Think Community? Think Maps! (Going to MIT. Part One)

    by Alexander Zolotarev
    June 17, 2009

    I’m looking into the Delta airplane illuminator at the white snow valley with scattered grayish mountain peaks of Greenland, which just recently became independent of Danmark, and comparing the view with the satellite map right behind me on the horizontal Kindle-size screen. First thought: since last summer Delta tech guys made a great step forward and significantly improved the entertainment services onboard, introducing a sensor screen and a possibility for the flyer to choose movies, games, CDs by genres and tracks. And finally build a personal playlist, which is a worthy alternative to watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (as you’ve seen it twice before). They still have Delta On-Air option with fixed music channels but if you want a bit more of fun while crossing the Atlantic, the participatory entertainment is right there. At the same time there is a pretty curious live entertainment onboard: walking along the aisles, a 60-year old steward (originally from the town of Odessa which is standing on the shores of the Black Sea) plays harmonica every now and then. The surprised flyers listen and applaud.

    I am on my way to the Knight Foundation and MIT Future of News and Civic Media Conference, straight from Moscow, looking forward to meeting with over 200 conference attendees passionate about what they are doing. Being confident that this time, as last year, I’ll learn about recent civic media innovations, I am working on a PPT presentation of my project. The flight takes over nine hours. We have already covered 4335 miles (4886 km) and are now flying over the outermost cape Nuuk (Godthab) of Greenland.


    The moving map on the screen provokes me thinking about the issue which has recently been topical for me – the map of Sochi. Those last weeks before the conference, I have been talking with several local design studios and private mappers of Sochi about acquiring the maps they have produced. And there is now quite a bunch of various maps of different level of detalization and accomplishment – plain, isometric and 3D.



    Finally, at the 2009 ExpoComm exhibition which took place in Moscow last month I met designers from the Russian town of Rostov, who draw maps for Yandex, the leading Russian search engine, and they told me that they had just recently completed the map of Sochi. As their map turned to be great indeed, we decided to use it by just linking to Yandex, without embedding the map into the body of our website. I was tempted by the dainty looking maps created by the talented mappers who were selling them at $700-800, but had to give way to functionality. First of all, Yandex maps are of really high quality, as Yandex updates and improves them regularly, also offering good services. Moreover, Russian web users are familiar with Yandex maps as those are the most popular ones, and by choosing Yandex map we eliminate any chance for confusion in navigating through the map.

    Mapping Sochi has recently become a trend among Russian designers. The Olympics inflamed interest for this borderline resort area of Russia, and there is now a demand in high-quality maps of Sochi.


    As a matter of fact, Sochi will be the fastest changing region of Russia within next several years, as the city will be transforming to host the Games, and it offers a rich potential for the community mapping efforts. Roads, bridges, railroads, tunnels, harbors, hotels, seaside restaurants and cafes – not to mention Olympic venues – mostly all of them are to be built from scratch. Sochi will in many ways get a new look. Till now, there was no unified structure of the town, as right from Day 1 Sochi was built with no general plan in the minds of architectures. Both in the Soviet times and in new Russia the city was always appreciated by the Russian leaders, who were reshaping the resort, but the Olympic construction is, with no exaggeration, the grandest undertaking, challenge and the change factor that has happened with the city since it was founded.

    I’m very excited. I have long been interested in the community development processes and principles. When I was writing the Russian guidebook to Norway and specifically Oslo in 2004, it was all about the community, about focusing on the little details of the community life. And the objective was to make a better guidebook for the members of the community and the readers of it. And this time, with Sochi, it’s a similar story. Building a digital platform and experimenting in order to catch a perfect module for keeping a track of and documenting those changes, is an essential part of my project. The idea is to build a database of multimedia/various-format resources mostly generated by the locals (and thus reflecting the community development and bringing the representation of local concerns), and to archive the information, that might otherwise be not recorded or lost, and give open access to it, for the sake of the local population as well as for the good of the global Olympic movement and, consequently, the global humankind.

    Big ideas usually concern the lives of ordinary people, so the Olympics are essentially about the lives of locals: it’s about how the life of a local milkman, or a tailor, or a teacher of English in the city of Sochi changes with the preparation for the Games. And studying the impact of those preparations on the community is an undertaking which is definitely of interest to many stakeholders, ranging from the IOC members and generally the Olympics industry workers, to federal and local government, to university professors and Olympic Studies experts.

    The expectation is that the efforts will result in bringing some new knowledge, based on empirics, on how the Perfect Structure of such a project should look like, what kind of Design elements work best, what Practices in motivating the citizen journalists and reporters and fueling the traffic are.

    Systematizing and organizing information is the natural instinct of a homo sapiens. It makes life easier to have information and knowledge catalogued. In the 21st century to be informed means to be digital and to be able to navigate in a virtuoso way through countless thematic clusters that the World Wide Web provides us access to, to build our own clusters, having our say, and to link to the resources which are vital for us – whether those are dedicated to saving leopards, tell about tie knock techniques or teach to master the Argentinean tango.

    In the meantime, I have made it to Cambridge, and it’s great to be here. And to see again the Knight News Challenge winners in the MIT Stata Center and that familiar guy with the 1965 John Lennon appearance (and he claims that) working at the reception desk in the hotel – precisely as he did last year.

    Tagged: community Delta On-Air maps mit MIT Future of News and Civic Media olympics sochi

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