Creating Technology for Social Change

Intro to Civic Media Week 7: Civic Mapping Recap

This blog post was written with Luis Capelo.

Our Introduction to Civic Media class this week focused on civic maps and heard 4 civic mappers speak about their projects.


The class first began with Luis Capelo talking about ICCM and Becky talking about the Center for Civic Media and Data Center’s Civic Maps Toolkit.

Luis told us about the International Crisis Mappers Conference in Washington DC, which probably one of the most popular conferences about crisis mapping that government workers, practitioners and researchers attend. One of the most useful things Luis got out of the conference was the question of how useful maps are w/r/t crisis and humanitarian response. He found that it was interesting that the community had reached the level of maturity to be asking these questions, because these questions weren’t being asked a few years ago. Additional information can be found at Crisis Mappers.

Becky talked about the Civic Maps Toolkit which aims to create a toolkit for grassroots groups and organizations to use maps in their civic engagement projetcs. They want to ask how useful civic mapping is and what tools are available out there. Their goals are to make a resource guide with tools, guides, software.

The first guest speaker this week was Jo Guldi – @joguldipersonal website

Jo began talking about how she got interested in civic mapping. She started with a story about walking tours around the city and thinking that there was some sort of political connection. Naturally a historian, she gave us a short history of civic maps.

18th century — Discussions about owning land
1880 – 1930 — The land reform movement
1936 — Crazy idea == WALKING. Whoa. Walk with your friends. You can judge where you are in time and space and the history of landlordism, just by how things are divided and how things are built. Walking around with visually observant people means you don’t need to be an expert. Together, we can create a crowdsourced history, a mental map of the common lands, and how they were privatized over time.

Storytime with Jo
We’re going to go back to the 18th century with modern street maps. In the 17th century, if you wanted to take a journey, what did you do for a map? We do have maps, but there’s a problem. Maps are very, very large — very thick and very heavy. So you can’t pack it and take it with you. You’ll need a separate mule for your maps. Plus, the roads are very snaky. So what you do is talk to people at each town, and find a nice looking person to ask for directions to the next town.

In the 18th century, we invent something much more awesome — infrastructure. They look like highways. They connect major places. They’re built by civil engineers. The guy behind it is Adam Smith. They taxed rich English and made roads to colonies — connecting London to its colonial capitals of Dublin and Edinburgh. Colonies start to get richer. Literacy spreads. Everyone’s happy.

In 1785, they create a centralized unified post coach system, with a post horse rental system — across England, you can go and requisition a post horse. You can get a receipt, and your receipts get collected in Somerset House in England. So you can take this across England and a centralized authority keeps track of things. We get forms — formalized receipts that can be sent to and tracked by the central government of London. Then you start to think about all the logistics involved in the process: how much time it takes to travel from one place to the other, how much paper is used and how many people are involved — essentially, you need a map.

For the first time, we have a map that is linked to the government. Measured manually, mapping suffered a transformation. John Carry starts measuring with precision distances around London. The government has the patent. We have a new business out of selling maps. They also fold! Now they fit in your pocket and aren’t as heavy as a book. You also don’t need an extra mule to carry them.

The reward for Carry making the map was a copyright/patent for 5 years. They gave him a copyright on his map, but made the data available to everyone — you can’t copy the entire map, but you can copy the data so you can make your own map out of the data and sell that.

The initial maps had a destination, and ignored everything that was disconnected from life around it. The objective was simple: you have a destination and want to get there. However, a little after, mapping became open and a series of entrepreneurs started creating their own maps and interpreting the reality in a great array of maps — new technology that overflowed and crowded society.

When this mapping culture was invented, we invented coaches that the middle class and higher could use. There is now a division in classes. So now the middle class is cushioned with new technology. With so much new technology people didn’t have to ask for directions anymore. People, that used to have tons of interactions, now didn’t need those interactions anymore. They had to keep figuring out their way: who to trust, where to go?

In a few generations, we see that the middle class has to think more about who they can trust, who they can talk to. You get an increasing divide between the middle class and working class.
The takeaway point here is that maps are awesome, but technology can divide strangers in ways in different social groups. And quickly the dominance of technology turned into power, and with by dominating the way of making maps, people could dominate other people in new ways: from houses of poor people to boundaries of gardens.

Because maps are very expensive, many people can’t use them to help them in courts. In 1970, Robert Chambers, a radical British geographer, had people draw maps on the ground. They used satellites, and they crowdsourced maps and put them back in the hands of the people. “You don’t need the internet, you just need people talking to people to make maps,” says Jo.

In Madagascar, people can now hand the judge their crowdsourced maps.
The million dollar block project uses publicly available information to map those spaces that sum with their ex-residents up to a million dollars in expenses in jail.

Our second speaker was fellow classmate Catherine D’Ignazio.
Catherine likes collecting counter-maps, more closely aligned to the art world. Many artists who are working on maps are doing them in an engaged/direct way to affect change for specific issues.
Much of the power of what we can do with maps is the fact that they work to “denaturalize” the map for us.
We have the impression that maps are given to us, and that is how we locate ourselves and others. When you are making maps you are always thinking to who and why they are being made. Maps make a very important and compelling statement about the world, saying that things are where they are.

Catherine showed us different maps where people intervened. We looked at a surrealist map of the world. This was one of the first map hacks. It imagined what the world would look like without the imperial powers, scaling countries around the world accordingly.

Catherine also provided a list of interesting projects that used mapping in unique ways:
1. Another example is, which only shows Iowa and Kentucky. It makes you think about what’s not on a map.
3. – looking at NY subway routes
5. The geobody (thought of by Thongchai Winichakul) : how we naturalize shapes. We have a picture in our heads of how countries look like. Our citizenship are shaped reflecting those shapes. To get away from what we’re used to with the shapes of maps, we’ve got
6. Maps can be a great way to reenvision territories. River Atlas
7. We now live in a world where we think we can see everything. The artist Trevor Paglen works to show us what is at the limits of our site. For example, he shows black sites and goes as close as possible and uses astronomical equipment to photograph these locations.

Also, Catherine talked about a series of other non-online examples:
1. Disorientation maps for UNC-Chapel Hill
2. Experimental Geography — Nato Thompson
3. Gayside map
4. Sludge economy of New York – how waste gets turned into sludge in New York
5. The nuclear war atlas – visualizes how nuclear war would affect U.S.
6. Atlas of radical cartography

Arlene Ducao,
Some of Arlene’s background work can be found at”>the AMNH and at DuKode Studio.

Arlene’s current project is OpenIR. Arlene takes data and finds ways to bring it into partcipatory systems. Arlene is focusing in making satellite band imagery available for the larger public through the design of an onine platform. Band imagery is very useful to detect various patters in vegetation, humidity and other aspects of land and populational change.

Another data source that they’re looking at is EarthEngine, a new product from Google, that gives you environmental data and lets you do mashups of data. In January, they will be going to Jakarta, Indonesia with a bunch of infrared maps. They use infrared layers and explain what the layers indicate — for example, they have a layer for soil data, moisture, and vegetation. They are working on looking at vulnerability analysis, a place where emergency managers can start a little farther down the road.

Arlene’s project also aims to allow civic mappers to explore band imagery and incorporate it in the common map analysis. To assist in that process, they want to survey the best practices and come up with an algorithm that generalizes the vulnerabilities for a generic emergency (like a flood). In January, one of Arlene’s goals is to bring this to Ushahidi. Groups they will be working with when they’re doing testing include AMAN and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT).

Pablo Rey,, visiting researcher with the Center for Civic Media and creator of civic mapping platforms Meipi and Basurama.
Pablo is a visiting scientist in the Center for Civic Media. Basurama is a non-profit that works with waste. Basurama has made physical visualizations of waste on beaches or containers on the street. An example Pablo talked about was a project in Spain where people where able to leave old furniture on the streets (tu basura no es basura). They created a map to show areas where they were having people drop off their “trash.”

Other useful links:
1. Meipi: Todo Sobre Mi Barrio: This tool makes it easy for people to create their own collaborative maps. For examples, citizens were able to post sports facilities for Madrid 2016, when they were in the running to be the host city for the Olympics.
3. MapKnitter

Jeff Warren,, Director of enablers of balloon and kite mapping
Jeff talked about a mapping project he worked on with the Gowanus Canal in New York, NY with The Public Laboratory for Open Technology & Science, which is a community that anyone can join. To get images of the area, they used a kite. Jeff explained how he and his team used a kite camera to map the Gowanus Canal. The data collected by the mapping project has a much higher resolution than the one publicly available in Google Maps. They spent about a morning (around 2-2.5 hours) working on the map.

The Public Lab began at the New Orleans’ oil spill. The government was very closed, and many journalists and citizens were chased off publicly owned land. Airspace was also restricted. Public Lab members went out in fishing boats and used a kite or balloon with a camera attached to take photos. The Public Lab isn’t so much about mapping anymore, but rather about working with solving social-pressing issues with low cost, science, mapping or other technology solutions. There is an emphasis open source licensing.

Jeff then talked about the tools they use to do balloon mapping. He talked about how contributions to the balloon mapping kit should be noted like Github. They have also been using infrared pass filters in their cameras. This is because plants absorb a lot of visible light, and they have caught things on camera that normal cameras wouldn’t be able to catch (eg things hidden under metal plates). They have published a lot of Youtube videos showing how to make your own infrared camera.

The Balloon Mapping project has many applications. For example protest mapping, farming, getting occupiers into Google Maps could be useful elements to consider when planning civic mapping projects.