PGH Poor Water Quality

Role //

Systems Mapping, Information Visualization

Duration //

October 2022

Tools //

Systems Thinking, Design Research, Figma, Illustrator

Collaborators //

Joan L., Sojung P., Charlie B.

A gigamap that looks to expose the intricacies, interconnections, and stakeholders in the Pittsburgh Water Crisis.

Our team focused on researching leverage points that currently aim to intervene with regards to the environment, policy, healthcare, and social systems, as well as identifying pain points that citizens from access to clean water.

cover image

Problem Space

Water—a resource that is often overlooked and taken for granted—is a serious problem affecting Pittsburgh; after all, Pittsburgh is famously situated at the intersection of three rivers, so why would water be an issue? This map aims to combat and learn about the complex problem of poor water quality by working at a scale that incorporates looking at the history of the steel economy at a broader scale to find the relationship between social, political, and economical elements.

Inital Research

We first began our research by creating a mess map. By beginning to understand some of the interconnections by organizing the map to cause-and-effect chains, we could begin to see the structure to our map. We drew arrows and added annotations to demonstrate the correlation between different items.

Initial mess map

Initial Commit

Further organization

To more clearly understand the scale and complexity of the water crisis, our group orgnaized our map based off of Social, Technological, Economic, and Political — STEEP — issues and Jamer Hunt’ scalar framing model.

Mess map and STEEP/Scalar framing map

Mess MapIteration 1

Design Considerations

When visualizing our map, there were many considerations to the layout and color choices of our map. Many of our design decisions were made to capture the seriousness and graveness of the wicked problem, while also ensuring that the map was readable and visually appealing.

Layout and Composition

We went through multiple interactions of how the map should be structured. We wanted to effectively show the inputs/outputs of the systems, as well as how each item was connected by highlighting the feedback loops and relationships within the map. Ultimately, We decided on a layered composition that would be able to highlight the scales of the inputs and outputs of the map, exposing the complexity of the issue by demonstrating how it extends through multiple scales.

Composition and Layout


Design Language

We wanted the map to remind viewers of water, and for it to convey how deep and heavy the problem was. However, with the shapes used, we wanted the shapes to softer, comforting and giving viewers hope when understanding the scope of the problem.

Design Language Guide


Map Breakdown

We were able to study the PGH water crisis in detail by looking at positive/negative feedback loops, intervention points, and most importantly, pinpointing the root causes of the problem.

Feedback Loops

The team studied the map to pinpoint areas that consisted of negative and positive feedback loops. Negative and positive feedback loops allowed us to pinpoint problems that could intensify if left unaddressed.

Feedback Loops


Interventions and Root Causes

The complexity of the PGH water crisis makes it impossible to develop an effective solution; however, by pinpointing the root causes of the problem and looking at smaller, individual interventions that can be taken, the problem can ultimately be improved.

Interventions and Root Causes


Project Reflection

After using various methods to study the PGH water crisis, we now understand how some problems are unsolvable; instead of finding a solution, it is more beneficial to understand the complexity of a wicked problem. Through systems mapping, seemingly impossible problems are a lot approachable, shedding light on large, often unnoticed issues that exist in plain sight.

Final Map