Posts Tagged ‘counter-mapping’


The Northwest Bushwick Community Map is meant to be a resource for local community organizations and tenants rights groups to easily access disparate information around land use, housing and urban development for the neighborhood of Bushwick in Brooklyn, NY. It is also intended to be a tool to inform NYC residents about what kinds of indicators may be used to predict new urban development and help prevent displacement of residents in their own neighborhoods. Recently I had the opportunity to work with the original author of the map and some fellow designers in the MFA DT program at Parsons to improve the map’s design and functionality.


In the fall of 2014 two members of the Northwest Bushwick Community Group (NWB), Michael ‘Ziggy’ Mintz and Brigette Blood, met with several graduate students from MFA DT to discuss improvements to the beta-version of the map. Previously, the map used vanilla Leaflet.js with GeoJSON data created from NYC’s MapPLUTO and Department of Buildings permits open data. However the original map lacked a cohesive design and was slow in regards to loading of the data due to technical issues.

Map Improvements

To improve the interactivity of the map I chose to host the data on CartoDB and use the CartoDB.js library to handle loading, styling and toggling of the map’s data layers. When the user selects layers, CartoCSS and SQL code is passed to CartoDB to retrieve and style the data being rendered on the map. Hosting the data on CartoDB also allows for processing of the data in the CartoDB dashboard using PostgreSQL and PostGIS. This is beneficial as SQL scripts can be run to automate the processing of new data when the map needs to be updated.

To improve the context of the map (the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How) the MFA DT team asked Ziggy and Brigette to provide us with some real world stories that show how the data relates to the dwindling affordable housing stock and displacement of longtime residents in Bushwick. To accomplish this we used the Odyssey.js Javascript API to create an interactive slide show with the map which transitions between three of NWB’s stories. With a bit of hacking we were was able to use the changing of the slides as a jQuery event trigger to toggle the map’s data layers. This allows for the slide show to give background and context about the project while also relating seemingly abstract data in a visceral way.

Besides Cartodb.js and Odyssey.js we added some other features to the map to make it more useful for the Bushwick community. As there is a large Latino presence in Bushwick it was imperative to have the text of the map’s UI and the overall website toggle between English and Spanish. Additionally the non-map parts of the site were redesigned responsively using CSS Media Queries so that the other content such as “Get Help” can be easily viewed on a mobile device.

Future Plans

In the future NWB plans on adding participatory map data they’ve collected on housing vacancy and new development as well as stories of people who have experienced being displaced or harassed by their landlords. These features may be integrated with the current map or developed separately, but either way CartoDB and Odyssey will allow for the further creation of customized interactive map content to be readily achievable.


Last month I presented my Major Studio One final, Exploring Bias in Spatial Data, at GeoNYC, the Meet-Up group for all things relating to maps and geo-spatial technology. (p.s. this video does a better job of explaining this work than the previous blog post I made.)

Go to minute 47 for the start of my presentation, it’s about 5 minutes long:

Geo NYC Meetup – February 2014: Student Showcase from Boundless on Vimeo.

IMG_2520 IMG_2518 IMG_2512 IMG_2517

Last thursday I caught a flight from NYC to SFO to attend “Mapping and Its Discontents” at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, California. As a day long symposium the event focused on critical and counter cartography. It was sponsored by the Global Urban Humanities program, a collaboration between University of California Berkeley and UCLA. I was drawn to this symposium not only for the theme (obviously) but also for the map contest the event held titled “See Through Maps: Maps That Lay Bare Their Point of View” as well as a range of speakers including Rebecca Solnit, Dennis Wood, Laura Kurgan, Annette Kim, Zephyr Frank and Katherine Harmon. The day flew by as each presenter drew me into well formulated discussions about the history and symbolism of cartography, their personal work and philosophies with a summary and criticism from a respondent following the presentation of each speaker. 

Dennis Wood, known for being a well accomplished artist, writer, cartographer, intellectual and former professor of environmental psychology and design at the College of Design at North Carolina State University opened the symposium with a talk on the origins and symbolism of power inherent in maps. In his talk Wood stated that prior to ~1500 a.d. mapping as a professional / state tool did not exist. From ~1500-1700 there was an explosion of sporadic map making across the globe from Japan to Russia to Spain; an activity that coincided with the formation of the modern nation-state. Wood argued that although maps had been created prior to 1500 a.d. their role was not as important. What this means is that maps became an artifact that assisted in constructing the nation-state, or in his words; “as maps affirm the state, the state affirms the map.” Despite the map’s evolution in modern times and its appropriation for allegorical methods as well as artists, Dadaists, Situationists, and modern day activists and data-viz the map still remains a tool of the nation-state. For example we currently are witnessing fighting over school and election districts mapping; two areas that greatly influence the lives of everyone in the United States.

Both Laura Kurgan and Annette Kim gave presentations about their work in cartography and spatial thinking that encompassed the realm of counter-cartography. Kurgan, a professor at the Graduate School of Architectural Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, director of the Spatial Information Design Lab and co-director of the Advanced Data Visualization Project spoke about being the first artist to appropriate de-classified government satellite imagery during the mid 1990’s. The work she created from the imagery included photographed landscapes that are unusually a single color but represent uniquely critical or contested spaces. Two were a completely white area that was part of the ANWR (Artic Wildlife Refuge) in Alaska, a controversially planned oil well drill site, and a completely blue area representing 0˚ Latitude and 0˚ Longitude, the point of origin for Cartesian plotting all geographic data. Kurgan also created a very powerful map of Brooklyn, NY that thematically represented the amount of money being lost from each census block due to prisoner incarceration. This map provocatively reframes the prison debate by demonstrating that a large amount of capital is being taken away from poor neighborhoods within inner cities.

Annette Kim, a professor at MIT’s department of Urban Studies and Planning and director of the MIT research group SLAB spoke about developing methods for Spatial Ethonography and critical cartography . Kim’s projects involved mapping sidewalk life in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam in order to progressively influence that city’s planners. Her approach actively seeks to change the current swath of similar looking data-visualization that has gained growing popularity in the past decade. Her methods included creating non-euclidian and cinematic maps of parts of Ho Chi Minh city. As street vendors face constant harassment and persecution from police Kim sought to bring the lively and highly networked sidewalk life to the planner’s attention with success; she was able to get the planners to step back from their maps and actually walk the ground of the city to make qualitative observations that would influence the planning process. Kim’s work is provocative in the sense that it asks us the question who are using maps? In Ho Chi Minh city it appears to be the city planners, construction companies and tourists but not the people living there and participating in sidewalk life. Thus she asks us to consider how as cartographers we can humanize our work through doing research on the ground instead of only relying on data.

There were many other speakers I would like to mention more about but the main take aways from the conference I saw were as follows:

  1. Cartography needs to become more democratic, potentially this means that it evolve into a form beyond cartography to escape it’s legacy and association with the nation-state. To this I would add that the practice of cartography needs to become more inclusive.
  2. Designers, researchers, and cartographers must make our maps more humanistic through the use of qualitative research performed on the ground, often in a participatory nature.
  3. Maps are not necessarily the best method to display information or data; consider using spatial thinking to create forms of visualization that are photographic, cinematic, or diagrams.
  4. We should consider the power relations at work when it comes to maps. Rebecca Solnit speaks of how a paper map empowers the user while relying on Google Maps implies a sort of obedience of the user to accept the information Google is providing such as directions to a place. Additionally, what are maps choosing to depict and what are they not? We need to question this when looking at this is important for identify a map’s hidden intention(s).
  5. Maps exist as arguments or propositions and are not objective. They embody the biases of the map maker. This can be a good thing for maps have the potential to make the “invisible visible” as with counter-mapping. 
  6. Similarly, data is never objective or inherently “raw”. It has always been created with a bias and as such we should never treat it as unbiased or entirely true.