By Phillip Jones
Student in Community GIS, Spring 2022
Imagine you were tasked with creating a map of your hometown. How would you go about doing this? You may start with popular roads, neighborhoods, and parks. Then, you may throw in some popular landmarks like the city hall, schools, and libraries. This may seem like a straightforward and fact-oriented task. However, you can’t possibly map everything in the town, as this would be overwhelming for the reader and impossible for you do to by memory. You may find yourself choosing landmarks that are most important to you. You may also find that the overall impression of your map reflects your perception of your hometown. The map may be dreary or dull if that is your perception of the town, or it may be brightly lit and exciting if you have fond memories of your childhood.
Maps often give the impression of being concrete and factually correct. However, like any other form of media, they are narratives being proposed by their authors. In our Community GIS course, we have been introduced to theoretical frameworks that help us question the intention behind a map: Who created this map? Who is the intended audience? What biases may the author be influenced by? What narrative does this media promote? What voices are missing from this map? Ultimately, we have learned to be wary of the predominant narrative of maps, as they may be reflective of the loudest and most powerful.
Most recently in our Community GIS course, we have finished a project about the Linnentown neighborhood in Athens, Georgia. Linnentown was a Black neighborhood along Baxter Street that was destroyed by UGA and the City of Athens in the 1960s through a federal Urban Renewal grant. All houses in the urban renewal area were torn down and all residents were displaced. In their place, UGA built three large dormitories and a parking lot to house freshman UGA students. Through their power, the city and the university characterized the neighborhood as run down and a “slum” to justify displacing a proud and close-knit Black community.
Because of the efforts of first descendants of Linnentown and organizations such as the Linnentown Project, the neighborhood’s story has been told, and steps have been made to acknowledge the harms done and provide reparations. To support their efforts, the Spring 2022 UGA Community GIS class has created an ArcGIS Storymap to support the Linnentown Project and first descendants of the neighborhood to bring memories of the neighborhood to life. The Storymap synthesizes first-hand accounts from first descendants Ms. Hattie Whitehead and Mr. Bobby Crook, archived records from the UGA Special Collections Library, and research by UGA professors to tell the story of the Linnentown community, its erasure, and the resistance of its residents to their removal. For example, through a guided video tour, Ms. Whitehead and Mr. Crook share their memories of the neighborhood, which is a sharp juxtaposition from what the area looks like today. It also the process of UGA acquiring properties in the area, aerial imagery displaying the destruction and replacement of the Linnentown community, and evidence of the resident’s resistance to being displaced. The Storymap culminates with a timeline of advocates’ efforts to demand redress and resources on how to become involved.
In Community GIS, we have learned that there is no one correct way to describe an area. Instead, many perspectives can all coexist at the same time. However, the perspective of the area around Baxter and Finley Street as just freshman dorms is incomplete and is an injustice to the community of people in Linnentown that were displaced from this area. Using digital storytelling technology, we can share memories, identify important landmarks, and explain how Athens and UGA used their institutional power to transform these areas at the expense of the Linnentown community. Doing so will not bring back what was lost, but this tragic history must be exposed. It is never too late to hold institutions and people to account for their actions, as doing so will communicate that the unjust destruction of people’s homes is unacceptable and prevent it from happening again in the future.
By Bryant Beall
Student in Community GIS, Spring 2022
I am currently taking a class called Community GIS. Community GIS teaches how GIS is used to research by local agencies, and community groups. In Community GIS we have mainly focused on a small former community in Athens called Linnentown. I always really enjoy learning more about local history because it can help explain why things the way they are today. History is even more interesting to me when it involves people or organizations that I know of or are physically close to. This is partly why I have found our study of Linnentown to be so encapsulating.
Linnentown was a historically black neighborhood off of Baxter Street near the campus. In the 1960’s Linnentown was demolished by the University of Georgia so that they could build the dorms. The residents of Linnentown were forced to leave their homes and community as the University slowly acquired all plots of land through eminent domain or private sales. Residents were forced to leave their communities that they had lived with and trusted some for generations.
In class one of our required readings was from a book titled Giving Voice to Linnentown. This was a story of what it was like to live in Linnentown from the point of view of a former resident Hattie Thomas Whitehead. This personal account struck me hard because it shows the fears and experiences that someone had when they were told they have to leave their community. She tells a story that the university had bought the land that their rented house was on so they bought a different Linnentown plot and built a house on it. The city approved the construction and said they would add plumbing to the house, but they never did. Soon after, the rest of Linnentown was acquired by the University, even the new house. The city knew that this land would soon be owned by the university, so that raises the question. Why did the city approve of this construction and waste this families time and money when they knew the whole time that it would soon be university property?
After learning about this story I could not help but feel shameful about the school that I love. I love this city and I love this school but it makes me feel very sad to think about some of the extreme wrong doings done that they are responsible for. I wish that the University of Georgia would acknowledge what happened and issue an apology or do anything about this situation. I know a statement could never fix what they did and the families they uprooted, but it is at least a start and better than ignoring the blame like they are currently doing. In my Community GIS class we are currently working on a story map project covering the history of Linnentown. My hope is that when people come across this story map they will not only be informed of Linnentown and the hardships its residents experienced, but that it will inspire people to speak up and raise awareness for Linnentown and other communities that underwent urban renewal projects.
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.
Imagine you are a project officer with an international development agency. You are charged with assessing the water resources, quality of access, and management-related challenges of a rural community in Eastern Tibet. You are provided substantial funds by your organization to facilitate a Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), an increasingly common method to involve community members in planning, knowledge exchange, and decision-making to address perceived local problems.
You, your development project team, and volunteers from the community work together on a map to document land and water management issues in the region. This map will be a key product for future planning with your agency and will be included in the annual report. One community mapping participant remembers seeing twice as much winter snow accumulating along the mountain ridgeline, just 10 years ago. You put it on the map. Another participant notes the declining abundance of suitable alpine grasslands for their herds of sheep and yak. You put it on the map. Every participant remembers the day they saw a dragon ascending into the sky near a glacier-fed stream. You pause. You don’t put it on the map.
For many Tibetan Drokpa, dragons are real. They’ve seen them. In the positivistic world of western science, a legacy that deeply informs our governmental, non-governmental, and academic institutions, dragons belong to folklore, to myth, and to metaphor.
As makers of participatory maps, I think we need to map the dragon. Beyond metaphor. Beyond folklore. Dragons have a place in this map because they exist in the shared cultural worlds of the map makers. Drokpa knowledge of dragons does not need a western positivist knowledge filter. It does not need to be validated by scientific objectivity, or confirmed under foreign protocols of “data” or “evidence”.
As makers of participatory maps, I think we need to challenge the space of assumptions associated with other cultural realities. Beyond fiction. Beyond myth. I think we need to interrogate the epistemological foundations of our institutions, and recognize that the edge of our maps of knowing may be the beginning (or center) of somebody else’s. After all, there are no neutral ways to represent “reality” on a map; any “reality” depicted is largely informed by ones’ intellectual and cultural predecessors.
In “Dragons, Drokpa, and a Drukpa Kargyu Master”, Diane Barker, recounts testimonies of those who have seen dragons in Tibet, positioning them alongside stunning depictions by Choegyal Rinpoche. Her article makes me pause. It forces me to re-consider the perspectives and worlds deemed legible in academia, and the constraints of the technologies we employ to help compartmentalize and categorize our complex world. Maps and map making can help us to visualize spatially complex interrelationships between social and natural forces. Relationships between water scarcity and elevation, for example, or grassland abundance and shifts in human land-use over time. Maps produced with Geographical Information Software (GIS) can take us even further and help us to measure these complex interactions by experimenting with scale-dependent variables and spatial layers. GIS, as such, is a powerfully important spatial toolset for map making. It is, however, worth recognizing both its technical and epistemological constraints.
Rundstrom (1995) suggests that “GIS technology, when applied cross-culturally, is essentially a tool for epistemological assimilation, and as such, is the newest link in a long chain of attempts by Western societies to subsume or destroy indigenous cultures”. Perhaps it is, in certain contexts. This point is considered in depth by Dr. Kenneth Bauer (2009) who notes that embracing GIS, and the worlds we create through mapping, means embracing a “mode of thinking”.
Bauer argues that “one’s knowledge of the environment lies not in the ideas in our heads but in the world that our predecessors reveal to us”. If our intellectual predecessors are international development officers, who focus on the material and societal needs of the “developing” world, not only will our maps reflect these priorities, but the edge of our maps will hold epistemologically particular metaphorical dragons. If our predecessors are geospatial scientists, many of whom focus on the scalar dynamics between social and natural systems, the edge of our maps will hold equally specific metaphorical dragons. And if our intellectual predecessors are nomadic Drokpa herders, the center of our maps might include real, non-metaphorical dragons. Then, the edge of our map, the boundaries of our known world, may hold something entirely different. Something as foreign as Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA). Something as foreign as “development”, “geospatial science” or “conservation”.
“Dru gu Choegyal Rinpoche's painting of a dragon sucking up water from a stream in Tibet, 2012” Dragons, Drokpa, and a Drukpa Kargyu Master
In the end, local Drokpa knowledge of dragons may not be commensurate with western knowledge mapping traditions; spatial frameworks that we, as academically-inclined map makers, can know and interpret: 2D, cardinal direction, cartographic maps. Unless we expand our definition of “map”, perhaps Choegyal Rinpoche’s paintings can simply remind us that the edge of our mappable world does not mean the world’s end. Certain cultural realities and worlds of knowing may simply be invisible to us, unless we choose to radically challenge our own preconceptions, trusting and supporting the deeply held realities of our community mapping partners.
Indeed, there are different worlds in each of us. There are also shared cultural worlds that invisibly govern our institutions, design our technologies of visualization (i.e. GIS), and condition what we deem “mappable”. What if, when reaching the boundaries of our own mappable knowledge, we consider how to support other worlds of knowing in our work. We must ask ourselves how we diminish other worlds of knowing by assimilation into our own. Perhaps we can recognize our privileged positionality as map-makers and practice radical epistemological reflexivity, challenging our categories of “data” and “evidence” to produce new maps. Maybe we map the dragon. As mappable as increasing annual glacial snow melt. As mappable as declining range and extent of alpine grasslands.
But can we truly re-consider and re-evaluate our core perspectives, biases, and beliefs during this process? The worlds we know and occupy? Perhaps not completely. What’s more, would such radical reflexivity necessarily dis-empower our scientific perspective in a post-truth world? I don’t think so. I think it broadens our capacity as social scientists to engage in and practice epistemological humility rather than epistemological assimilation.
In my research in Bhutan, known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, we use participatory mapping as a medium to talk about spatially-explicit, place-based deities, spirits, and divinities that reside and preside over forests, lakes, trees, rivers, and mountains. These more-than-human beings have significant bearing on the ways people make land-use decisions, and conceptualize foreign concepts of development, conservation, and natural resource management. By including dragon sightings in the Drokpa community map, without pause, without filter, our Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) will not simply pay lip service to aspirations of “participation”. Instead, the map will be a better reflection of the different worlds that reside in each participant, and more representative of the worlds inherited by our intellectual predecessors.
When the map is complete, it will inevitably be incomplete. Maps will always hold unknowns & uncertainties, assumptions and biases, at their edges. If our aim is to challenge these assumptions, we must put the dragon on the map. Beyond myth. Beyond metaphor. We must challenge who has the power to define the “we”: the voices and viewpoints at the table. A map of this type, however partial, may be a stepping stone to increasingly egalitarian representations of our respective cultural worlds: as academics, international development officers, geospatial scientists, and Drokpa herders.
David Hecht is a PhD candidate in the Integrative Conservation & Anthropology program at the University of Georgia. His research explores the intricacies of sacred landscapes and lived religion in relation to community-based conservation programs for priority bird species in Bhutan. Follow him on Twitter at @davidmhecht.