Ambiguity Aversion Applied to Map Making

Have you heard of ambiguity aversion? This is the theory that when faced with an unknown probability, people are less willing to take a risk than when they are faced with a known probability. It was first defined by Daniel Ellsberg in 1961 (HT Peter L. Bernstein, Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk). In other words, if you know a lot about a subject, you will be more willing to take a risk on it than if you know little about it. Bernstein’s example is “People who play dart games…would rather play darts than games of chance, although the probability of success at darts is vague while the probability of success at games of chance is mathematically predetermined.”

Reading about this the other day reminded me of a hypothesis that I proposed over a year ago at Ignite Spatial Northern Colorado. The hypothesis is that a professional cartographer probably creates twice as many drafts of a map prior to publication that a novice does.

There are a couple of big risks involved with creating twice as many map drafts. For one, there is a time risk: will putting in twice the time and effort produce a much better map or only a marginally better map? For two, there is an emotional risk: will allowing the map to be peer-reviewed (peer-review being a likely contributing factor toward increasing the number of drafts required) be too upsetting? Don’t take that second risk too lightly. A map is much like a piece of art; without a doubt, at least part of the map maker’s soul has been poured into it.

A professional cartographer has learned that these risks are worth taking. A novice cartographer may go to final publication before putting enough time into making the map better via extra drafts and before doing any peer-review. Those risks create an ambiguity in terms of potential return for a novice.

Now, the parallel I’m drawing here isn’t completely clear. With ambiguity aversion, both outcomes could have equal chances for success, or the more ambiguous one, as in Bernstein’s example, may even have a better chance for success than the known risk. With my map example, the ambiguity lies mostly with the novice–who doesn’t know that making more drafts can make the map better and therefore stops before a truly great map is produced.

However, the analogy falls apart a bit when considering the professional cartographer: the professional knows the risks of both actions: more drafts or finalizing prematurely and is better able to choose between them with the experience that they have. In this way I can’t draw a completely accurate example of ambiguity aversion.

The hope is that this discussion still helps to further your understanding of the risks associated with making extra map drafts and that those risks are worth the extra effort.

  1. #1 by will on March 22, 2012 - 9:12 am

    Great food for thought !

    I’ve been working on my first map and have made numerous revisions to it. At the end of 2011, I thought about whether to continue making more drafts or just calling it finished, because I didn’t want the project to drag on forever, and more importantly, I’m a perfectionist – to the point that it can be detrimental and I’ve learned with any creative work, there’s a line and time when you have to let go and declare it finished.

    Unless you have a strict deadline imposed by an outside force (your customer or your publisher, for writing your book(s)), what circumstances help you decide not to make another draft ?

    At this point, I thought that making another draft or 2 could make the map better although I’ve hesitated to do so because the software that I was using (osmarender, a SVG renderer) is no longer supported by its developers and I had run into a software bug that prevented me from making a specific change (altering the thickness of a city’s boundaries) to improve my drafts.

    That being said, your insight that more experienced cartographers will make more drafts is something that I will keep in mind.

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