some thoughts on recently charted waters

So they tell me that the end of the year is a time for reflection. Reflecting on my four months of work thusfar at Urbanscale, I’m struck by the number of times I’ve rethought the sort of work I’ve been doing for years. Of course, it’s GIS and cartography, but not exactly what I would call That To Which I’ve Grown Accustomed.

work in progress (photo by Adam Greenfield; click image for source)

On Format
The most obvious (so we’ll get it out of the way quickly) difference between what I’ve done and what I’m doing is its ultimate format. These are not static cartographic images. These are not even the sort of dynamic, but limited, animated maps I’ve done on occasion before. While they are culled, curated, and designed, these are geographic information systems in their own right. Users are not just able to interact with the map; they must be able to query, analyze, and make use of the data (plural). The conceptual and methodological implications of this directive for my work flow, approach, and techniques really can’t be overstated. 

Because I’m designing more than my own investigation, because I’m designing for others’ investigations, there is no room for the messiness of artistic license or the idiosyncrasies of personal design processes. (By “artistic license” I am talking about the things we all do with our datasets, the analysis shortcuts that we’ve developed and that lead to solid results but may not constitute the sort of rigor that enables easy replicability.) For my component of Urbanscale’s projects, “interactivity” means that I’m designing more than a map interface, more than the ability to pan and zoom, more than the representation of information. It means that I am spending most of my energy designing Frankenstein datasets, stitched together from disparate sources, into something instrumental, something spatial that can functionally interact -- with users, with the city, and while enabling further interaction between the two. (Forgive me if I sound like an architect.)


meetingish (photo by Adam Greenfield; click image for source)

On Collaboration
Clearly, I can’t do this alone. While I collaborate on most, if not all, of my projects, there has always been a pretty clear-cut understanding of what portions of a project were my responsibility. Further, my results were always required to be “finished” before they went to someone else. These days, there is a daily (sometimes three or four times per day) need for handing off mid-process material. The back-and-forth between myself and JD (Urbanscale’s CTO and Developer Extraordinaire) has become a two-way street of datasets, databases, and geometries. Over the past several weeks, we’ve grown to identify where the fuzzy line between our skillsets might lie. Still that line remains fuzzy and for good reason: we enjoy an interesting overlap of capability wherein we can accomplish some of the same tasks through decidedly different avenues. The trick in our constant negotiation (toward a better product) is the process by which we are learning whose tools create cleaner, more elegant, methods. At the risk of sounding like even more of a data dork than usual, I have to admit that it’s insanely fun.

What I didn’t see coming with this collaboration is the need to flex more GIS-related muscle than I have in years. Because more is possible, more data changes hands than I could’ve predicted. More geometric analysis is needed on my part than in any set of previous work in order to enable his programming, as we realize that spatial questions he could crunch in code are more easily solved with GIS. In return, his ability to program more often creates that Aha! moment when we realize we can now give users access to even more useful data about their city. And so on.


queried -- work in progress. (photo by Adam Greenfield; click image for source)

On Storytelling
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? As we work toward giving users access to their city through its information, the format and collaboration become absolutely necessary because, for once, it isn’t my story (as geographer, analyst, or cartographer) to tell. It’s the city’s story. It’s the user’s Choose Your Own Adventure story to decide.

Most of my maps have been narrative and/or argumentative. At best, I hope they tell stories -- stories of research methods and conclusions, stories of city systems, stories of situations past and present. Some are expository. Some advocate. Some try to work toward intervention. Still, they are stories of my determination, decision, and design. Their data are analyzed by me toward a story I hope to tell. Their graphics are based on the communication of that story.

The most challenging and rewarding part of this learning curve has been adjusting my thinking away from a story I might want to tell. My want to editorialize through cartography must be shushed in favor of examining what cartography might do to democratize urban information, in favor of interpreting a dataset for any and all of its uses rather than my immediate use, in favor of showing the situation on the ground so that it might be inhabited, and in favor of creating a tool that enhances the experience of urban space rather than replacing it.

In this way, what I’m doing and learning at Urbanscale is not a step away from argument or advocacy through mapping. Far from it, in fact. My work, now more than ever, is advocating for a mutually beneficial and more transparent relationship between cities and their citizens. And I’m reconfirming, in light of current events and in light of my own learning, that considering the means toward mediating and enabling that relationship -- whether those means are tools or processes or spaces -- might just be what it is to consider living together, living in cities. In addition to the development of a citizenry and the development of a city, we must consider the development of their interaction. We’re responsible for all three elements, before we can rely on each other and say, “Here. Here is your city. Do with it what you will.”