Maps are an effective way of presenting local information, problems and opportunities in a clear, visual way.

Why? Maps can be used to present basic local information in a revealing new light and are a useful tool to structure analysis. A basic map of a local area can be overlaid with information on any pertinent local issue, such as social relations, public services, sources of livelihoods, or land use. Maps can be developed to show changes over the years or generations, and to anticipate changes or expectations for the future.

When? At any time. Maps can be particularly useful at the beginning of a process, helping the participants to look in more detail at their community, perhaps focusing on a particular aspect such as health, education or information services.

How? Maps and models are flexible tools and there are no definitive steps to the process. However, some key observations are useful.Reflect participants construct a displacement map

Initially, a map should be created on a large scale on the floor or any large surface, so that all participants can actively contribute and clearly see what is going on. The first things to be put down should create a basic framework for the space. The community centre or college where the group meets could be used as a starting point, for example. Important features such as main roads and public buildings help people to orient themselves and therefore participate more actively. The group may wish to begin the exercise by taking a walk around the area to note key features they wish to represent and analyse.

Many different materials can be used to represent the various elements on the map. These could be anything that is easily available and easy to move, such as coloured card, pictures or photos, drawing pins, thread, sticky tape etc. The meanings of the symbols should be selected and agreed upon by the whole group - for example, a particular colour of card could represent residential housing and another might be used for public buildings such as libraries and schools. Movable objects are crucial, as everyone needs to be able to go back, change and add elements as the map develops. Less assertive participants find this particularly helpful.

Once all the physical things relevant to the purpose of the map are in place, more qualitative judgements can be considered, for example to indicate positive or negative perceptions of what is represented. Participants may chose to highlight their favourite places on a map or indicate problem areas, such as perceived 'no-go' areas, for example.

Then the group can reflect on the map as a whole, drawing out insights or conclusions to stimulate discussion. The completed map often enables people to see issues or phenomena in a new light - as they are removed from daily reality whilst simultaneously gaining new perspectives of it. In some cases the "real" map may then be used as a starting point for developing an "ideal" or "visioning" map, showing future changes, whether practical and achievable, or idealistic and visionary. In some cases such maps can become practical planning tools.

For the map to be recorded on paper or card, participants need to identify pictures, symbols or words with which to label key elements on the map. Once down on paper, participants may wish to make their own, smaller copies.

Examples from practice: Maps played a crucial role in the context of Reflect work in a national park in Peru with families who had colonised the park and were perceived to have a negative impact on the environment. Through participatory mapping, areas were specified where people could hunt, fish, farm or collect produce without causing any damage.

In Bolangir, India, maps were used to identify land which was supposed to be commonly owned, but had been encroached upon by wealthy people. In one case these encroachers were successfully expelled and the land given to homeless families, but in many other contexts the struggle for land continues. Physical structures are only one part of the map and the analysis of values is essential.  For example, one group in El Salvador were discussing the local football pitch, and while the men thought it was a positive asset, one woman said that it also represented danger, as one of her sons had been beaten up there and the games sometimes ended in violence.  

Mapping can be used in many ways as seen from the following which have been developed in different Reflect circles:

  • map of land tenancy / ownership and land reform in El Salvador
  • map of land mines in Mozambique
  • map of displacement and migration in Burundi
  • map of shifting land use over generations in India
  • map of government agencies and NGOs in Nicaragua
  • map of languages and literacies in Peru
  • map of office space in ActionAid UK
  • map of women's mobility in Bangladesh.

If you have an interesting or innovative experience of working with this tool please add your comments here.