By Jerry Shannon, Taylor Hafley, and Katrina Henn
This summer, our lab has started a regular reading group, CML Reads. While students in the lab do research in a lot of different areas, the goal of CML Reads is to get us all on the same page, so to speak--reading, thinking, and responding to a common set of ideas and research practices. We hope to use this blog as a place to summarise these pieces and our reactions to them.
At our most recent meeting, we discussed Matt Wilson’s new article, “GIScience I: Social histories and disciplinary crucibles,” published in Progress in Human Geography. As the title suggests, this article in the end is about the social histories we tell about GIScience as a discipline. This article is divided into two main sections. The first provides a survey of work published about GIScience within Progress, going back to Peter Gould’s 1969 survey of work on quantitative methods and mapping. Wilson divides these articles into three major periods: (1) 1977 through 1988, where computer driven mapping becomes increasingly common, (2) 1988 through 2002, when GIScience becomes a recognized field and critical responses are also recognized, and (3) 2002 through the present, when GIScience becomes a field distinct from cartography.
The second half of the article draws from the work of Cindy Katz and other scholars to sketch out whether “minor GISciences” might aptly summarise an ongoing body of work that is not easily categorizable within this subfield. Giving several examples of “radical, critical, and ‘retrograde cartographies,’” (p. 7), Wilson describes how Sarah Elwood, Agnieszka Leszczynski, Biran Jordan Jefferson, and many others open lines of flight with the potential to disrupt and transform work in GIS. This, in our opinion, was the most valuable part of the article. It’s worth reading through Wilson’s description of what minor GISciences means in practice, as it’s difficult to summarise in a brief post (though Jerry did play a minor version of the national anthem to try to capture the basic idea). The article ends by arguing for the value of “minor” work to continually nudge GIScience out of its comfortable disciplinary boundaries, preventing epistemic closure around familiar histories.
As a group, we appreciated Wilson’s arguments and the histories this piece highlights. That said, there were a few omissions in this article that struck us as curious. Scholars with a long history of critical engagement in this area--including Eric Sheppard and Mei-Po Kwan--were notably absent from Wilson’s history. Even so, we agreed this history was a valuable review and respected how the historical narrative put the six-decade origins of GIScience in conversation within Human Geographers.
More strikingly, there were few explicit references to work in public participation GIS, a strange absence given the way that work in this area has tried to create new forms of research praxis that decenter technical expertise while amplifying voices outside the academy. In our work within community geography, this has been a main focus, and certainly acts as a “minor” form of GISciences. Indeed, some cited examples do rely heavily on participatory research methods, most notably the work of the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. Yet these are praised for their contribution to topics of critical interest (e.g., mapping eviction) or attempts to blend critical theory with GIS methodology, without reference to the social context for this research. That said, all pieces have limited space, and we do not know what will be included in the next two progress reports.
In addition, the three of us in this meeting all came in with clear commitments to critical GIS as a way to define our work. While we were sympathetic to the “minor” label, we struggled to identify clear areas where it was easy to differentiate it from other threads of work in this area (e.g., qualitative GIS, feminist GIS, and 'doing' critical GIS). The article itself didn’t attempt to do so, perhaps again because of limited space. but justifying the need for yet another brand of critically informed geoscience research would have been helpful.
In the end, Wilson rightly notes that we need more diverse histories of GIScience within our discipline and that it is crucial that we resist the drive to “reduce geography to a dashboard” (p. 8). We appreciated reading this piece and look forward to future entries within the series.
Jerry Shannon is an Associate Professor at the University of Georgia in the Departments of Geography and Financial Planning, Housing, & Consumer Economics. He is the director of the Community Mapping Lab.
Taylor Hafley is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at the University of Georgia.
Katrina Henn is a Master's student in the Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of Georgia
By Katrina Henn
This semester was one of many tumultuous twists and turns. No duh. But seriously, this semester was incredible, obvious COVID-19 happenings aside. It was one long film reel, where each scene fit perfectly in some way with all those preceding and all those to come. Sometimes they would melt together in a wonderfully confusing mess of academic discovery and crossover episodes: my thesis project was going to include an historic African American neighborhood in Athens, and I was beginning a small pilot study for it to fulfill a requirement for one of my classes. My other 2 courses involved working alongside and learning from other African American residents and neighborhoods, both those gone by and those still here. I learned about blatant racism and classism in the past and discussed with classmates a shared unease of its existence today in the present projects. One thing I learned this semester: we (as in UGA, Athens, other communities, the state, and the country) still have a long way to go.
The Community GIS class was no exception in providing these strings of discoveries and realizations. Like everything else this semester, it was serendipitous given that I had to come up with some community mapping exercises for the neighborhood I would be working with for my thesis. To risk sounding borderline cliché, the course swept away so many of my previously held notions on cartography. You think maps are scientific and objective? Wrong—they can portray a myriad of perspectives on the same topic and make an argument for or against anything. You think maps are only good for orienting yourself? Wrong again: they can be a statement on a community’s identity. You believe the mapmaking process is a lone routine on your individual computer? Think bigger and more collaborative. Sometimes, it is the process that empowers the community and that matters more than the actual product.
This paradigm shift extended its grasp even further to the way I simply thought about our class project and my thesis in relation to the residents. Indeed, it felt strangely (and humbly) akin to having to learn about manners and respect in grade school again. One afternoon when seeking Dr. Shannon’s counsel on my thesis, no sooner did the phrase “help the residents” roll off my tongue than when he stopped me to prove a critical point: I/we are not swooping in to “help” people and save the day. I/we are not just coming in and providing much needed education or information and changing everything. We each bring something different to the table, with each thing being just as valuable as the last. We may bring a level of academic knowledge or computer literacy skill, while some residents offer community knowledge and history. Some might bring other technical skills or a refreshing perspective. The point is everyone has something to offer.
What I thought the Linnentown residents really brought when they stepped into our classroom, however, was the beating heart and life of a community we never knew. My classmates and I had spent many hours digitizing parts of Linnentown and creating maps of the place. We had read some documentation on its removal and gotten to visit the archives with Joey and Rachelle, both part of the Linnentown Project. Those were good first steps to becoming acquainted with the neighborhood, but nothing made the place feel alive like the residents themselves that day. Stories of the good and the bad abounded, of childhoods spent traveling the neighborhood paths and organizing ball games to fearful nights listening to the neighbor’s home being destroyed. Of how only one resident had a phone, so everyone shared it. Of an uncle with multiple sclerosis who carved steps out the mud on a hill so one person’s mother could walk more safely to and from work at UGA. These were stories of a tight-knit community so many of us wish we had today. These were stories of resilience which made Linnentown that much more alive. I believe it is these stories that really motivated the class to pour our best into the project. And, I believe it is these stories that humanize the neighborhood to others. Now we know the people whose homes were ripped away. Now we know the people whose tight-knit social networks were disrupted. All of this arose from simply trying to map a community. We were experiencing truth in what we had read: that the process itself is actually meaningful. I think the residents felt similarly, as one explained:
Linnentown residents are continuing to seek redress from the city of Athens and UGA. When you feel like you actually know someone or even a whole neighborhood, you feel that much more strongly about it. I hope they get the outcomes that they are asking for, and perhaps some of our work will aid their mission. The process, however, was full of lessons and experiences I will be taking with me wherever I go. Not only will I be more aware of the continued presence of our past ghosts and grievances, but I hope to become a more active, empathetic, and responsible citizen in bringing these issues to the forefront.
By Aidan Hysjulien
In this post I reflect on my experience working to map the history of Linnentown’s existence and destruction to explore how maps can become part of the historical narratives they tell. The overarching goal of this project was to create a geographic dataset of Linnentown and begin using it to tell some of the stories that make up Linnentown’s history. In many ways, the history of Linnentown tells a far too familiar story of 1960s Urban Renewal used as a tool for private capital, municipal governments, powerful institutions to dispossess and displace black Americans. Linnentown is somewhat unique as an example of an Urban Renewal project undertaken by a public institution of higher education, the University of Georgia.
Mapping a historical narrative presents the additional challenge of working with and against the existing historical record. Throughout the course of this project I felt a nagging tension between a commitment to ‘countermapping’ Linnentown and the necessity of often relying on historical documents created for disassembling Linnentown. These included removal records, maps used to document parcel/building ownership (Image 1), and correspondence between university officials involved in the project.
In working on this project I began to recognize four ways of engaging this uncomfortable tension. First, a critique of the historical records themselves. Second, repurposing the record by highlighting something it contained, but was never intended to show. Third, to animate some dimension of the history by bringing into dialogue multiple records. Fourth, by incorporating historical accounts of those whose voices, perspectives, and experiences were never included in the historical record.
Analysis of maps as a tool of power has a long history if critical/qualitative cartography. The image below is one of the historical maps we used to build our dataset, but it is also a map created by UGA to facilitate the acquisition of the territory. The information these map makers chose to include show what was most important to UGA -- who owns the property, the area of land that will be acquired, when/whether a property had been acquired, and the race of property owners. All property already acquired by UGA was associated with no information beyond stating UGA as the owner. This map was very clearly a tool for the dispossession and displacement that our work with Linnentown seeks to counter, but it was also one of the few records we have of Linnentown. By understanding this map as a tool of power used to translate space into an object of action, I could more carefully glean information from a troubling historical record. The story of the map as a tool of Urban Renewal can then become part of the story ‘countermaps’ can tell.
As our data set began to take shape, I started to see how problematic records contain stories of the past that do make themselves readily apparent. These stories must be teased out by highlighting and recontextualizing some aspect of the data. An example of this can be found in the map above by looking at how vacancy was used as a tool of erasure. For most of the vacant properties there is minimal information beyond the parcel owner. Once determined to be vacant, the property loses its street address, thus breaking one of the paths for building an historical. For many of the properties in Linnentown it was possible to use data from the 1940 census to extend Linnentown’s history by linking people based on address. For vacant properties this link is ruptured. While erasures of the past can involve omission or exclusion, erasure can also involve obscuring the connections that allow us to accurately reconstruct historical narratives.
While there were challenges bringing the 1940 Census together with our data set, bringing these historical records together on the same map provided opportunities to uncover aspects of Linnentown’s history that no single historical record could show. One of the most striking examples of this involved shifts in homeownership between 1940 and 1960 in Linnentown. By visualizing owners/renters for these two datasets it was possible to see a rapid increase in black property ownership in Linnentown between 1940 and 1960s. This finding helps to problematize the characterization of Linnentown by UGA officials as a ‘total slum’. By bringing together unconnected historical datasets the stories of the past can be illuminated in new ways.
In the end, these strategies for destabilizing historical records remain constrained by what they contain and how they can be brought into relations with other records. What continues to be missed here are stories from the people who lived this history, but whose voices and perspectives were never included in historical documents. When we spoke with some of the Linnentown residents still in Athens it became clear their lived experience was a glaring blindspot in the historical documents we had so heavily relied on. It is through community engagement with people affected by the histories we seek to make visible that these stories long left out can be heard and told.
I close this post by taking a step back to reflect on the importance of mobilizing the framework of community GIS to enable an institutional auto-critique by engaging communities affected by the practices of the institution. Community geographers have argued that it is possible to “leverage university community partnerships to facilitate access to spatial technologies, data, and analysis” (Robinson, Block, and Rees 2016). For some qualitative cartographers, the goal is to empower non-specialist communities to use GIS as a political and/or narratives tool. This project has shown me what there is an oft missing dimension to community GIS. Institutional partnerships with local communities can become part of a project that can put forth critiques of institutional practices, past and present, from within the institution. By telling stories about the past that disrupt the present and call for a better future, Community GIS has the potential to be a powerful tool for challenging Universities to recognize and address the problematic practices in their past and present.
Robinson JA, Block D and Rees A (2016) Community Geography: Addressing Barriers in Public Participation GIS. The Cartographic Journal 54(1): 5–13. DOI: 10.1080/00087041.2016.1244322.
By Jerry Shannon
Related posts: Aidan's reflection | Katrina's reflection
Many southern universities have faced increased calls to deal with complicated histories of racial exclusion. At the University of Georgia, pressure for the institution to explicitly address the historical legacies of slavery was increased by the 2015 discovery of 105 remains near Baldwin Hall on campus, unearthed during construction of a building expansion. Subsequent testing revealed that many of these individuals had African ancestry, and given the historical period of use for the adjacent city cemetery, this implied that most were likely enslaved. These bodies were reinterred by the university at a nearby active cemetery, but without consultation with leaders from the local African-American community, which caused further tension.
In response, the university has made efforts to acknowledge its historical complicity with enslavement, creating a memorial that honors those buried at the Baldwin Hall site and sponsoring two related research initiatives. The first resulted in the online Athens Layers of Time portal, which provides materials about the Baldwin Hall burials specifically and the historical expansion of campus. The second, currently ongoing, is examining the role of enslaved people in the university’s life from its founding through 1865. UGA also joined the Universities Studying Slavery consortium in December 2019. Both efforts are the result of advocacy by community members and faculty for the university to address historical legacies of enslavement.
Still, the university’s relationship with the local African-American community remains fraught. Only 7.5% of undergraduates and 5% of faculty identify as African-American, while nearly half of service and maintenance staff do. The numbers for student and faculty are far below rates in Clarke County (29%) and Georgia (32%). Specifically, there are rising concerns that new student housing is displacing low-income African-American residents, raising property taxes and putting upward pressure on rents.
The Linnentown Project is one local effort to call attention to these issues. It focuses on the Linnentown neighborhood, a historically black area just west of campus that was demolished in the early 1960s to make space for new student dormitories.Residents of this neighborhood--many of whom were home owners--were most often forced out through the use of condemnation findings and eminent domain. Through public forums and public protests, residents have told the story of their forced removal from the neighborhood, advocating for compensation for financial losses, and further research around the university’s role in slavery and displacement.
Joey Carter, who has helped lead the Linnentown Project, had previously identified multiple records about this redevelopment in special collections at UGA Libraries. These included maps of the neighborhood used to plan property acquisition, correspondence from UGA administrators and legislators about the urban renewal funding used for construction, and detailed records about each property acquired. While he was able to do initial analysis of some of these data, the scanned records had more data than the group could easily enter and analyze.
This spring, students in the Community GIS course offered by Dr. Shannon sought to support this effort through digitizing and analyzing these archival records. More specifically, students in the class focused on the following tasks:
The goal of this project was to crowdsource some of the data entry aspects of this analysis as well as to build a database that could supplement residents’ existing narratives of their displacement. As former resident Hattie Whitehead noted at the beginning of the project, Linnentown was for decades a neighborhood that existed primarily in the memories of those who lived there. By putting it literally “on the map,” our class aimed to provide materials that preserved those memories and provide visual representations that could be used for future education and activism. To adapt Baudrillard’s famous quote, our mapping helped “engender” the territory of Linnentown--giving physical representation to an already existing social reality.
This was, of course, an especially challenging semester for all university classes. In addition to the already existing challenges of coordinating this work among a class of 18 students, we spent a full third of the semester communicating only digitally through Zoom and online discussion boards. Digitizing records for neighborhoods and streets that no longer exist was also a challenging task for the class.
Two graduate students in this course--Aidan and Katrina--have written blog posts about their experiences in the course. In final reflections, other students were clearly impacted by learning about this history and being part of the larger project. Many students have lived in the dorms built on this land, which made it especially personal, and talking with former residents about their experience gave life to the archival data they had been working with. Overall, the goal of our work as a class was to make this chapter of the university’s complicated history more legible and help amplify the experiences and perspectives of Linnentown residents. We hope to further refine these records in the future in coordination with the Linnentown Project.
Jerry Shannon is an Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia in the Departments of Geography and Financial Planning, Housing, & Consumer Economics. He is the director of the Community Mapping Lab.
By Jenny Gallucci
[Note: This was Jenny's second time working as a CURO student in the lab. In her first fellowship, she assisted in collecting data on gentrification and housing displacement in Athens' Hancock neighborhood.]
Fall semester 2019 concluded my second and final experience with CURO, a program providing undergraduate students with funded independent research opportunities, at UGA. This time around with CURO, my work focused on creating a large print map of agencies offering services for those experiencing homelessness that would hang on the wall at the Sparrow’s Nest, an agency providing help to those experiencing housing transition. An online map of these services was created in Dr. Shannon’s Community GIS course in the spring and is currently accessible via the Sparrow’s Nest website . Jamie Scott, the director of Sparrow’s Nest, expressed there was a need for a print map for those who are not computer literate.
I re-created a map of services using data collected by Dr. Shannon’s students, complete with bus routes, parks, rivers, and roads. I then used PowerPoint to arrange the map and other elements such as agency information and contextual information into a printable 36 x 24 in. poster. I largely based the format of my poster off a downloadable map of services on United Way’s website, created by another CML student in years past, although my final product ended up deviating from that template a bit.
One thing that CURO has repeatedly illustrated to me is that it takes a village; reflecting on this semester, I reached out to and collaborated with five people from completely different offices/walks of life to get this map done. I contacted Daniel Sizemore at the ACC Park Planning office to get the parks data set, visited Meagan Duever in the UGA map library several times to solve some GIS issues that came up, and asked Adam Salway, who now works for Wesley Church, for some details about how he made his map, which I followed as a template. I of course also collaborated with Jamie Scott of Sparrow’s Nest and Dr. Shannon to create a cohesive final product. I’ve really come to understand the importance of knowing who to reach out to and not being afraid to ask for help when you need it. The connections I’ve made through internships and classes during my time at UGA really benefited me as I was conducting independent research. CURO has really taught me how to effectively troubleshoot my problems and tackle them in the most effective way, which is without a doubt going to be a skill that I’m going to take with me into any career I chose to enter.
This semester’s CURO project proved to be different than my first project technically; the Sparrow’s Nest project was largely a cartography project, unlike my project last year, which was less primarily focused on aesthetics and more a mix of transcription and qualitative data collection in addition to map-making. Through my project, I started to learn some more cartography basics and programs best suited for cartographical work. I have found that CURO opens doors for me—I wasn’t really aware of the ways geographers use Adobe Illustrator to make high quality maps and the extent of the world of cartography. Both years, CURO has allowed me to explore the intersection of GIS and community, showed me the potential of what’s possible, and reminded me of just how much I have left to learn. I’m so appreciative of everyone that has helped me on the journey through these projects and the unique experience CURO has been.
Download a PDF of the map Jenny made
By Jerry Shannon
This spring marks the fifth anniversary of the Community Mapping Lab. This lab has changed a lot during this time. In the first years, we held regular meetings--primarily with graduate students--to discuss readings and share thoughts about community engaged geographic research. These meetings have become less frequent over time, but undergraduate involvement in the lab has increased considerably, primarily through support from UGA's Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO), the Georgia Initiative for Community Housing (GICH), and the Community GIS course. CML has partnered with twenty-five organizations, including local community groups, non-profits, and local government. We've dipped our toes in the water of a few training sessions, including an upcoming training at the Integrative Convervation Conference--watch this page for more details. Because we're a diverse group with a wide range of interests and backgrounds, we started this blog just over a year ago as a forum for a collective conversation about doing community engaged work. In short, we've moved from early exploratory conversations to more structured opportunities for work with a wide range of partners.
More specifically, last fall three CURO students partnered with community organizations around a range of issues:
This spring, Community GIS students will be partnering with the Linnentown Project, which is telling the story of an African-American community near the UGA campus that was demolished in the early 1960s to make space for student housing. Working with archival documents and oral histories, we're hoping to build an archive of materials that tell the story of this neighborhood and speak to current issues around displacement and the legacy of racial discrimination here in Athens.
As the lab continues to grow, I'm hoping we will be able to create a local advisory group of community members that can provide input on our work, and I'd also like to diversify the voices on this blog to include partners outside UGA. Our work here also informs work I'm doing nationally to develop community geography as a subdiscipline, including the formation of a national group, future meetings like #commgeog19, and a special issue of the academic journal GeoJournal. Five years is a great achievement, but in many ways, it feels like we're just now getting started.
I’ve spent the past year working for a unit on campus that connects university resources to rural communities throughout the state. Overall, the work is enjoyable, refreshing, and informative. I get to apply GIS skills to a range of projects for organizations in small towns on issues they’ve identified as important but lack the resources to complete. One of my latest projects was analyzing crime data in Pierpoint, Georgia (editors note: Pierpoint, GA is a pseudonym). The project began as a local economic development tool to show that in fact, this community was not a place with significant numbers of violent crime, but in the end it altered the policing routes. This unanticipated uptake of my analysis has left me wrestling with what success might look like using GIS to map crimes? And what is failure? In this blog post, I share some of my reflections from the experience and outline some of the challenges unique to doing this work in rural communities.
Given the well-documented connections among race, crime, policing, and GIS, this project made me a little nervous from the start, however, policing was not the impetus for the project. Pierpoint’s motivation for the project was that a business informed city leaders the town’s ‘high crime rate’ was among the reasons they didn’t locate to their community. In Pierpoint, negative web-based crime ratings (from places like Trulia or Area Vibes) were leading businesses to seek other areas entirely and having real economic implications. Debunking one of these online ‘sources’ for crime analysis was an exciting proposition to me.
Trulia's crime 'hot spots' in Athens, GA, home of the Community Mapping Lab
According to one website, Pierpoint was a place of violent crime, with murder rates more than double the state of Georgia and the national average. Surprising to me, the rate was accurate, but there was a small numbers problem: the town had two murders in the past three years. This points to a broader issue, namely that data analysis in rural communities has multiple challenges not present in large metros. One, census data is ill suited for small areas. The county has less than 20 census tracts. The municipality, my focus, consists of only five census tracts--three of which extend beyond the jurisdictional boundary. And, most of the ACS demographic data at the neighborhood level has 10-30 percent margins of error, meaning calculating rates or doing any sort of areal interpolation is fraught with accuracy issues.
Second, small rural communities are short staffed and under-resourced following decades of state funding roll backs and market-based municipal governance. When a project like this comes from local leaders, a new task is heaped on an already overworked employee who must pull together three years of data for a project they know little about. This means that data quality, communication, and feedback are often inconsistent.
Lastly, these projects are full of competing power relations to work through. As the ‘technical expert’ from the land grant university, I noticed employees often deferred to me even when I tried to glean insight from their local expertise and sought their feedback on drafts of the report. At the same time, I am not an autonomous actor. My grad student assistantship hinges on completing projects identified by the communities I work with.
In the end, I provided a report to the police department showing the spatial trends of crime types over the past three years. I found out a few months after I submitted the report that the department made changes to their officers’ routes as a result of my analysis. This was not a suggestion I made or the initial motivation for the project. Yet, my work informed this decision. In this way, I failed to one, consider the power of maps and visualizations once they are floating around in public; and two, account for the existing biases and assumptions members of the community might bring to the data I shared.
The project began as a local economic development tool to show that in fact, Pierpoint was not a place with significant numbers of violent crime, but in the end it was simply used as a way to better target law enforcement efforts, perhaps putting already vulnerable communities at further risk. In other words, the impetus to demonstrate that Pierpoint was not a place of violent crime potentially added to the structural violence marginalized groups face. In this way, counter mapping efforts such as Million Dollar Blocks offer an important dimension to crime analysis.
My experience in Pierpoint has challenged me to find ways to build stronger relationships with the communities before I hand over data and consider a project complete. I will also use more caution when I present to community groups in future projects. In a more general sense, I’m curious about how I can meet community-driven project goals but also enfuse critical perspectives, and in particular, how I can better teach critical cartography ‘on the fly’. I welcome feedback from others engaged in similar work and wrestling with similar questions.
Taylor Hafley is a PhD Student in the Department of Geography at the University of Georgia.
My 15 minutes of fame happened a couple of years ago, courtesy of a tweeted map of all the Waffle House locations in the path of the 2017 total eclipse. It took maybe 45 minutes to put together, but has since gotten over 150,000 views. I was interviewed about it by CNN and the Chronicle of Higher Education, and CBS almost sent a film crew down to Athens. One local radio station played the University of Georgia fight song at the end of our interview. It was surreal.
It’s a silly map. But in a just-published article with Dr. Kyle Walker at Texas Christian University, the two of us dug into what makes maps like this one go viral. In addition to developing the extremely useful tidycensus package for R, Kyle used Mapbox to create this interactive dot density map of educational attainment. In this article, published in the Professional Geographer (full text here), we analyzed reactions to the Waffle House and educational attainment maps to better understand the factors that make a viral map. Here’s our argument in brief.
First, drawing from work in communication studies, we write about maps as a form of phatic communication, a form of small talk that may seem inconsequential but that builds connection and affirms certain social identities. Watching particular memes circulate through social media is another example of phatic communication, as each share or retweet affirms a shared experience or identification with particular ideological views (see Anthony Robinson’s excellent recent article for more on the latter point). In this sense, maps can be another “Which Harry Potter Character Are You?” quiz, but about space.
Second, we noted the disjunction between the ways academics and the broader public use maps. While the former often focus on the big picture and general patterns, reactions to our maps showed how non-academic readers used maps to place themselves--to find the closest Waffle House for the eclipse, for example, or to understand the educational profile of their specific neighborhoods. These readers used maps as technologies that named the landscape and told them where they were and where they wanted to be.
This is true not just in a utilitarian sense--maps are more than a way to get from point A to point B. Rather, the emotional reactions to our maps demonstrated the personal connection readers made to the stories each map told. The Waffle House map, for example, converted a cosmic event into a celebration and reaffirmation of southern identity by connecting it to this distinctively Southern chain. In this sense, it’s similar to the “Boo y’all” signs that show up around my Southern college town each October, ones that similarly “localize” Halloween. In contrast, Kyle’s educational attainment map received critical responses focused either on what readers saw as an overvaluing of higher education or on the literal accuracy of the map itself. In both cases, readers reacted to the ways these maps placed them and their identified community.
To slightly adapt Haraway’s famous phrase, these maps were read from somewhere. Maps go viral when they provide readers a way to name the world and themselves in emotionally resonant ways. Depending on context, reactions to viral maps can vary from celebration to anger, from a celebration of shared experience and identity to a rejection of implied judgment and social differentiation.
Decades of research in critical cartography provide examples of the power of maps to name the world. But, I would argue, the rapid rise of social media and online mapping alters the dynamics of this process. Maps can circulate like memes, and online mapping tools like the educational attainment map provide interactive and easily shared ways to craft spatial narratives. For aspiring viral cartographers (especially those of the critical bent), the trick is creating visualizations that facilitate the process of identification but also reframe pressing social problems--for example, improving access to housing and health care or mitigating the drivers of climate change--in unexpected ways. Maps like these don’t focus on the 30,000 foot view. Rather they provide ways for readers to see their ground level reality in a new context, creating moments of recognition and also reorientation.
I’ve thought about viral cartography primarily in work with the Georgia Initiative for Community Housing, where I’ve had the opportunity to work with groups throughout the state on community housing assessment. In creating tools to visualize the data collected by housing teams in those communities, I and my collaborators have been thinking about the ways we can contextualize and analyze those data in constructive and equitable ways. Taylor Shelton’s work in this vein with the city of Lexington has gotten some well-deserved attention, and this semester I’m using a similar approach working with an undergraduate to identify the role of rural landlords in shaping local housing conditions. The goal is to move beyond a broken windows framing, which tends to stigmatize marginalized communities, to something more structurally focused: policies and programs that are supportive and inclusive rather than punitive. This isn’t viral cartography, but there’s a similar need for mapping methods that support both recognition and reorientation. For local housing teams, this is their community and their data, but we’re working to build a process that helps them see both in new ways.
My waffle house map may be history, but research into viral cartography is still just getting started. As Kyle and I wrote at the end of our article, “As geographers develop ways to connect with broader publics over pressing issues such as racial segregation and climate change, developing tools and approaches for viral cartography could provide an effective (and affective) pathway to build trust, forge new partnerships, and foster productive conversations.”
Jerry Shannon is an Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia in the Departments of Geography and Financial Planning, Housing, & Consumer Economics. He is the director of the Community Mapping Lab.
Taylor Hafley, Jerry Shannon, Aileen Nicolas, and Jon Hallemeier
In a controversially entitled NYT op-ed, Maps Don’t Lie, Charles Blow argues President Donald Trump has no regard for the truth. Blow frames his argument around ‘sharpie-gate’--a reference to the President’s marker-modified map of Hurricane Dorian’s path--and places his trust in maps, writing “because of [the] unyielding commitment to accuracy, I believe cartography enjoys an enviable position of credibility and confidence among the people who see it. If you see it mapped, you believe.”
We certainly appreciate NYT’s op-ed page highlighting the value of geography and mapmaking, but as a group committed to investigating the hidden assumptions behind maps, Blow’s argument gives us pause. By anchoring his sharpie-gate critique on cartographers’ commitment to ‘accuracy’ and ‘precision,’ Blow situates his argument on shaky ground. Maps may be factual, but they can also certainly deceive us--no sharpie required.
We commend Blow for defending cartographers so strongly, but as Mark Monmonier recently restated, maps lie, and they do so regularly. Below, we identify three reasons to hold back from the “maps don’t lie” defense.
Mutilated maps can be good
Blow says he found the “mutilated map...just too much’, arguing that mapmaking has a long commitment to factual accuracy and that the work of cartographers should not be defiled. This puts professionally-created maps on too high a pedestal - maps can and sometimes should be "mutilated." For example, the same sharpie pen might be wielded by a meteorologist from the National Weather Service to communicate real-time changes to weather models. Or, in another context, a community member might "mutilate" a map created by cartographers because it is missing critical pieces known only by locals. Indeed, maps are not merely visualized facts. Rather, they present robust narratives about the world and the processes that shape it. These stories work in part due to mutual trust in the maps and mapmakers. As the Floating Sheep collective argued, sometimes “Pretty maps are better than ugly maps, but ugly maps do in a pinch.”
Beautiful maps can mislead
Second, maps can be accurate, marker-free, and enable a person to tell the story of their choosing. For example, Trump’s fascination with electoral college maps has been well documented. One hangs in the West Wing and according to the Washington Post, Trump was handing out copies of the 2016 electoral college map several months into his presidency, saying his election was ‘redder than an electoral victory had ever been.’ Yet the same data can look quite different when controlling for population, as Kenneth Field’s gallery of election maps demonstrates. The president’s favorite map doesn’t lie outrightly, but it certainly provides a misleading view of the political landscape.
Maps tell stories that are selective
Third, maps provide partial facts and shape public understanding through a cartography of omission. Maps contribute to larger, simplified narratives which have real-world consequences. For example, maps of crime or school rankings on real estate website may shape homebuyers’ decisions. Yet these maps leave out a long history of policies from redlining to zoning that have created and maintained a deeply segregated landscape, and in doing so contribute to the reproduction of those same socioeconomic divisions.
Conversely, maps are at the same time instrumental in challenging these histories and omissions. For example, San Francisco’s Anti-Eviction Mapping Project or this map of white collar crime zones show how maps can provide counternarratives that shape public conversations about neighborhood identity. The point isn’t to make a map that tells the whole story, but a map that tells the right one. What is the right story, we might ask? Therein lies the issue, as this is a political and ethical question, not an empirical one.
We applaud the painstaking work of meteorologists who create maps that save lives, and we agree that maps should strive for factual accuracy. Even so, every map’s story is always partial, involving questions such as how to demarcate uncertainty and risk. A sharpie may even sometimes be needed. In this light, the president’s Alabama hurricane may provide a lesson on how to read maps. Rather than decrying the mutilation of ‘truthful’ maps, we should look at all maps with a critical eye, seeking to understand the stories they tell and obscure.
A few weeks ago, I and roughly 8,000 other geographers attended the annual American Association of Geographers (AAG) meeting in Washington, D.C. While it can be exhausting--AAG has dozens of sessions going on at any given time--these meetings are a great chance to see friends and colleagues and meet new folks whose work I’ve only read or who I’ve only met online. (Despite the platform’s very real problems, I personally have benefited a lot from participating in #academictwitter).
One moment that stuck out: I was talking with Peter Johnson, a faculty member at the University of Waterloo, a morning reception hosted by the Digital Geographies Specialty Group. Peter does great work with open data and governance. For example, here’s one of his recent articles on the costs of open data, including the ways it subsidizes private enterprise and corporate influence on policy. Over the last decade, there’s been a strong push for open data initiatives across multiple levels, from cities up through international bodies such as the UN, which makes this work particularly salient.
Companies such as ESRI and Socrata have created platforms for hosting and sharing these datasets, and the rhetoric around these tools emphasizes transparency and community engagement. Socrata’s page, for example, references a goal of “fully connected communities,” while ESRI touts its “two way engagement platform.” In my classes, I’m particularly fond of letting students analyze NYCOpenData’s records of yellow cab taxi trips, including more than 100 million trips with details down to the tip given for each one.
Peter’s work, along with many others including Renee Sieber, Muki Haklay, Rina Ghose, Taylor Shelton, and Rob Kitchin, has examined how these projects play out on the ground, focusing on whether they live up to claims of citizen engagement and empowerment. As one might expect, results have been mixed. The people most likely to use these data are the ones with the education, training, and expertise to do so--a fairly select group. In my Community GIS class, I use this article on Data Driven Detroit as one example of this dynamic, where open data records on housing only strengthened investors’ ability to buy up vacant property.
The alternative model presented in that article is one I’ve been thinking through as well, community-based projects that facilitate residents’ ability to interact with and make meaning from public data. I asked Peter about this dynamic in our conversation, and he mentioned a project conducted by the Canadian government where trained staff would work with remote rural and indigenous communities, helping them interpret census and other government data and understand their relevance to local concerns. In recent years, the Canadian government has increased the online availability of these data, but it has cut the number of trained staff who can work with local communities. In effect, open data portals replaced these staff, providing more “access” to data but curtailing the work needed to understand and interpret it.
Recent developments in both open source and proprietary software have provided a number of tools for community-based data collection and open data for government records. But, as Alex Orenstein said at our recent community geography workshop, you also need to “check yourself before you tech yourself.” These platforms provide interfaces for accessing and visualizing these data, but they cannot fully replace the important work of helping community members articulate how the data may (or may not) match their own experience.
I’ve been thinking about this in light of my now years-long work with Georgia communities through the Georgia Initiative for Community Housing. Along with my colleague Kim Skobba, I have been helping develop a toolkit for community-based housing assessments, one that uses free and open source software such as OpenDataKit and RStudio’s Shiny platform. These technological tools make it possible for even small rural communities to collect and map out detailed data on individual housing conditions, identifying common issues and facilitating outreach to specific property owners. At the same time, communities struggle with what to do with these data once it’s collected beyond simply noting patterns on the map. Similar to Taylor Shelton’s work in Lexington, I’ve been thinking about ways to work with communities to visualize drivers of problems identified through these data. By talking about landlords, zoning, and other historical factors, we can beging to talk about the problematic history of blight as a metric and its ramifications for community development.
This isn’t work that can be solved by a platform or visualization software. It involves time and “soft skills”--listening, thinking, reading, and many conversations, before the work of data collection even gets started. Community members themselves often want to jump right into the technology, and so it is sometimes difficult to communicate the need to move more deliberately. This is hard labor, but as folks working in public participatory GIS (PPGIS) have long emphasized, it’s crucial to fostering sustainable, just change in communities.
Jerry Shannon is an Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia in the Departments of Geography and Financial Planning, Housing, & Consumer Economics. He is the director of the Community Mapping Lab.