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Using maps to communicate environmental exposures and health risks: Review and best-practice recommendations

Author: David M. Stieb, Anne Huang, Robyn Hocking, Daniel L. Crouse, Alvaro R. Osornio-Vargas, Paul J. Villeneuve
Year: 2019
Category: Research Methods

Read the journal article in Science Direct


Graphical materials can be effective communication tools, and maps in particular are a potentially powerful means of conveying spatial information. Previous reviews have provided insights on the application of cartographic best practices, pitfalls to avoid, and considerations related to risk perception and communication, but none has reviewed primary studies of the effectiveness or utility of maps to users, nor have they addressed the issue from the perspective of health literacy, environmental health literacy, or public health ethics.


To systematically identify and review the literature pertaining to evaluation of maps in general, or specific map features, as environmental exposure and health risk communication tools; to formulate best-practice recommendations; and to identify future research priorities.

Results and discussion 

While there are significant gaps in the evidence, we formulated best practice recommendations highlighting the perspectives of health literacy and environmental health literacy. Key recommendations include: understanding the map developer's societal role and mental model underlying map design; defining, understanding and iteratively engaging with map users; informing map design using key theoretical constructs; accounting for factors affecting risk perception; adhering to risk communication principles and cartographic best practices; and considering environmental justice and public health ethics implications. Recommendations for future research are also provided.