Sketch Mapping: Drawing our way to better interviews

My research seeks to find the story numbers can’t tell, the sometimes non-obvious narratives that emerge when families are processed through risk reduction via relocation. Many will be moving into a home made of concrete instead of reconstituted scraps for the first time. Many have never lived so far from the sea or made a livelihood beyond coastal-based enterprises. All have critical opinions and perceptions about the relocation sites – generally 200-1000 houses sandwiched in row form, often with a community school but generally without reliable utilities – that I care to learn.

I largely rely on qualitative data for my research. A good interview is more like an organic conversation than a tedious series of survey questions. Yet I’m a foreigner showing up unannounced to ask curious questions, organic conversation is a bit of wishful thinking. Thus, along with my stellar research assistant, I must try to induce natural and comfortable communication. If interviewees can be in a state of relaxed but focused chatter, we can get to knowledge they might not have revealed in a cursory survey.

So we ask people to draw. I don’t consider myself particularly creative or capable of composing a picture anyone wants to look at. I’m the first person to realize that asking someone to draw might make them feel more uncomfortable, not less. Truthfully, it takes a bit of finesse, and I couldn’t do it without such a warm and sociable research assistant. At first, there are awkward laughs and self-depreciating comments about how they don’t think they can do it. We encourage them to just give it a go, and then…

Something marvelous happens. Drawing is fun. It’s really fun, and when they realize they’re identifying aspects of their community we find truly fascinating burdens of self doubt are finally undone. So far, every map includes a church, many include the local source of water. Some community members are newly moved into their relocation homes and their maps vividly focus on their old barangays. More seasoned residents are able to mark specifics of their new community. A resident of Palanog drew the cemetery she passes by everyday. The cemetery became a mass grave for Yolanda victims, and we cried at the sharpness of the perpetual reminder.

No, magical creativity doesn’t happen with every person. Not every map leads to new understandings, and I’ve not stumbled upon the key to sage wisdom that would have been eternally locked inside their minds had I not deployed pen and paper. Importantly though, drawing their community lets me probe about hazards more tactfully than I otherwise could.

For example, after one woman drew this sketch map (she selected colored pencils so it’s a bit hard to read, my apologies) we asked her to color areas susceptible to flooding with a light blue marker. She narrowed in on a brand new but poorly designed box culvert and went on the describe how the creek will back up behind it, flooding both newly built homes of the closest relocation site as well as a pre-existing neighborhood.


I knew about the box culvert before the interview. And I’m fearful of the exact same thing: civil infrastructure begot flooding. An inverse hazard of sorts, instigated, not mitigated, by the built environment. However I’m sensitive to the hazard perceptions of community members and hesitant to introduce my own opinions, or generate anxiety where it wasn’t before. I want to entice meaningful knowledge worth sharing with the disaster risk reduction and recovery community – not frustration with the local government, implementing NGOs, or construction contractors. Sketch mapping was a medium where where she explored her personal awareness about her community differently than while responding to interview questions. Had I asked “Where in your community is at risk of flooding?” without sketch mapping maybe she’d be visualizing just the block her house sits in, or mentally gloss over the little tidbit that the box culvert down the road may be undersized. As an interviewer, I wouldn’t have anyway of knowing and no recourse except to bluntly point out areas that I know are potential flood zones. But with sketch mapping she can say “Here. I’m worried it will flood here.” Then we can learn why she thinks that might be, and what should be done about it.

Plus, I quickly realized that art supplies are the perfect way to entertain children. Interviews last roughly an hour, and usually a sizable troupe of little ones stare confused or annoyed from the sidelines. Now I set them up with markers and paper before we even begin. While their mom drew the picture above this trio tried to copy, drawing a wiggly neighborhood of houses.

99% of interviews involve adorable kids coloring, what’s not to love?

On the side, I listed out the woman’s responses to “What affected your decision to relocate?” I’m not using list creation as a part of a formal comparative method, like the analytical hierarchy process (which is a part of research about community values and sanitation underway by my good friend Allie Davis), but again to just draw out deeper responses. Similar to sketch mapping, I’ve noticed that visualizing answers, however it’s acted out, is a way to enhance interviewees’ reflection on their experiences. It forces a bit of friction – they slow down, and search for additional details.

I adore sketch mapping, but I may be abandoning the paper and marker method soon. If all goes well however, I’ll be trading up. I recently hired a new research assistant, Phoebe, with extensive community mapping experience. She wants to try out a method of sketch mapping off the page and onto the street. We went to Leyte Paper World and loaded up on every color of construction paper they had and she spent the evening prepping the materials. With her method sketch mapping will be collaborative, which certainly has both advantages and disadvantages. Guided by Phoebe’s probing questions, a collection of interviewees will map out their community by placing paper of specific shapes and colors onto the ground, growing the picture of their community together and mutually analyzing the hazards they face. Over the next few weeks we’ll return to the three communities I’ve already interviewed in and explore the utility of collective and active group mapping over individually drawn maps.

Before moving on to the full suite of relocation projects I’ll study for my dissertation, my advisor and I will synthesize initial findings from these three communities and interviews with decision makers (at this point, from the city government and NGOs only) into a paper for the 4th International Conference on Urban Disaster Reduction. I’m really excited to share findings and invite others to critique our research process. And I’ll keep sharing here, please reach out if you have any tips and tricks for community sketch mapping, I’d love to learn!

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