome of the last few weeks though is a 250-word abstract submitted tonight for the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) in April 2013. Together with my PhD student Victoria Fast, we are proposing an exciting new perspective on the burgeoning phenomenon of Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI). Basically, we are saying that there is no such thing as VGI! That’s because what researchers call VGI is really just user-contributed data. We argue that information cannot be volunteered; instead, it is a meaningful system output that is generated from volunteered geographic data (VGD) for the purpose of answering a question. We think that this systems perspective on VGI provides a framework for VGI research and will eventually help devise more effective geospatial Web applications.

Visual Analytics for Spatio-Temporal Data

I am starting my sabbatical year with a long overdue participation in the GIScience conference series. GIScience 2012 is taking place at Ohio State University. There was an excellent selection of pre-conference workshops today, of which I attended the one on “GeoVisual Analytics, Time to Focus on Time”, see GeoVA(t) 2012.

I presented research completed last fall by Master of Spatial Analysis student Andrew Lee under my supervision. We used a technology called “Self- Organizing Maps” to visualize changes in socio-economic status of Toronto neighbourhoods between 1996 and 2006. The presentation garnered a short but intense discussion of the limitations of the SOM technology – something to look at in future research!

Other presentations of interest introduced the “Great Wall of Space-Time”, a wall-like 3D visualization for time series data; interactive temporal zoom & pan tools using multi-touch displays; and another SOM-based cluster analysis for weather data, in which the “Multiple Temporal Unit Problem” was discussed (in analogy to geography’s well-known multiple areal unit problem). All workshop slides will be made available by the organizers at the above Web site.

50 Years of Geographic Information Systems

Some 50 years ago, the Canadian government started the development of a computerized land inventory which would become the prototype of geographic information systems (GIS). Its early history is detailed in a blog post by leading GIS vendor ESRI at

In addition to the interesting links they provide at the end of their post, I really like the three-part documentary “Data for Decision” on the Canada GIS, which you can access via the GIS and Science blog at, or directly at (part 1).

Ryerson’s Department of Geography (formerly School of Applied Geography) has a long tradition of using GIS in research and in the classroom/lab, and thereby training a modern type of geographer and contributing to a new perspective on the study of social and earth systems.