The modern mapmakers
Maps produced by the All Island Research Observatory help us see Ireland through new eyes. A visual column in Weekend Review, featuring their work, begins today
‘Did you know that one of your neighbours has four cars?” says Justin Gleeson, the manager of the All Island Research Observatory (Airo) at NUI Maynooth, to the Irish Times photographer, as we examine his neighbourhood using Airo’s sophisticated online mapping software.
Thanks to detailed census data this mapping technology can be used to zoom in on localised data almost to street level.
“The big change in the census this year is that we have this small-area data that we never had in the past, so you can zoom right down,” Gleeson says.
He goes right into the map of Dublin to pull out data about how many people live on my street – 230 – and how many of those are over the age of 65 – 19 per cent: above the city average.
Later, at home, I use the site to discover that among my new neighbours (I’m a recent blow-in) there are three people in bad health, one family with six or more members, 18 “higher professionals” and 22 houses with no internet access; on the Pobal HP Deprivation Index the area is coloured light green, indicating “marginally above average”, up from “marginally below average” in 2006.
Of course, facilitating nosiness is not the primary purpose of Airo, a free interactive resource available at airo.ie, which generates colour-coded maps that illustrate all sorts of statistical data. Stalin once noted that while one death was a tragedy, a million was a statistic. Now, in the age of mass data and statistics, more information and more numbers than ever are collected by public and private agencies. Yet, to the consternation of statisticians, scientists and town planners, people are still more moved by apocryphal tales of individual woe than by hard-crunched numbers reflecting the lives of thousands.
There’s an increasing cultural divide between those who understand data and those who are baffled by it. Gleeson has spent the past few years trying to bridge that gap with Airo, under the aegis of the National Institute for Regional and Spatial Analysis at the Iontas building at NUI Maynooth. It’s “one of the last buildings opened by Fianna Fáil,” says Gleeson. “Batt O’Keeffe turned the sod.” He and his colleagues, lead research assistants Eoghan McCarthy and Aoife Dowling, map detailed colour-coded information about Irish people, and the country’s environment and infrastructure.
Readers of The Irish Times may have noticed some of these on our pages in recent times: familiar geographies overlaid with different shades of colour. On the Airo site the information can be broken down nationally, by regional authority or even on a “small-area” level of the kind we have just been shown.