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The Age of Mapping

By David J. Bodenhamer,David J. Bodenhamer Executive Director, The Polis Center

This is a re-post of the post that originally appeared on Polis Center’s Blog on April 27, 2012

Cartographer Dennis Wood once noted that maps “point to a world we might know,” as well as to a world we might have once known. It is part of the fascination and power of maps.  And, Wood argues, we live in an age of maps: more than 99.9 percent of all maps that have ever existed were made within the past 100 years. They have become so commonplace that we scarcely notice them: we see them continually on our mobile devices, on weather forecasts, or when we search for a business on Google or Bing, which asks whether we want directions to it. It is also increasingly easy to make maps.  For simple maps, we can use a variety of Web-based mapping tools or we can make quite complex maps with powerful software, such as we use at Polis.

But we often attribute to maps an objectivity they in fact do not have.  All maps represent reality, but whose reality do they represent?  Much of the data we map in fact reflects official efforts to keep track of events or conditions, and this information is important to good government. We need to know where potholes exist or where crime occurs or where schools and clinics exist.  But crime maps, to use one example, don’t tell us much, if anything, about whether residents perceive their neighborhood as safe.  A map of clinics and churches and schools doesn’t reveal whether the assets of an area in fact serve the needs of residents. Map-making means paying attention only to the thing being mapped.  This information may be essential but usually it isn’t sufficient to understand our world fully because the places where we live exist also in memories and perceptions and values that cannot easily be counted or even located with the precision demanded by the map’s symbology.

At Polis we work with maps every day, and we have developed the means by which people can create their own maps for their own purposes, as, for instance, in SAVI, the comprehensive community information system we manage. But we are aware that making maps from official data is not enough, so we are working on ways to allow anyone to add information that moves us beyond numbers to a more complete understanding of our communities.  Often called neogeography, this approach invites volunteered or user-generated information as a way of enhancing our understanding of places and events.  At times, this information may be more accurate and even more timely than official data, such as when cell phone reports and pictures of flooding in the Ninth Ward during Hurricane Katrina far outpaced the data sent by first responders.  We also are considering how to include this volunteered information in our work with federal and state emergency managers.  And we are exploring how to create dynamic “deep maps” that embody all the ways we know a place and that will let us see our communities in all their rich diversity and not simply as we capture them in our official records.  In all these ways, we are working to develop the information and collaborations that, in faithfulness to our word mark, help us “bring things into perspective.”

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