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Mediated Cityscapes 03: DIY Cartography [Theory]


A month ago in Minneapolis, nestled amidst the brilliant programming of the inaugural Eyeo Festival, Mark Hansen organized a panel on data visualization and social justice that brought veteran designers Laura Kurgan, Michael Migurski and Lisa Strausfeld together to discuss visual communication, representation and agency. The conversation that ensued was extremely provocative and challenged many of the basic assumptions underlying data visualization’s capacity as a polemical or exploratory medium. This critical engagement was perhaps best summarized by Kurgan when she reminded her fellow panelists and the audience that it is dangerous to confuse data with knowledge. Later, Migurski described his optimism in thinking about “people as pixels” within these representational systems whereby designers have the opportunity to highlight spatial inconsistencies and (ideally) engender engagement and civic action. Migurski summarized this question of responsibility in a blog post in advance of the session as “do we reveal new things about society by viewing data, or do we bend society into new forms by choosing data that can be viewed?” This introspection was timely, not only within the milieu of a creative coding summit, but as a reminder of the far-reaching implications of the visual representation of urban space.(1)

This instalment of Mediated Cityscapes will catalogue two general approaches for thinking about DIY cartography and then speculate as to the significance of some recent related developments in ‘in situ’ informatics. Before diving into choice mapping projects it would be prudent to sketch out a cursory overview of the significant changes that have occurred within cartography thus far in the 21st century.

Some Geospatial Context

On May 2nd, 2000, a mid-90s Clinton executive order saw high-quality GPS signals ‘switched on’ for use in civilian and commercial contexts, where the most precise location information had previously been reserved for military use.(2) The same year saw other developments in the proliferation of ‘everyday’ geospatial engagement with the advent of geocaching and the purchase of MapQuest by AOL and the integration of the service into the ‘AOL Anywhere’ strategy. Google Maps launched in February 2005 and the popularity of mashups such as Adrian Holovaty’s Chicago Crime and Paul Rademacher’s HousingMaps helped cultivate a community of curious developers that were ready to capitalize on the API that was launched the following June. At the same time, the Wikipedia-inspired OpenStreetMap was steadily accumulating users who were collaborating to develop free geographic data and street maps for any and all imaginable uses. Location-based services have figured prominently into more recent iterations of social networking platforms with Dennis Crowley’s Dodgeball prefiguring the geospatial ramifications of services like Loopt, Twitter and his most recent venture FourSquare. 2011 is shaping up to be an exciting year in DIY cartography as a range of flexible tools and platforms have been released that allow designers the ability to design and serve custom maps, seize control of the location information logged on their mobile devices and to explore more expressive map design (respectively, see Development Seed’s TileMill, The New York Times R&D lab’s OpenPaths and Stamen Design’s map=yes). Given the propagation of visualization of all stripes, the debate as to whether well-mapped geographic data can reveal trends and truths more convincingly than the rows and columns of a spreadsheet is a moot point, a more interesting question is: now that these accessible, open source tools are out there, what will people use them for?

Crisis, Flow and the Ephemeral

In “Carto-City”, Denis Cosgrove’s contribution to the essential 2006 compendium Else/Where: Mapping, the late geographer described the complex relationship between maps and the urban space they represent. While the adage states that “the map is not the territory” Cosgrove reminds us that—as far as city design is concerned—the map precedes the territory: “St. Petersburg, Washington D.C., New Delhi, Brasilia, countless fortress and colonial cities, existed on paper before they had any material expression.” He also draws our attention to how significant urban reconstruction endeavours (e.g. Haussmann’s renovation of Paris) are planned and executed through maps and ‘great plans’, another example of how cartography “regulates and coordinates” the everyday experience and “continued existence” of the city.(3)

Cities are of course much more complex than the sum of their representations. The shift that has to be noted here is the transference of the means of cartographic production from states (who used them to assert sovereignty), to web-startups (who conducted platform and protocol r&d in order to offer monetized services) into the hands of citizens. In 2006 Mark Harrower described this emerging phenomenon as a “democratization of mapping” and to expand on this point, as we have become less tethered to corporate interests (i.e. projects no longer have to be bounded by proprietary geodata licensing) and offered more manageable workflows for the collection, sharing and archiving of properly formatted public data, mapping has started to function as public discourse.

A great example of ‘amateur’ cartographers mobilizing in real-time around a breaking event occurred in January 2010, in the immediate aftermath of the devastating earthquake that ravaged Haiti. A blog post by transport web-services provider ITO succinctly described the situation faced by aid agencies arriving in Port-au-Prince within hours of the quake:

“Where are the areas most in need of assistance, how do we get there, where are people trapped under buildings, which roads are blocked? This information is important to the rescue agencies immediately after the event, and to the longer rebuilding process. In many developing countries, there is a lack of good mapping data and particularly after a crisis, when up-to-date information is critical to managing events as they evolve.”

The morning after the disaster, geospatial services provider GeoEye shot and shared 3,000 square kilometres of high resolution satellite photography of Haiti and this material was seized on by the OpenStreetMap community. A globally distributed team of contributors (with varying GIS skills) were able to use this base imagery to trace primary and secondary streets, reference street names from archival maps, note the location of obstructions and geolocate the network of refugee camps that had sprung up.(4) Relatively speaking, these maps offered real-time situational awareness and became the reference of choice for GPS receiver toting aid workers looking to maximize their efficiency in coordinating rescue effort and delivering vital supplies by putting actionable data in their hands.

Hackitectura / Cartografía crítica del Estrecho de Gibraltar

[Hackitectura / Cartografía crítica del Estrecho de Gibraltar / 2004]

Operating at an altogether different scale and timeframe than the Haitian aid effort is Cartografía crítica del Estrecho de Gibraltar, a map produced by the Spanish media arts collective Hackitectura. In this project the artists ignored national borders and even mapping conventions in order to analyze the complex flows of migration, capital and corporate influence that link the EU and Africa. In flipping the Mercator projection, familiar terrain is immediately defamilarized and standard points of interest were replaced with naval migration routes, military infrastructure, refugee camps and interment centres. This map problematizes sovereignty while underscoring complex geopolitical interdependencies and how these relations link major landmasses despite their physical separation by substantial bodies of water. While this project ‘zooms out’ and focuses on geopolitical complexities—depicting how they play out at a continental scale—rather than delineating individual cities, there is much that could be learned here and applied at the community or city block scale. This mapping of flows could be applied to critically explore the economic and social relationships between neighbourhoods by comparing access to infrastructure and essential services and/or exploring related demographic information to reveal social realities that might go unnoticed otherwise.(5)

The examples discussed thus far illustrate how mapping can be deployed (and crowdsourced) to create public resources as well as function as a means of schematizing how less visible flows and trajectories play out spatially. Another key shift in the widespread proliferation of mapping tools and techniques is that it is increasingly possible to articulate distinctly personal points of view that reflect specific interests or modes of engagement with the city.

Nicholas Felton, The Feltron 2007 Annual Report

[Nicholas Felton / The Feltron 2007 Annual Report]

Personal, Social and Infrastructural Documentary

Each year the release of Nicholas Felton’s ‘annual report’ receives considerable attention from design enthusiasts who are eager to inspect the intersection of information architecture and the quantified self movement. It is not surprising that the various iterations of this exercise in serialized self-surveillance devote considerable energy to mapping their designer’s migrations through Manhattan, Brooklyn and beyond. Felton’s data diaries resonate with the public because they suggest that banal actions can be aggregated into coherent representations and that careful art direction can reveal (and celebrate) the meaningful patterns that emerge from everyday routine. However, to return the focus squarely to mapping spatial relationships, as increasingly streamlined platforms, apps and devices become available for tracking location the standards by which we evaluate ‘personal’ cartographies need to evolve as well. The fact that a phenomena or personal history can be mapped is often far less interesting than the rigour, agenda or bias a would-be-cartographer might bring to a project.

Grassroots Mapping, Shai Efrati & Hagit Keysar, 'balloon-mapped' protest in Jerusalem

[Grassroots Mapping, Shai Efrati & Hagit Keysar / A ‘balloon-mapped’ protest in Jerusalem]

“Are you embroiled in a cartographic dispute? Do you disagree with the official version of your geography?”

Thus reads the intro blurb on the website for Grassroots Mapping, an initiative launched by the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS) dedicated to promoting participatory cartography. An outgrowth of a project developed at MIT’s Center for Civic Media, the group is well known for their work using balloons and kites to produce satellite-ish imagery to document the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It is now common knowledge that in the weeks and months that followed the 2010 ecological disaster, British Petroleum was less than forthcoming in revealing the scale of the catastrophe that had occurred under their watch (the finger-pointing and PR debacle that ensued led to CEO Tony Hayward’s dismissal). To provide a counterpoint to BP’s misinformation campaign, PLOTS deployed a simple balloon/camera apparatus that could float up into the sky and collect photo evidence for scientists and the public to evaluate the extent of the spill. The group has since received a Knight News Challenge grant to further this research and their balloon mapping schematics are shared openly as a public resource alongside several other DIY kits. It is worth noting that the balloon mapping endeavour is more of a platform than a one-off project and the apparatus has been used for multiple applications ranging from observing how public space is used in downtown Philadelphia to documenting a recent march for Palestinian independence that took place in Jerusalem – depending what individual or collective is at the helm, this apparatus could document any number of possible spatial narratives.

Michael Cook, photo and map of explored Toronto sewerage

[Michael Cook / photo and map of explored Toronto sewerage]

An idiosyncratic example of an mapping project being driven by a personal obsession is Michael Cook’s ongoing exploration of the Toronto sewer system. Wearing urban infiltration, geography graduate student and photographer hats, Cook has been researching the underground constructed landscapes of the Greater Toronto Area for the last decade. While few who are interested in Cook’s work are adventurous enough to don hip waders, the researcher invites the public ‘into’ his work through photography and mapping. Cook describes his spatial modus operandi in a 2007 interview with Geoff Manaugh:

“Basically, I have a starting point – and the way I’m going to do this is just go down there on foot and walk around the various residential streets, starting at the lake and moving north. I’ll see if I can find any viable manhole entrances – which involves being by the side of the road or in the sidewalk, where it will be possible to enter and exit safely.”

As evidenced by the above map, Cook has covered considerable ground and there is an added gravity to this ‘personal’ cartography due to the risk and investment of time involved in traversing these infrastructural routes that lay beneath the city. In this case the maps are just a by-product of Cook’s urban spelunking but in a world teeming with ‘making the invisible visible’ projects set in the urban realm, the majesty of his photography is unrivalled.

Situated Visualization

I’d like to highlight some related thinking by Golan Levin that I believe to be obliquely relevant to several of the mapping projects discussed above. A month and a half ago, Levin prototyped an adjustable pie-chart stencil kit for the “rapid deployment” of infoviz graffiti in urban environments. While this exercise could be read as a timely arranged marriage of two seemingly distinct fields (the graf writer and the dataviz jockey), it really speaks to the agency that an information designer can and should bring to any visual communication project.(6) The interesting thing about this ‘situated visualization’ term that Levin has coined is that it raises the stakes of information being displayed in the field by ‘tethering’ bits of data to specific locations. We’re used to screen-based points of interest but what happens when they are embedded in or superimposed on urban fabric? One only need look as far as the terrific reception Timo Arnall, Jørn Knutsen and Einar Sneve Martinussen’s Immaterials: Light painting WiFi prototype received to see that there is great curiosity about these kind of representations. That experiment is executed as a dead simple ‘mapping’ of WiFi signal in downtown Oslo—quite literally a roving bar graph filmed with time-lapse photography—but to actually see the intersection of signal strength, architecture and public space is a truly novel (almost magical) experience. This is a project that truly embodies the potential of DIY cartography – proof that the proliferation of open software and hardware platforms is cultivating a creative milieu that is as boundless and amorphous as the imagination.

The next post in this series will consider the good, the bad and the ugly implications of urban screens.


(1) Migurski’s Oakland Crimespotting (2007) and Kurgan’s Million Dollar Blocks (2005) are textbook examples of provocative, socially engaged visualizations of urban space.
(2) For an accessible introduction to the ‘dual use’ application of GPS technology in civilian and military contexts see Caren Kaplan, Erik Loyer and Ezra Claytan Daniels’ collaboration Precision Targets.
(3) Cosgrove, Dennis. “Carto-City” in Janet Abrams & Peter Hall (eds) Else/Where: Mapping. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Design Institute, 2006. Pg. 148.
(4) For a detailed window into how the OpenStreetMap community mobilized around ‘Project Haiti’ see this wiki.
(5) Imagine a service like EveryBlock in the hands of radical cartographers!
(6) See this blog post where Levin responds to the query “Is this project meant for graffiti artists? Data viz designers? Both?” with: “Your question implies that these are two separate occupations. My project hints at a world in which they are one and the same.” Food for thought.

About the Author: Greg J. Smith is a Toronto-based designer and researcher with interests in media theory and digital culture. Extending from a background in architecture, his research considers how contemporary information paradigms affect representational and spatial systems. Greg is a designer at Mission Specialist, blogs at Serial Consign and teaches in the CCIT program (University of Toronto/Sheridan College).