Can something static like a map help increase our empathetic connection with people we do not know and places we have never been? Allow me to jump directly to the answer: heck yes it can!

Perspective

In this age of digital maps, where we can virtually travel anywhere in the world via the small computer in the palm of our hand, and we can zoom closer or farther with a mere pinch of our fingers, it is hard to maintain perspective. Without perspective there can be disconnect to others. And disconnection can be a barrier to empathy.

One of my passions is to increase empathy using the power of maps. And not simply a map of a place but using a fresh approach to how maps have traditionally been used – especially in media reporting. Not surprisingly, this is best explained using visuals:

The power of a visual

I live in the Napa and Sonoma California wine country, and in the summer and fall of 2020 we had a lot of wildfires in our region. Again. It was becoming an all-too-familiar headline for both Californians and for the rest of the world: wine country is being threatened by fire again. 2020 was yet another year in a string of years with significant wildfires – and smoke – impacting our area. I wondered, how can I explain the extent of the fires in the last five years? How can I create greater empathy from a headline, especially one that seems to repeat every year?

So I created this map which showed the areas that had burned in the last five years, including the then-current Glass Fire, in order to help visualize the fire activity and its impact on our area. This map showed the Glass Fire fitting into the unburned area like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle.  The visual was worth a thousand words, but could I do better?

Map showing major fires in the Napa-Sonoma California area from 2015 to October 2020

Add perspective

For my East-Coast family & friends, most of whom are not that familiar with California, I needed to add perspective to help them relate. So, I superimposed a map of the state of Rhode Island on top of my Five-Year fire map.

Suddenly, one could see that what had burned in the last five years was larger than the entire state of Rhode Island. What the what?!? An area larger than a state?!? Indeed. This realization brought increased understanding. With this perspective and understanding my family & friends could better relate, and there was a connection. Empathy increased.

I made a similar map for other New England area family and friends, zooming out and superimposing the larger state of Vermont on the fire map.  But what about people who are not familiar with the Northeast?  If they have never been to New England this map could only go so far.

Map showing major fires in the Napa-Sonoma California area from 2015 to October 2020 with Rhode Island superimposed for perspective

Local perspective

Media reports stated that the Glass Fire was 60,000 acres. But who actually has an idea of how big 60,000 acres is?!? So I took the Glass Fire footprint and put it on top of a few large cities to allow those residents to have their own local-turf perspective.

Now the residents and others familiar with these cities could actually see how the Glass Fire was as if the whole city out to the this-or-that suburb had burned. Their understanding of the scope and reach of the Glass Fire, as related and compared to their own city or suburb, gave them an empathetic connection to the people affected by the fire.

The October 2020 Glass Fire overlaid on maps of Boston, New York City, Chicago and Houston

Headlines

Fast-forward to August of 2021 when I, like many people, read the headline Dixie Fire Burns Area Larger Than New York City. With a headline like that I thought for sure I would open the article and see a comparison map! But sadly, no –the media had NOT caught on to the idea that using maps creatively equal greater perspective and understanding.  So, I created the map below that I had hoped to find, and posted it on social media so at least some people would be able to have a meaningful perspective and understanding which would lead to greater empathy.

Footprint of the Dixie Fire in August 2021 on a map of New York City

Local perspective, again

While I was at it, I put the Dixie Fire on four other cities so, again, the residents and folks familiar with the cities could see how large the fire was in relation to their area.

Footprint of the Dixie Fire in August 2021 on maps of Chicago, Houston, Phoenix and Denver

California on the East Coast

Disasters are not the only time when an image or map can be a powerful tool in fostering perspective. My grandmother in New York had a habit of calling me every time something happened in California and asking if I was near it. Because it is hard to understand just how large of a state California is I started explaining how far away so-and-so was from me by saying “Gram, it’s as far from me as North Carolina is from you.” It worked really well! Here is a map I created to compare California to the East Coast (California is reversed to fit better with the coast).

State of California placed on a map of the East Coast

Alaska is HUGE

Speaking of big states, did you know that Alaska is bigger than Texas, California, & Montana combined?!? Alaska put together a really cool site that will give you some serious perspective: pick a state and it will display it inside of Alaska! Check it out here.

State of Alaska in solid blue with State of Ohio in orange sitting in the middle of Alaska

Final Thoughts

Did these maps help you feel a closer connection to the people who live in fire-prone areas of the USA?  Did the maps help increase your empathy with folks who are affected by these fires? How about the other maps, did they help you understand how living in a large state is equivalent to living in a region of smaller states?

Would you like to see the media use more maps to help you and others relate more closely to abstract ideas or facts, thereby increasing your connection to real people and their real-life circumstances?  If so, please ask your favorite news outlet to provide maps and graphics like these.  Let’s start a perspective movement, and watch understanding and empathy increase!

Map of the Dixie Fire in August 2021 with the state of Connecticut superimposed for perspective

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