MapLab: The Power of Counter-Maps

Craig Dalton, a professor of geography at Hofstra University, looks for maps that complicate conventional views of the world. He studies and creates “counter-maps,” a term for cartography that reveals the realities and knowledge of marginalized groups in society.

“Mapping has been the tool of empires and governments for 500 years,” Dalton told MapLab, pointing to the days of Columbus and other Western explorers who used geographic tools to colonize civilizations around the globe. “What happens when maps get into hands of people who’ve been victims of cartographic sleights of hand?”

Examples abound. Indigenous people from , a non-profit doing homelessness outreach via maps in London wound up exposing their clients’ identities to the British Home Office, which then deployed the information to deport non-U.K. citizens among them. “Sometimes no map is the best map of all,” Dalton said.

A counter-map with a magnified inset, produced by the project “Imaging Homelessness in a City of Care,” a participatory mapping project undertaken with 30 single homeless people in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, U.K., in 2014. (This Is Not an Atlas)

Still, he thinks the practice of counter-mapping can play a crucially subversive role, especially now as the use of maps for commercial gain has exploded. “So many of the maps we use today are for the purposes of consumption, whether it’s Google or Facebook serving you ads, Uber finding you rides or food, or Tinder finding you a date,” Dalton said. “But counter-maps are different. They’re not about monetary exchange—it’s about something that needs to change in the neighborhood.”

How a writer remapped his painful early memories

In the latest essay for The Maps That Make Us, CityLab’s ongoing series about the power of maps in our personal lives, the transportation expert and author Steven Higashide writes about how using MobRule—an throwback Web 1.0 site where mappers track the U.S. counties they’ve visited—helped him uncover joyful memories of childhood, after years of stinging reminiscences.

Higashide’s map of Pennsylvania on MobRule. (MobRule)

He writes:

I didn’t expect how, through a zeal for completion, I would surface so many happy buried memories—and how, as a result, I came to understand my life as being much more vivid and full. Over time, the fears and anxieties of my youth have become less important. I have been to 334 counties; my worst childhood experiences are held by just two: Cook County, Illinois, where I spent half of my youth, and Middlesex County, New Jersey, where I spent the rest. And as my world expands, those two tiny points on my map grow even smaller.

) ♦ A new exhibit at the Boston Public Library traces the upheaval and transformations of the 19th century. (Boston Globe) ♦ For the map lover at your holiday celebration: a review of some of the best recent map anthologies. (New York Times) ♦ Humanitarian mappers are taking college campuses by storm. (Washington Post)

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Laura Bliss

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MapLab: Killer Apps

Whether it’s Google Maps, Waze, or Apple Maps, chances are you have a go-to routing app. Some 90 percent of Americans who own smartphones get driving directions from them, according to a Pew survey from 2015, and smartphone adoption has only Future of Transportation, an anthology of essays published by the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.  An adapted excerpt also appears on CityLab. Here’s a section that describes how routing choices that shave down commutes for individual drivers can drag others down in delays:

In a 2017 talk at the Cal Future Forum, [Alexandre Bayen, the director of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Transportation Studies] walked through a computer simulation that showed how drivers reacted to a car crash on the highway with and without the help of a navigation system. His model demonstrated that when just 20 percent of drivers were using apps, the total time that all drivers spent in traffic actually increased. Prompted by their smartphones to use “faster routes” on surface streets, the simulated commuters clogged exit ramps as they veered off the crash-afflicted highway. The back-up they created sent ripples into the travel lanes behind them, creating delays for highway drivers. Meanwhile, they added vehicles on neighborhood roads that weren’t designed to handle the through-traffic.

So the more commuters indulge their selfish interests through a time-saving shortcut, the worse things can get for everyone else on the road. It’s a bit like the tragedy of the commons, where the streets are the pasture and drivers are the cows.

A screenshot from a 2017 presentation of Bayen’s research. (UC Berkeley)

That street-clogging effect has also made navigation apps the target of fierce opposition in residential neighborhoods that have turned into commuter cut-throughs, with homeowners from San Francisco to Tel Aviv reporting false car crashes, walking around with phones to screw with the app, erecting DIY detour signs, and writing many, many angry letters to local representatives. Los Angeles, my hometown, has become a hotbed of anti-app activism, which has recently pushed the L.A. Department of Transportation to try and convince Waze, Google Maps, and Apple Maps to effectively remove certain neighborhoods from service. That might sound nice for people who live there, but it raises serious questions about who gets to use public space, as Leonia, New Jersey, found out a couple of years ago, after the New York City suburb started ticketing passers-through who didn’t live locally.

In so many ways, navigation apps have changed the politics of traffic: who avoids it, who suffers it, and who gets to protest it.

Have mapping tools changed how the streets feel or move in your hometown? Write to let me know, and I may include your thoughts in an upcoming edition of MapLab.

A pirate’s life for her

CityLab’s ongoing series of personal essays about the power of mapping is coming to a close soon, but last week’s entry was a special treat. Dawn Wright, the chief scientist at the mapping and GIS giant Esri, is one of the most respected oceanographers in her field. She generously agreed to tell the story of how two maps guided her career as a scientist and underwater explorer. One was the fantasy map from her favorite childhood book, Treasure Island.

Flint’s treasure map, as illustrated by Edward A. Wilson for an edition of Treasure Island issued by the Limited Editions Club, 1941 and 1969. (Map photo courtesy of Dawn J. Wright)

Wright writes:

I had no idea at the time as a child what cartography was, but that map fascinated me to no end: the shapes of the landforms, the colors, the arrow pointing north. Not only was I set on a permanent heading toward a love of pirates and pirate lore, I also wanted to know how to better to decipher maps, and how to make them myself. I wondered, why did most maps only show the top of the ocean? What is beneath the surface, and how in the world do you make a map of that?

Read her essay to learn about how the pioneering 20th century oceanographer and geologist Marie Tharp also kept Wright’s spirits lifted on tough seagoing expeditions.

Mappy links

A section of the “City of Women” map by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, courtesy of the New York Transit Museum

A map that labeled New York City subways stops with names of hundreds of iconic women just got an update. (6sqft) ♦ A dizzying and fascinating comparison of new updates to Apple Maps, compared to Google Maps. (Justin O’Beirne) ♦ “Friendly and conventional” in the Midwest? “Temperamental and uninhibited” in the East? The personality stereotypes of America’s regions might be somewhat true. (CityLab) ♦ A super powerful telescope is attempting to map the known (and the unknown) universe in 3D. (Daily Beast) ♦ Berlin’s history, in colorful maps. (The Local)

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Happy Thanksgiving, all—

Laura Bliss

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MapLab: Census, Sense Us

Welcome to the latest edition of MapLab. Sign up to receive this newsletter in your inbox here.

Every ten years, the U.S. government is supposed to count every living person in the country, then use that tally to establish fair representation in Congress and fairly disburse funding. This mandate to use empirical science to empower the people was set forth by the Constitution and first accomplished in 1790. It has been carried out every decade since.

But the 2020 Census marks several changes in the undertaking of this decadal democratic reset, sowing fears of an undercount. First, there is the distrust and confusion created by the Trump administration’s attempt to ask respondents about their immigration status. Although that move was ultimately blocked from the 2020 questionnaire by the Supreme Court, the threat of a probe could still keep immigrant communities from participating.

Then there is this sea change: For the first time in history, people will able to fill out the questionnaires online. While that could create a more convenient experience for many respondents and Census employees, it also presents a host of risks and challenges, from cyberattacks and scam artists to technical glitches and gaps in broadband access.

Share of households in New York City without broadband internet access. This map strictly shows households that lack at-home broadband, so it excludes households with cellular data plans for phones or tablets. (NYC Office of the Comptroller)

This week in CityLab, Kriston Capps reports on those many potential pitfalls and what communities are doing to avoid them (let’s hear it for libraries!):

[O]utreach is an enormous obstacle for the 2020 census, thanks to the deep divides in the ways that American reach and use the internet. In New York City, for example, more than 917,000 households lack access to broadband at home—29 percent of the city, per a July report on the census from the Office of the New York City Comptroller. This digital divide tracks neatly with existing borders that define marginalized populations, including race, class, and ethnicity.

[…] Public libraries are likely to be the front line in census outreach: That’s where many people who don’t have home access to the internet go to get online… In fact, librarians are already doing some heavy lifting for the 2020 count: They’re helping library users apply for and train for jobs with the Census Bureau, processes that have migrated online with this census.

The stakes of an undercount go far beyond a bureaucratic mess. It could result in underrepresentation in Congress for certain communities, or an under-delivery of critical funds. Read Capps’ full story here, and pair it with his earlier report about the communities that a shoddy Census could hurt (and help) the most.  

What vintage flight maps say about globalization

In so many ways, the 21st century experience of commercial air travel is a sad shadow of its glamorous past, from passenger attire, to in-flight food selection, to the airline route maps stuck in seat-back pockets. Once, air carriers treated those maps as alluring advertisements for the possibilities of world travel, as much as practical infographics. Last month, the authors of a new book about the history of these images, Airline Maps: A Century of Art and Design, chatted with Benjamin Schneider for CityLab about what those maps reveal about the early days of our hyper-connected planet.

An abstract, watercolor-like 1960 Delta map boasts of the airline’s “big jets.” (Courtesy of Delta Flight Museum, Atlanta)

“There’s a wonderful American Airlines map with the signs of the zodiac going across the routes,” one author, Maxwell Roberts, told Schneider. “Air travel was completely new, so they were sort of looking for imagery showing how the world was being joined up, and they went for this old-fashioned cartographic imagery as a way to show that.”

Read the full story, and read this 2018 post by contemporary mapmaker Daniel P. Huffman about tackling the job of creating a new route map for an airline client. “Major airlines have a lot of connections, and drawing each possible route can lead to a tangled mass of impossible-to-follow lines,” he writes.

Mappy links

(Charles Booth Archive, courtesy of London School of Economics)

A new anthology takes a fresh look at Charles Booth’s 19th century maps of London poverty. (CityLab) ♦ Infrared mapping technology is helping California firefighters keep wildfires under control. (Wall Street Journal) ♦ And a flying hexagon is helping California researchers track underground water supplies. (San Luis Obispo Tribune) ♦ A “Beltway” map helped a newcomer navigate Pittsburgh’s formidable street grid. (CityLab) ♦ You knew this was coming: “The Creators Of Pokémon Go Mapped The World. Now They’re Mapping You.” (Kotaku)

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Song to get lost to:

Maybe he’s caught in the legend / Maybe he’s caught in the mood
Maybe these maps and legends / Have been misunderstood

Over and out,

Laura Bliss

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MapLab: High on Lidar

Lidar is similar to radar, except that it uses laser beams (rather than radio waves) to detect objects in space. It can produce far more detailed pictures of its subjects than its older cousin because it captures the speed at which its lasers bounce back to their origin.

The technology is a critical component of autonomous vehicles, and it has also made waves in the world of science and history. Just a few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a story about an Arizona archaeologist who discovered Mayan ruins that had never been seen by the modern world by trawling lidar imagery in the public domain.

A snapshot of a lidar scan of the Peruvian Amazon rainforest. (Carnegie Airborne Observatory)

That type of discovery may become more achievable through Earth Archive, a project by researchers at Colorado State University that aims to create comprehensive maps of the planet’s surface, using lidar. The hope is to etch a permanent record of Earth’s cultural, environmental, and geological resources, with so many of them now facing destruction by humans or human-induced climate change.

“We are going to lose a significant amount of both cultural patrimony—so archaeological sites and landscapes—but also ecological patrimony—plants and animals, entire landscapes, geology, hydrology,” Chris Fisher, a CSU archaeologist and the project’s founder, told the Guardian this month. “We really have a limited time to record those things before the Earth fundamentally changes.”

In 2018, scientists at the National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping captured 3D images of the Maya settlement of Tikal using lidar technology. (National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping/University of Houston)

Fisher was originally inspired by CyArk, a nonprofit group that creates 3D records of cultural monuments and sites using laser scanning. With a focus on the 29 percent of the Earth’s surface that is land, the project is meant to create an open-source encyclopedia of granular lidar data to inform scientists across disciplines. Areas that are facing the greatest threat of destruction, such as coasts sinking beneath rising sea levels and the rapidly disappearing Amazon rainforest, will be the first to get scanned.

Some scientists are skeptical that the idea can take off, citing logistical, political, and cost concerns. Fisher guesses that a lidar map of the Amazon alone would require $15 million and at least three years. Scanning the entire planet in an aircraft would take decades to complete. But Fisher says the results would be an indelible document for future scientists—and all humans.

“It is for their grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren,” he told the Guardian. “[It’s like] the ultimate gift we can give to future generations.”

How L.A.’s map librarian learned to love maps

In the latest installment of the Maps That Make Us, CityLab’s ongoing essay series about the power of maps to shape public and private life, Glen Creason writes about his struggles to care about his cartographic charges in his early days as map librarian at the L.A. Public Library. Then he stumbled on a 1942 pictorial map of Los Angeles by Joseph Jacinto Mora.

Historical and Recreational Map of Los Angeles, by Joseph Jacinto Mora. (Los Angeles Public Library)

In brilliant color, the map touches on numerous elements of L.A.’s modern history and development, Creason writes, as well as its geography and culture. Like a lot of popular imagery in Mora’s age, it fails to depict people of color in anything but servile roles. But the map also places an unusual emphasis on how “regular (if white) folks” shaped the city, as opposed to big-wig politicians, bankers, or influential families, Creason writes. He continues:

Thirty years later, I still do not get moony over stacks of nautical charts. But I do remember that the blue in their oceans signifies something grand, the sort of feeling that Mora was so good at evoking and that transforms an otherwise dry image into something more than good gift-wrapping paper. Since encountering Mora’s work, I can look at all forms of cartography with greater appreciation. I even dream about maps. (To be honest, I have nightmares where I can’t find them.)

Read the full essay here.

Mappy links

Speaking of mapping the planet, there are multiple initiatives underway to map the entire seafloor. (Maritime Executive) ♦ University of Chicago researchers are tracking informal neighborhoods in Africa in order to connect them to infrastructure. (University of Chicago) ♦ Google Maps now shows speed traps, but law enforcement isn’t pleased. (Washington Post) ♦ A profile of the woman behind the world’s largest map retailer. (BBC)

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Stay spooky, my friends,

Laura Bliss

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MapLab: Life on Shaky Ground

Welcome to the latest edition of MapLab. Sign up to receive this newsletter in your inbox here.

This past Sunday morning, a short but strong earthquake gave the Bay Area a rude awakening. Measuring at a magnitude of 3.5, the tremor jiggled San Francisco’s buildings and bookshelves for several seconds at 8:41 a.m.

No damage was reported. But as the San Francisco Fire Department tweeted, the event was “a good reminder we live in Earthquake Country and #Preparedness is key.” As in, pack those go-bags, make sure you’ve got bottled water, and know which table is your sturdiest cover.

But there are only so many ways that San Franciscans can get ready for liquefaction, a terrifying seismic-induced event for which huge swaths of the city are at risk. In liquefaction zones, during the violent shaking of an earthquake (generally with a magnitude of 5.5 or above), “saturated sand and silt take on the characteristics of a liquid,” according to the U.S. Geological Survey. What seemed like solid ground turns into something like gooey cake batter, and buildings and power lines give way in the wake.

That’s a lot of liquefaction. (California Geological Survey)

In April, the California Geological Survey (CGS) updated its Seismic Hazard Zone map, showing in stark relief which Bay Area communities are most prone to liquefaction and other quake-triggered phenomena, such as landslides. Many well-known SF neighborhoods are at risk, including the Marina, the Financial District, most of SOMA, Treasure Island, and Ocean Beach, as well as chunks of the Mission, the Castro, and the Haight. Virtually the entire shorefront of the East Bay—and two miles inland—is also at risk.

Although most damage in major earthquakes tends to be caused by the earth’s shaking, the potential for destruction is amplified in these areas where the ground can literally turn to mush. And while there are steps that building owners can take to bolster their properties, including foundation retrofits, there are still countless properties around S.F. that don’t conform to the city’s basic seismic codes. Some of the most iconic photos from San Francisco’s 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which caused $6 billion in damage, resulted from liquefaction. And California seismologists surmise that the state is long overdue for its next “big one.” “We can expect history to repeat itself in the next big Bay Area earthquake,” writes the U.S. Geological Survey. Let’s hope we’re awake for it.

More earthquake terror: Read the journalist Geoff Manaugh’s article in Wired magazine about the scientists mapping a previously unknown fault system near the Nevada-California border that rivals the San Andreas Fault.

Fire burn and cauldron bubble

The extent of Scotland’s centuries-long actual witch hunt is now on the map, thanks to pioneering students and historians at Edinburgh University. CityLab’s Feargus O’Sullivan reports on the bloody legacy of Scotland’s age of persecution. From the mid-16th to the early 18th century, nearly 4,000 people—the vast majority of them women—were tried for witchcraft, resulting in execution for as many as two-thirds of that number.  

A mapping project from the University of Edinburgh traces “Great Scottish Witch Hunts.” University of Edinburgh

The student mapping project brings a wealth of details about the lives of individual victims, which ties into a recent movement in Scotland to grapple with its past and honor the victims, O’Sullivan writes:

Official belief in witchcraft drained away in Scotland in the early 18th century, until the witchcraft acts were repealed in 1735. In recent years, there has been a rediscovery of this bloody history—and a determination to commemorate more fully its victims. The skeleton of Lillias Adie, one of the few accused whose body was not burned after her death in prison in 1704, is due to be returned to a burial site reimagined as a memorial.

There are also plans to reconstruct a historic lighthouse as a national monument to victims of witch persecutions. In the meantime, Scots have use this new map as a way to reckon with this wave of cruelty that happened not just in a vaguely misty faraway time, but in places they know, in some cases just around the corner.

Read ) ♦ LIDAR, but for archaeology: A scholar discovered unknown Mayan ruins using free online digital maps. (New York Times) ♦ Mapping memories: A teenager finds a way to bond with her recently departed mother through a dusty old subway map. (CityLab)

Sign up your friends for MapLab here. As always, I’m eager for your feedback. What are you liking about MapLab these days? What would you like to see more or less of? Write me.

Take care,

Laura Bliss

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MapLab: Snap by Snap, the Teen-Led Fight For Gun Reform

Welcome to the eighth edition of MapLab. Sign up to receive this newsletter in your inbox and ) of Snapchat’s Snap Map feature, which plotted user photos and videos of gun reform demonstrations at high schools, middle schools, and college campuses around the country last week. Snap Map has “proven to be a valuable, honest, and raw lens into modern life, where tragedies like school shootings … have been documented in real time by regular people as the events unfold,” my Quartz colleague Mike Murphy wrote. Long live the Snap.

Mappy links

A map of projected urban growth for Lagos, Nigeria, showing in red where the edges of the city overlap with biodiverse areas. (Atlas for the End of the World)

Drones for good: a “quadcopter” will chart radioactive contamination at Fukushima. ♦ Bright lights, divided cities: striking maps of neighborhood income disparities. ♦ Controversial model: a researcher believes predictive mapping could help prevent violence against civilians in Syria. ♦ Don’t ask: an ex-director of the U.S. Census Bureau warns gravely against adding a question about citizenship. ♦ Shitty news: a playful “poop map” of San Francisco has become a micro-flashpoint in partisan politics. ♦ Something’s off: the FCC’s new broadband map doesn’t match reality. ♦ Conflict zones: a new atlas shows where urban sprawl threatens biodiversity. (One map is shown above.) ♦ Digital archaeology: Lidar technology reveals a “lost” Aztec city with as many buildings as Manhattan.

Life is hard, but maps spark joy. Tell your friends to sign up for MapLab here.

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