news: july 2015 | midsummer updates

We're beyond the All Star break, which means the summer is in full swing. Gearing up for the fall semester (which will bring with it a new graduate seminar on the digital restructuring of urban space), it's time for a little midsummer accounting of a few recent projects.

The proceedings and transcript of last spring's Forensic Methodology symposium have been published in Issue 03 of ARPA Journal.

Redesigned versions of my Remapping Snow maps (2013) were included in "Old Maps, New Tricks: Digital Archaeology in the 19th-Century City" on Urban Omnibus. My collaborator Gergely Baics and I discussed some of the opportunities for urban historical research afforded by new GIS methods and a growing collection of digitized historical cartographic resources.

The Office:MG team has been hard at work on projects at home and abroad on topics ranging from urban economic development to international illicit trafficking, from housing to conflict resolution. We posted an update recently on the firm's first six months on Blog:MG.

The largest of the Office:MG project updates is the launch of Campaign Mapping, which will run through the November 2016 election. The project translates (and therefore interprets) what the 2016 presidential candidates say on the trail into map-based data visualizations of the country. We produce a handful of new maps for this ongoing atlas each week, and along the way ask a series of questions about how candidates speak to and about the issues and the nation. The project website is updated roughly 6 days a week, and I promise further commentary on the project as it progresses here.

news: December 2014 | Libraries!

On Thursday, 4 December, I had the enormous pleasure, along with Marble Fairbanks and James Lima Planning and Development, of joining the Center for an Urban Future and the Architectural League of New York in presenting and discussing the design work of the last few months at a day-long event including designers, policymakers, and advocates. The day's conversational hashtag produced quite a catalog of ideas (and continues to collect the ongoing discussion), and the content of the presentations and panels will be available soon from the Architectural League.

In the meantime...

  • the League has made some previews available,
  • CityLab has a great summary of the five design projects,
  • and Next City's Brady Dale has offered up a wonderful write-up on our team's proposals.

In other news, the fall semester's classes have wrapped up, and I am once again delighted at the capacity of my students. My special topics seminar on Datascapes & the Informal City wrapped up with the student's final review yesterday, and Daniel Latorre was kind enough to give the experimental premise a generous run-down on Twitter. (This semester includes some rather substantial changes; Its first incarnation is described here.) The new course will have its own site soon.

Some Thoughts on Smarter Spending & the ACS


I am by no means the only person who has written on this, but here goes. In May, the House of Representatives passed (232-190) a bill to cut the American Community Survey (ACS). The bill was championed by Representative Daniel Webster (R) from Florida's 8th District. On the floor of the house, Webster said the survey is "intrusive," "unconstitutional," an "inappropriate use of taxpayer money," and "the very picture of what's wrong in DC." On every point, he is categorically wrong as are the 231 representatives who voted with him.

Yes, a very small number of the questions are somewhat personal (maybe?), but the survey responses are aggregated and made anonymous. Still, the very Constitution he cites allows for this survey, which includes questions that have been asked since Thomas Jefferson (Director of the 1790 Census). Also, let's recall my prior frustrations at opposition to the ACS (in which I rant about the difference between a citizen's reasonable right to privacy and that same citizen's responsibilities as a constituent in a representative democracy).


Regarding the use of taxpayer money and "what's wrong in DC": For literally centuries, the US government has been asking questions about how Americans live in order to responsibly determine how taxpayer money needs to and should be spent. Programs, policies, funding, and investment are created and calculated according to the results of the American Community Survey. While I will definitely agree that there are places where the federal government spends wastefully, the money spent on determining how to spend smarter is perhaps the most efficient use of taxpayer funds I can think of.


In fact, I'm not entirely sure how Representative Webster can legislate, adequately representing his constituents, without the information offered to him by the ACS. Maybe he would guess? Go with his gut? Maybe he believes everyone in Florida's 8th District is just like him? Or maybe he believes that there won't be problems requiring leglislative attention if we stop collecting information about those problems?

Well, because it's the sorta helpful thing I do, here are some things I learned tonight from the ACS about Webster's district. If he has his way and this nonsense attaches itself to a bill that passes the Senate, this might be the last bit of reliable information we have about the counties included within his boundaries. I'm covering some common topics -- information about the state of the housing market while we continue to battle the housing crisis in the country, information about employment and education, information about what people earn and whether that allows them to afford their homes.

And on that note, Happy Fourth of July.

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.”