BBC Radio 4: Digital Human (Series 6:2014: Episode 5: Maps) #DigiHuman


5/6: Maps

Aleks Krotoski examines what digital mapping has meant for our understanding of the world. Are we always aware of the decisions that make them look the way they do? Traditionally of course maps are as “authored” as anything else. As Simon Garfield writer of On the Map: Why the world looks the way it does , explains we should think of maps like the biography of a famous person; highly subjective and usually with some sort of angle.

We hear this authorship at work when we join Bob Egan of PopSpotsNYC; he maps out where famous album cover photos were taken in his native New York and puts them online for us all to visit. We join him on the hunt through Google maps and on the streets as tracks down his latest quarry. Bob is adding his own layer of information to the digital mapping of our world for Dr Mark Graham of the Oxford Internet Institute this is happening all around us.

And it’s this phenomenon that makes the understanding of the choices that go into making our maps even more important. We hear about the experience of paleo-anthropologist Prof Lee Berger and how hidden choices in GPS data he was using nearly cost him the most important discovery of his career. Aleks then explores if the so called “open mapping” movement hold the answer to eliminating some of issues created by digital maps with the example of Christchurch recovery map -a crowd sourced map that was created within hours of the Christchurch earth quake of 2012.

  • The changes in digital cartography have changed more than the previous 2000 years.
  • Easier to access more material, denser layers of material – bundles of digital material related to places play a huge role in how the world is shaped – particularly useful to find e.g. places The Who played, etc.
  • Ancient maps are littlered with mistakes, as people didn’t want to admit their mistakes – and they are typically one person’s view of the world – because printed we think “oh, it must be true”. .. how much do we trust the person making the maps (what do they have to gain?).
  • All maps are produced by someone (who has been paid?) and for a particular purpose – and often we can’t tell what that purpose is.
  • Google – discovered the importance of providing maps – offering businesses/consumers, etc. ways to connect.
  • Digital = given access to discover huge number of caves, etc… but also allows to map below the earth, Google wasn’t developed as a mapping company, and hadn’t realised how much power they had and the responsibility that came with that.
  • Process is becoming increasingly automated, but decisions are being made – whether by algorithms, or the original programmer, or…?
  • Open mapping movement used in New Zealand Earthquake… reliant upon people upon the ground updating live from the ground. No claims about validity made, but here’s where the information came from…
  • We can now tweet, FB our positions, and that immediately becomes part of the map – a constantly updated archive… appears to solve many of the older problems, but will see that this brings new problems.
    • Those areas of the world that are participating are those that are contributing more , or contributing information on behalf of those not writing.
    • We now have a data-centred view of the world – it has to fit in a database, it needs to be able to be codified. Can only show you what is already in them, or what fits in the database.
    • Seem objective but have even more power, as we embed them in daily life, and we have no idea of who has the power behind them – and we lose the historical specificity.
    • What will the volatility of our maps mean for our capacity to make discoveries? What do others think the environment is composed of? Once see what they think is different, can see what is “not normal”, and that’s where discoveries are made.