31 December 2013

War on Wind Farms

The writer and occasional mapmaker Denis Wood might be the one who put it best. He said; "The truth is, maps are weapons." Here's an example. The Belfast Telegraph recently used cartography to make an attack on wind power projects in Northern Ireland. This is the map they published under the heading; "Wind farms: Map reveals how they've swarmed across Northern Ireland in 13 years".

The report discusses wind power projects using the language of disease and invasion, seeking a quick emotional response from the reader; "relentless spread," "blight." It highlights one politician's shrill description of wind farms as "environmental rape." No counter augment is admitted.

The biggest impact is made by the map. Indeed, the story is built on the map. The first impression (and, sadly, the first impression is all many readers will be left with) is indeed of a swarm. There are hundreds of wind farms! There seem to be so many wind farms that at least one must be visible from anywhere. So many wind farms that you'd be able to see dozens of them from any elevated site. They seem to be more wind farms than villages and towns, more wind farms than there are hills to put them on.

 Hang on ...

Those aren't wind farms.

This map actually charts domestic wind turbines, single rotors that are bolted to people's garages or stand in their gardens. I am temped to say that the map is lying but it isn't really, but the information has been misrepresented in order to mislead. You can find the original map on the Department of Environment website. Compare the two and you can see how important contextual information has be erased on the newspaper's version. The biggest absence being the title; "Planning Applications for Single Wind Turbines, April 2002 - October 2013."

This example can be taken as a warning about the power of maps. Stop, read and think about the article and most of us could work out that we were being fooled. But, by translating its bias into a visual image this article has found a way to draw quick, unconsidered agreement. We take in the message in an instant, are disgusted with wind farms, then turn the page. A map can communicate in a powerful and immediate way that is open to abuse. It has been abused here.

Also on the Department of Environment website is the actual wind farm map. This map includes applications that were refused, withdrawn or for which a decision is still pending.

Not so much a swarm really, you could call it a sprinkle.