Saturday, March 8, 2014

Digital Empathy: How Modern Maps Are Charting A Personal Cartography

Source: Historypin
When most people think about maps, they think of social studies worksheets or antique dealers. They might also remember the avatar on their Waze app or the time they got lost in Amish country.

In truth, maps are emblematic of mankind. The act of mapping is about trying to locate oneself within a geography of space and emotion. The human impulse to pinpoint "place" is about giving order to a complex topography of physicality and personality.

Today, easy access to data and technology has opened a door to a new host of personal map renderings. Interactive, customizable tools allow individuals to create a visualization of his or her own depiction. For this reason, maps are the new meme, more prolific than ever.

In fact, the Wired article, "Uncharted territory: amateur cartographers fight to put their communities on the map," highlights a crowdsourced project called OpenStreetMap that aims to compete with Google's "authoritarian" "agenda" by putting the power of place back in the hands of local inhabitants.

Source: Mapline

Source: Historypin
One of our favorite initiatives is Historypin. This site (and mobile app) overlays historical photos on top of contemporary maps. Users can explore how their home town looked in past centuries, or they can compare snapshots of a same location across time. With searchable archives by both setting and time, students can comb through the existing collection or upload their own contributions.

Source: Stately
For designers and programmers, another clever tool is Stately. Stately is a symbol font. A simple keystroke of an uppercase or lowercase letter generates each state on the screen, sized and positioned perfectly within a scaled map of the United States. As a font, the states can be sized and colored to meet any specification. This ease and flexibility are perfect for rendering infographics, and they also invite possibilities for shaded regions of colonial development or visualized statistics from the Census.

Another data-rich resource is Mapline, formerly known as This tool allows anyone to build a map from Microsoft Excel spreadsheet data. Major companies use Mapline to visualize store locations on their web pages. Journalists build heat maps of trends and figures. Political scientists drill down on electoral results and polling statistics. For their part, students can take advantage of our favorite reference series, The Almanac Of American Life, to chart a changing America.

Source: Mapline
In related news, at this week's SXSWedu 2014 conference, tucked away in a corner of the Austin Convention Center, was an intriguing talk intended for teachers rather than edtech entrepreneurs. The presentation, "Learning With Digital And Participatory Maps," featured a panel of Guiliana Cucinelli, Claudia Silva, Debora Lui, and Andrew Lombana-Bermudez, who narrated the process of their scholarly research. Nestled within their lectures were a few gems of insight about the role that cartography plays in helping humans define themselves amid a chaotic world. Some takeaways were:

  • Personal geography explores memories, nostaligia, and playfulness
  • Active mapping brings out cultural identity through shared “third spaces”
  • Locative stories enhance connections to neighborhoods by archiving a community's history
  • Maps are not a product, a visual artifact, or a fixed entity to read for information -- they are a representation of truth as corrective of past injustices
  • Participatory maps engage real-world challenges and offer experiential, hands-on learning 
  • The study of geography fosters relational literacies, multimodal design, and critical thinking
  • Maps for centuries were top-down creations, made by the elite and pushed to the populace -- digital maps now subvert this hierarchy
Source: Stately

The tools featured below are incredibly useful for this kind of hands-on, experiential mapping. All of these applications tap into emerging digital technologies. Some of them involve a bit of programming know-how, while others are user-friendly smartphone apps:

Source: Logos of referenced sites

For other ideas on the new nature of mapping, check out:

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