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From GIS to Place-Based Stories [Cartography]

image by ideum via Flickr.com

A couple of weeks ago, I was able to attend the 2012 Where Conference, held in San Fransisco, California, and I am pleased to say that this year’s event surpassed all of my expectations. For those of you not familiar with this conference, the annual event features the latest and greatest in location-based social applications, mapping technology, and innovative GIS related public engagement best practices. While many of the presentations at this year’s Where Conference focused on leveraging location-based social media apps installed on our smart phones and tablets, it was the presentations about creating compelling stories about place and space that caught my attention as they relate specifically to public involvement, which can provide planners with some very useful resources in citizen engagement.

Overall, I would say that “doing GIS” is getting easier. ESRI promises, with the introduction of ArcGIS 10.1 later this year that they are going “to put mapping and geospatial analytics into the hands of more people without requiring that they be GIS experts”. They also promise to make it easier to publish maps to the Web. This, I think, is good news for planners, and the planning process. Volunteered Geographic Information such as the Open Street Map project, and the National Map, are making it easier for people to create, and acquire GIS base data for their projects. The free and open source Quantum GIS software is being used by people in private industry, higher education, governments, and not-for-profits all over the world. While GIS data and software abound, I believe the focus on the development of GIS software over the years, has meant that we have neglected to develop the skills and tools to make maps that people understand, and want to look at. I attended several presentations at this year’s Where Conference that focused on developing skills, and using emerging technologies, to make it easier for people to create compelling maps, and visualizations, of geographic information.

Telling Stories With Maps

Noah Iliinsky’s presentation, “Telling Stories with Maps”, goes over a number of important factors to keep in mind when making maps, and visualizations (follow this link to see the full presentation)
There are three points from his presentation that I constantly need to be reminded of when I am making maps.

First off, we need to keep our audience in mind when creating our maps. For example, imagine a map showing the number of properties for sale in a city.  For most, this isn’t hard to imagine; we’ve all seen a Google map with hundreds of points on it. Now imagine that we want to know how many of those properties are for sale in our neighborhood. Simple, right? If we are searching for a house for sale in our neighborhood, then showing the locations of all of the houses for sale on one map makes a lot of sense. On the other hand, if we are creating a map to show the relative differences between houses for sale in neighborhoods throughout the city, then we have to create a different kind of map, and our audience for the map has changed.
Second, we use maps, because – as Iliinsky points out – maps give context. In sum, maps help us to locate and understand,

  1. familiar locations
  2. relative positions
  3. trends & patterns, gaps, and outliers

It may be enough to create a map of familiar locations for a basic street map, but to understand how context may drive a particular story about a city we need to create a narrative about the city, or as Iliinsky puts it, “[n]arrative brings relevance” to our map, or graphic.

Third, make intentional choices about what we would like to include in our maps. These choices are guided by “three inputs”. These inputs include: the designer, the data, and the reader. As designers we need to have an intimate understanding of our place in the process, and the data involved in the process, so that we can make the best decisions about what kind of graphic or map is best for our audience.

Story Mapping

Daniel Harris’s  Story Mapping – Adding Narrative to Place started People’s District project in an effort to learn more about the people he saw every day; he was looking to learn more about the people that he previously exchanged a “good morning” or a “thank you” with. In his first interview, in July of 2009, he stopped his first person, and asked, “So, what’s your story?’ He recorded his first conversation with Joe. Joe “spoke passionately about growing up on U Street and his first experience of going downtown after the end of segregation”. In his next conversation with Andrew, they talked about Andrew’s struggle with “overcoming homelessness”. Eric and Maddie discussed “the D.C. hardcore music scene”. Harris found that, “each story shed light on a new slice of D.C. life”.

The project is all about people’s relationship to place; in the talk, or on the project website, there is no mention of the latest web mapping related JavaScript libraries, or the latest smart phone app. Not to say that a discussion about the technology we use isn’t important; the tools we use to capture, analyze, and display geographically referenced information are becoming more sophisticated every day, and a comprehensive discussion of the trade-offs between using different mapping libraries to display our georeferenced information, for example, is important to the process of getting our project out to others. The problem is: it is easy to get caught up in the latest and greatest in technology, and lose sight of the project’s objectives. The way Mr. Harris uses his website to “rais[e] Washington, D.C.’s interest in itself and its people” is an excellent example of engaging people in a discussion about their city. And, in his case, all it takes is an audio recorder, a camera, and a website. 

Follow this link to learn more about the presentation: http://whereconf.com/where2012/public/schedule/detail/24589

Discovery of the World’s Best Aerial Imagery

Paul Rademacher currently of Tasty Labs, and famous for creating the first ever maps mashup using Google Maps and Craigslist housing data, was at the conference to present on Stratocam. Stratocam is an application that allows users to rate and “enjoy the best Google Maps satellite imagery around the world”. While not a planning related engagement tool per se, the website is designed to allow people to browse satellite imagery of the Earth.


A satellite image of Chicago, Illinois


Stratocam is an easy way for people to discover, and comment on urban forms and natural spaces. In Stratocam, you can “[m]ove the map around and take your own snapshots, which others will see”, and be able to vote - up or down - on the quality of the image. In terms of creating compelling stories about place, and space, Stratocam relies on good material (the Earth), and keeps it simple. What might be interesting, is to create a similar application to show street level views of existing (and, possibly potential development), and allow stakeholders to vote up or down on which development type would fit best within their neighborhood.

Follow this link to learn more about the presentation: http://whereconf.com/where2012/public/schedule/detail/24968

A bit of a side note…
In general, cities aren’t built for people to experience in plan view. That said, with the ubiquity of mobile devices, and web-based mapping applications, we are engaging with our cities “from the top down” more than ever. Is it worth taking the time design our spaces with this new type of urban dweller/navigator in mind? Probably not. Is it worth thinking about how these new technologies are changing the way people interact with the city? Probably.

Web-based mapping using TileMill by Mapbox

Typically, creating interactive web maps is a complex process that requires a software developers to put together a lot of different pieces of software. Some of us are probably familiar with web mapping applications and engines such as: OpenLayers, Leaflet, Google Maps, Bing Maps, MapServer, GeoServer, and ArcGIS Server. In order to put these tools to work requires an in-depth knowledge of web servers, database servers, seemingly esoteric operating systems (I am thinking of Linux here), web browsers, client-side and server-side scripting languages, Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), and Cascading Style Sheets. A simple solution for creating compelling interactive maps has eluded us...until now.
TileMill is, “TileMill is the design studio you need to create compelling, interactive maps.” The folks at MapBox, the creators of TileMill, developed an application, which works on Macs and Windows computers, that makes it relatively easy for people to use their existing GIS data – from shapefiles or a database - to create web-based interactive maps.

I downloaded the TileMill software to my Windows computer after the MapBox presentation last week, and in 20 minutes time I learned how to add a shapefile to the software, add a legend to the map, style the map, and to post the simple map to the web (follow this link to see some basic examples of maps created using the TileMill software). TileMill makes it possible to, “Enrich your maps with hover tooltips and clickable pop ups. Reveal details in your data by embedding numbers, graphs, and images into your map.”

TileMill should allow tech savvy planners, as well as GIS and Web professionals, to focus on creating well designed, interactive web-based maps from their existing stores of GIS data. TileMill is so straight-forward to use, I am thinking hard about using TileMill to teach the principles of web-based cartography in my GIS class this summer.

Follow this link to learn more about the presentation: http://whereconf.com/where2012/public/schedule/detail/23598

Many of the GIS applications that we use today focus on spatial database development, and spatial data processing. Desktop GIS applications make it easy for planners, and analysts to develop maps and data related to a planning process, Google Maps and the mash-up make it relatively easy for someone with basic web development skills to share spatial data and analysis related to a planning process on the Web, and the advent of mobile devices has made it relatively easy for people to access information about where people have been, and what they have been doing. The art of map-making hasn’t been lost, it has been pushed to the background as we have learned how “to do GIS”. As technology advances, and it becomes easier to do GIS, we can spend more time focused on creating maps on all three platforms (desktop, web-based, and mobile) that help people understand and create better communities.

Keep an eye out for my next EngagingCities post, including more on my experience at the 2012 Where Conference...coming soon!


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