The New Cartographers

What does it mean to map everything all the time?

Jessica ClarkFebruary 29, 2008

It’s flu sea­son, and you’re feel­ing woozy. Have you caught that thing that’s going around? 

We no longer go to maps to find out where we are. Instead, we tell maps where we are and they form around us on the fly.

To find out, head over to Who is Sick?, a Google map-based tool that lets users report their symp­toms. Plug in your zip code to find nodes of con­ta­gion near you.

Or maybe you’re depressed. Mis­ery loves com­pa­ny. Check the local emo­tion­al tem­per­a­ture at We Feel Fine to see data-mined sen­ti­ments from blogs, orga­nized geographically. 

Maps are every­where these days. The ubiq­ui­ty of glob­al posi­tion­ing sys­tems (GPS) and mobile direc­tion­al devices, inter­ac­tive map­ping tools and social net­works is feed­ing a map­ping boom. Ama­teur geo­g­ra­phers are assign­ing coor­di­nates to every­thing they can get their hands on – and many things they can’t. Loca­tive artists” are attach­ing vir­tu­al instal­la­tions to spe­cif­ic locales, gen­er­at­ing imag­i­nary land­scapes brought vivid­ly to life in William Gibson’s lat­est nov­el, Spook Coun­try. Indeed, pro­po­nents of aug­ment­ed real­i­ty” sug­gest that soon our cur­rent real­i­ty will be one of many lay­ers” of infor­ma­tion avail­able to us as we stroll down the street.

Like oth­er tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions, this trend gives with one hand and takes with the other. 

For some, map­ping has become a vibrant new lan­guage – a way to inter­pret the world, find like-mind­ed folks and make fresh, some­times rad­i­cal, per­spec­tives vis­i­ble. For oth­ers, maps por­tend threats to pri­va­cy and free­dom of move­ment. Just see Pri­va­cy International’s Map of Sur­veil­lance Soci­eties Around the World, which clas­si­fies the Unit­ed States as an endem­ic sur­veil­lance society.”

Google builds it, peo­ple come

Cred­it for­mer Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton for kick­ing this all off. In May 2000, he signed an exec­u­tive order remov­ing selec­tive avail­abil­i­ty” from the government’s GPS trans­mis­sion, a pro­to­col that intro­duced errors into coor­di­nates trans­mit­ted to receivers not approved by the mil­i­tary. But it’s Google that has pow­ered the ama­teur map­mak­er craze, by allow­ing mashups” between the maps it pro­vides and oth­er data sets.

Google Earth is the crown prince of the search engine’s map­ping realm. The down­load­able, inter­ac­tive globe com­bines the thrill of a first-time fly­er – Look, Mom, the peo­ple look like ants! – with a near-super­hu­man sense of con­trol and mobil­i­ty. With a click you can stand the Earth on its head and shake change out of its pock­ets. Select­ing Google Earth icons can lead you to every­thing from off­beat video clips to the all-impor­tant loca­tion of the near­est Star­bucks. As the Google Sight­see­ing blog puts it: Why Both­er See­ing the World for Real?”

The pro­gram comes with its own built-in lay­ers” that pin­point the loca­tions of parks, land­marks and bound­aries. Through its Google Earth Out­reach ini­tia­tive, the com­pa­ny has sup­port­ed efforts by non­prof­its to use the pro­gram for advo­ca­cy and activism. Ear­ly adopters have includ­ed the Glob­al Her­itage Fund (map­ping endan­gered his­tor­i­cal sites), the Jane Goodall Insti­tute (map­ping endan­gered pri­mates) and Fair Trade Cer­ti­fied (map­ping sites that pro­tect endan­gered cof­fee growers).

While new inter­faces make adding con­tent to the pro­gram ever-eas­i­er, devel­op­ing a lay­er for Google Earth still takes time and tech savvy. But work­ing with the company’s 2‑D cousin – Google Maps – is eas­i­er. Google Maps has allowed (as so often hap­pens on the Web), people’s pre­oc­cu­pa­tions to blossom.

Google Maps Mania, a per­son­al blog run by Cana­di­an Mike Pegg, doc­u­ments the world as seen from hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives. You can track UFOs, point your­self toward Mec­ca, find out where your pet fish is from or browse books by their geo­graph­i­cal loca­tion. Or, if you’re the Secret Ser­vice, you can request that Vice Pres­i­dent Dick Cheney’s house be blurred on Google Maps for secu­ri­ty pur­pos­es. After all, no one likes being watched, right? 

Map­ping the mappers

Mul­ti­me­dia design­er Sha Sha Feng recent­ly com­plet­ed a Mas­ter of Fine Arts project at Hunter Col­lege in New York titled MapaboutMaps,” using Google Earth as a plat­form to host video inter­views about new direc­tions in map­ping with geo­g­ra­phers, artists and programmers. 

I’m a home-grown car­tog­ra­ph­er,” artist Nina Katchadouri­an told Feng in one inter­view. If my pay­ing atten­tion to some­thing cre­ates a sit­u­a­tion where some­one else sud­den­ly pays atten­tion to some­thing and that makes things a lit­tle active and inter­est­ing for them, then I’m hap­py.” Katchadourian’s work remix­es print­ed maps in tac­tile ways that reveal a more sub­jec­tive expe­ri­ence of geog­ra­phy – such as Coastal Merg­er, a map that glues East Coast to West Coast to reflect the artist’s bicoastal life experience.

Feng was par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in exam­in­ing the role maps can play in build­ing com­mu­ni­ty. She inter­viewed Wendy Braw­er, the founder of Green­map Sys­tems, a web­site that engages local map­ping teams to chart their com­mu­ni­ties’ nat­ur­al and green liv­ing land­marks, includ­ing farm­ers mar­kets, organ­ic food pro­duc­ers, fair trade shops, indige­nous sites and the best spots for star-gaz­ing. Maps are very per­son­al objects,” says Braw­er. Peo­ple look for them­selves on them.”

Par­tic­i­pa­to­ry map­ping tools have opened the world of maps from a few to many,” says Feng. Maps are pow­er­ful tools. Many peo­ple take them as fact, but they tell the sto­ry that the cre­ator wants you to see. Grass­roots com­mu­ni­ties and artists wel­come this tech­nol­o­gy because it allows their voic­es to be heard.”

Feng is cur­rent­ly work­ing with artist Andrea Pol­li on a project called 90ºS, which maps weath­er changes, images and sound­scapes from McMur­do Sta­tion in Antarc­ti­ca, where sci­en­tists are gath­er­ing glob­al cli­mate data. Feng notes that Google Earth data for the region is rel­a­tive­ly scarce com­pared to the geo­graph­i­cal infor­ma­tion avail­able for urban cen­ters – a form of vir­tu­al gentrification. 

Google isn’t the only site offer­ing mashups – just the most high-pro­file one. While MapQuest is still the num­ber one site for those look­ing for sim­ple direc­tions, Microsoft’s Vir­tu­al Earth and Yahoo! offer mashup tools too. And con­tent-focused sites like Flickr and Twit­ter encour­age users to attach their cre­ations to loca­tions, cre­at­ing new per­son­al geographies.

But while mashups and social soft­ware have opened the hori­zons of car­to­graph­ic cre­ativ­i­ty, the maps them­selves are still pro­pri­etary – Google and oth­ers license them and make them avail­able to users as part of their mar­ket­ing strategy.

The rise of the neogeographers 

In con­trast, projects like Open­StreetMap eschew com­mer­cial or gov­ern­ment-owned maps in favor of data gen­er­at­ed direct­ly by users. Vol­un­teers gen­er­ate traces” by walk­ing or cycling routes while car­ry­ing a GPS track­er, and then upload the results and edit them online. Fol­low­ing the pre­cepts of open source soft­ware and Wikipedia, the project encour­ages col­lab­o­ra­tion and makes the results free for oth­ers to use. The site has a live­ly dis­cus­sion board pop­u­lat­ed by ama­teur geo­g­ra­phers, many of whom orga­nize map­ping par­ties” to sur­vey spe­cif­ic locations. 

Watch­ing the watch­ers is, again, a pop­u­lar theme for do-it-your­self map­pers. For years, the Sur­veil­lance Cam­era Play­ers mapped the loca­tion of cam­eras around New York City, using them to stage per­for­mances and walk­ing tours. The group col­lab­o­rat­ed with the Insti­tute for Applied Auton­o­my on its iSEE project to devel­op a Web-based map that lets users plot their routes along paths of least surveillance.” 

Ter­mi­nal Air, anoth­er project of the insti­tute, maps the move­ments of planes sus­pect­ed to have been involved in the CIA’s extra­or­di­nary ren­di­tion program.

Rad­i­cal geo­g­ra­phers some­times skew geo­graph­i­cal con­ven­tions to make points. At Worldmap­per, maps are mor­phed accord­ing to the sub­jects they treat. A map of often pre­ventable deaths” presents an Africa that resem­bles a lumpy bunch of grapes, while Latin Amer­i­ca stretch­es skin­ny and Dalí-esque. The dis­tor­tions rep­re­sent large num­bers of deaths.

Anoth­er map, from the Doc­tors of the World net­work, fills the famil­iar shapes of the con­ti­nents with ratios of inhab­i­tants per doc­tors. While the U.S. ratio aver­ages around 400: 1, much of Latin Amer­i­ca hov­ers just below 1,000:1, while regions of South Africa top out at 50,0001

Com­plex networks

Enthu­si­asm for map­ping the phys­i­cal world online is matched by zeal for map­ping ter­ri­to­ries so large and abstract as to be almost unimag­in­able. Com­put­er net­works are the most com­mon sub­jects for data-inten­sive map­ping projects. But the term net­works” is also used to describe many oth­er kinds of relationships.

The Visu­al Com­plex­i­ty web­site, curat­ed by inter­ac­tion design­er Manuel Lima, pro­vides a gor­geous and per­plex­ing gallery of maps that rep­re­sent com­plex net­works. One inti­mate map tracks the struc­ture of ado­les­cent sex­u­al net­works among 800-plus Mid­west­ern­ers, branch­ing out in long chains of pink and blue bubbles. 

In anoth­er, Linkfluence’s Map of the Polit­i­cal Blo­gos­phere, blue bub­bles rep­re­sent pro­gres­sive blog­gers, red con­ser­v­a­tive, with pur­ple and yel­low scat­tered in between and at the periph­ery. A rat’s nest of links reveals that the ide­o­log­i­cal spheres talk main­ly among them­selves, with occa­sion­al crosslinks for cri­tique and fin­ger-point­ing. Click on a blog and you’ll see its popularity.

Sim­i­lar pop­u­lar­i­ty con­tests are com­mon­ly avail­able on per­son­al social net­work sites like Face­book. Users can map them­selves among net­works of friends, assess­ing, at a glance who is the most con­nect­ed. In the par­lance of social net­work analy­sis, this clus­ter of con­nec­tions is our ego net­work” – a fit­ting term for the per­son­al­ized map­ping environment. 

In many ways, these map­ping tools are re-locat­ing us as the cen­ter of our per­son­al uni­vers­es. We no longer go to maps to find out where we are. Instead, we tell maps where we are and they form around us on the fly, a sen­sa­tion that can be com­fort­ing or sti­fling. After all, while find­ing the right map can ori­ent you, hav­ing dozens can threat­en to tip the sig­nal-to-noise ratio toward cacophony.

On bal­ance, though, the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of map­ping and visu­al­iza­tion tools gen­er­ates pos­si­bil­i­ties for self-expres­sion and social action. Two decades ago, post­mod­ern the­o­rist Fred­er­ic Jame­son argued that devel­op­ing new maps would be cen­tral for activists hop­ing to grap­ple with the emerg­ing glob­al busi­ness and com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems. “[The] inca­pac­i­ty to map social­ly is as crip­pling to polit­i­cal expe­ri­ence as the anal­o­gous inca­pac­i­ty to map spa­tial­ly is for urban expe­ri­ence,” he wrote.

The tools are now avail­able. The ques­tion now: Where do we go from here?

Jes­si­ca Clark is a writer, edi­tor and researcher, with more than 15 years of expe­ri­ence span­ning com­mer­cial, edu­ca­tion­al, inde­pen­dent and pub­lic media pro­duc­tion. Cur­rent­ly she is the Research Direc­tor for Amer­i­can University’s Cen­ter for Social Media. She also writes a month­ly col­umn for PBS’ Medi­aShift on new direc­tions in pub­lic media. She is the author, with Tra­cy Van Slyke, of Beyond the Echo Cham­ber: Reshap­ing Pol­i­tics Through Net­worked Pro­gres­sive Media (2010, New Press).
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH