How Do You Map the Unmappable?

I recently had the pleasure of working with two local changemakers who are vying for the 2017 Oxford Global Challenge.

The goal of the Challenge is fairly straightforward: entrants are tasked with researching an issue of their choice, then mapping the issue’s complex web of players and finding opportunities for change.

That mapping can be in the literal, place-based sense, but more often it tends to be an illustration of the connections and movements going on behind the scenes.

I teamed up with Anna Migicovsky of Knack and Kim Mackenzie, an MBA student at SFU, to illustrate the nature of employment and its relationship with support services in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES).

Visual storytelling and infographics for nonprofits: A case study.

Psst – Are you on Pinterest? You know what to do!

Employment in the DTES takes on many forms, from the more traditional hourly wages to less common – but no less valid – forms of enterprise such as binning. Anna and Kim wanted to show this wide range of ways in which DTES residents support themselves in what we called the Employment Continuum.

Structurally, this Employment Continuum had to meet a few requirements.

First, I knew it had to be horizontal because position can carry a value judgement – whatever is at the top of a vertical chart is generally seen as being “better” or something to aspire to. In the DTES, that’s not necessarily the case, and it was important to us to convey that each type of employment is just as valid as the others.

Second, the colors couldn’t be red and green. Colorblindness and holidays aside, a red-green spectrum also carries a value judgement: green = good, red = bad. We opted to use Knack’s color palette, which features bright yellow, green, and blue. The brightness conveys optimism, and the green doesn’t divide anyone into winners and losers.

Third, we actually had to explain what was going on! We relied on text to delineate each category, employment type, and description. Having the text’s color match the corresponding part of the continuum helped show that the two are related.

This continuum is actually a variation on a similar Income Generation Continuum I did for the Local Economic Development Lab’s (LEDlab’s) 2015/16 Annual Report (link is a PDF). In the LEDlab version, text and continuum were also color-coordinated, but because there was so much text and so few entries, I used lines to emphasize the connection.


The Employment Continuum grew to anchor the rest of the report, and variations told different angles of the overall story.

Anna and Kim explained a “day in the life” of a typical DTES resident, who they dubbed George. After following George around the neighborhood, from his SRO to the bank to the employment assistance office to work, we wanted to show where he lands on the Employment Continuum.

Illustrating types of work using an Employment Continuum

George on the Employment Continuum

Having a concrete example (George) and a clear structure (the Continuum) made it easy to explain to the reader how a person might land on the spectrum. Perhaps more important to the story, it also showed how a person’s situation might move back and forth over time.


To show gaps in social support systems, we used a Continuum with missing pieces.

Having “trained” the reader to recognize a Continuum with entries at regular intervals, we knew that visual gaps would stand out – after all, sometimes an element’s absence is more striking than its presence.

Anna and Kim wanted to show the support services offered to DTES residents by government agencies and NGOs, and highlight the gaps that still remain.

BC Government support services on the Employment Continuum.

Government programs occupy the top half of the spectrum, while NGOs stretch along the bottom.

This diagram is visually unbalanced, and intentionally so. With everything skewed to the right, the image seems somehow wrong.

The imbalance is meant to show that while government services have the middle and right end of the Continuum well-covered, there are no government supports for people on the left.

No matter how many times you read the other entries, the big white open space draws your eye back. And perhaps you think…

What could we put there?




  1. David Choy

    Nice work on mapping the job continuum. Would love to see some numbers or graphs/ maps that describe the distribution of people along the spectrum.

    Great question too in what to place in the white space. The question is too vague however for a lazy reader such as myself. Perhaps you could hint at what could be in the white space by drawing another continuum that represents an “ideal city”. There has to be a model city out there somewhere that has working programs for the low end of the spectrum.

    • Andrea Robertson (Author)

      Thanks for the feedback, David! Those are both great ideas. I’m not sure whether the data on job type distribution is available, but it would be pretty cool (and useful) to see.

      As for solutions, the goal of this particular challenge was just to identify gaps. Finding the solutions is, of course, a bit more complex – but a bunch of very clever folks are on the case! Perhaps we’ll see a part 2. 🙂

  2. Colin Stansfield

    You’re awesome, Andrea. Great job shining a little more light on the shadow economy!