Academic journal article Cartography and Geographic Information Science

The Impact of User Expertise on Geographic Risk Assessment under Uncertain Conditions

Academic journal article Cartography and Geographic Information Science

The Impact of User Expertise on Geographic Risk Assessment under Uncertain Conditions

Article excerpt


This research speaks to two current trends within GIScience. One is demonstrated in the recent advances in geospatial technologies, particularly web-based applications and location-based services, which have improved the availability, affordability, and pervasiveness of geographic information. Such developments have empowered the general public with access to geographic information and with tools for representing and visualizing this information--once available only to professionals and domain experts (Rod et al. 2001; Couclelis 2003; Wood 2003). As this trend continues to mature, it can be expected that the general public will become increasingly active in acquiring and utilizing geographic information to support risk assessment and decision making. A second trend is the growing consensus among GIScientists that uncertainty is inherent in all geospatial datasets and "not just a flaw to be excised" (Couclelis 2003, p. 166). Efforts concerning uncertainty are no longer focused solely on reduction or elimination of uncertainties; rather, they are investigating the nature of uncertainty throughout the analytical process, the forms in which it may be present in geospatial data and geographic information, and the ways in which cartographic representations and visualizations of uncertain information can be made both useful and usable for end users (Deitrick and Edsall 2008).

The overlap of these two trends in GIScience presents the potentially disastrous situation of an untrained, inexperienced novice using representations and visualizations of geographic information in support of risk assessment and decision making, each holding real-world consequences, without fully understanding the inherent uncertainty in the view. Further complicating this matter, the widespread availability of numerous data sources of the same geographic phenomenon produces a common condition of uncertainty due to lack of data agreement. While much work has been conducted to understand how uncertainty influences processes such as information assembly, risk assessment, and decision making, only a limited subset of these studies have taken into consideration the expertise level of the participant completing the task (e.g., Evans 1997; Kobus et al. 2001; Aerts et al. 2003; Hope and Hunter 2007). This research examines the differences between experts and novices in:

* Geographic risk assessments completed under uncertain conditions;

* Perceived assessment difficulty under uncertain conditions; and

* Assessment confidence under uncertain conditions.

The paper is divided into six sections, with five more sections following this opening introduction. The next section summarizes several important studies investigating the impact of expertise on risk assessment under uncertain conditions. The case study domain of floodplain mapping is introduced in the third section and the map-based online survey methodology is described in the fourth section. The results of the survey are reported and discussed in the fifth section, and closing remarks are offered in the final section.

Literature Review

Uncertainty is present in all geographic information, and, therefore, in maps displaying this information because of the inability to perfectly reconcile representations of the landscape with the actual reality of the landscape. This research defines uncertainty as "a measure of the user's understanding of the difference between the contents of a dataset and the real [geographic] phenomena that the data are believed to represent" (after Longley et al. 2005, p. 128). The often conflated terms ambiguity, error, quality, and reliability are assumed to be part of (although not synonymous with) this larger definition of uncertainty but are not addressed in further detail by this research. Defining uncertainty in this manner is perhaps controversial, as the user of the map plays an important role in its degree of certainty, suggesting that the certainty of the map is in part reliant upon external factors. …

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