Modifiable areal unit problem

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MAUP distortion example
An example of the modifiable areal unit problem and the distortion of rate calculations

The modifiable areal unit problem (MAUP) is a source of statistical bias that can significantly impact the results of statistical hypothesis tests. MAUP affects results when point-based measures of spatial phenomena are aggregated into districts, for example, population density or illness rates. The resulting summary values (e.g., totals, rates, proportions, densities) are influenced by both the shape and scale of the aggregation unit.[1]

For example, census data may be aggregated into county districts, census tracts, postcode areas, police precincts, or any other arbitrary spatial partition. Thus the results of data aggregation are dependent on the mapmaker's choice of which "modifiable areal unit" to use in their analysis. A census choropleth map calculating population density using state boundaries will yield radically different results than a map that calculates density based on county boundaries. Furthermore, census district boundaries are also subject to change overtime,[2] meaning the MAUP must be considered when comparing past data to current data.


The issue was recognized in 1934[3] and later described in detail by Stan Openshaw, who lamented that "the areal units (zonal objects) used in many geographical studies are arbitrary, modifiable, and subject to the whims and fancies of whoever is doing, or did, the aggregating."[4]

See also[edit]

General topics

Specific applications


  1. ^ "MAUP | Definition - Esri Support GIS Dictionary". Retrieved 2017-03-09. 
  2. ^ Geography, US Census Bureau. "Geographic Boundary Change Notes". Retrieved 2017-02-24. 
  3. ^ Gehlke & Biehl 1934
  4. ^ Openshaw 1983, p. 3


  • Gehlke, C. E.; Biehl, Katherine (March 1934). "Certain effects of grouping upon the size of the correlation coefficient in census tract material". Journal of the American Statistical Association. 29 (185A): 169–170. doi:10.2307/2277827. 
  • Openshaw, Stan (1983). The modifiable areal unit problem. Norwick: Geo Books. ISBN 0860941345. OCLC 12052482. 

Further reading[edit]