Maps for Social Change and Community Involvement

    by David Sasaki
    April 24, 2009

    2008 was the year of aggregating data related to local communities and displaying that information on maps. Knight News Challenge grantee EveryBlock, for example, labored to convince city governments to make their data more open and accessible, and then created a beautiful map interface to display what is happening where in real time.


    Map of the 132 calls made to police on April 22nd in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco.


    Other examples of projects which have set out to add geographic locations to information found on the internet, and to display that information on map interfaces, include outside.in, WikiMapia, Flickrvision, HousingMaps, Oakland Crimespotting, and hundreds of others.

    Many of these projects also make their data available in KML format, which is what Google Earth uses to overlay information on a rich three dimensional interface of our planet. By selecting multiple layers in Google Earth and zooming in on a single neighborhood block, I can quickly filter through what information is most relavant to me including recent photos taken by Google Street View and live streaming webcams aggregated by Webcams.travel.

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    This abundance of information all displayed attractively on stunning map interfaces is no doubt useful and interesting, but does it lead to local social change? Using Oakland Crimespotting I can see that there was a vehicle theft two streets down from my house on April 21. In fact, I can even sign up for a customized RSS feed of incidents near my house and use Pingie to get notified immediately by text message. But will that information convince me to do anything to help improve my community?

    2009 I believe will be the year of developing map-based interfaces which enable neighbors to share information with one another, leading to direct action and increased community involvement.

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    Garden Registry is a new project of the San Francisco Victory Garden program which enables urban farmers in San Francisco to locate their backyard farms on a map, describe what they are growing, and, most importantly, advertise any surplus land they have available to others who would like to plant there. The map not only allows San Franciscans to peek into the backyards of their fellow farming neighbors, but also encourages shared use of private land to maximize the output of local, organic food.


    Unortkataster Köln is a project of Köln 2020 which allows users to document and map what they refer to as “architectural or social deficiencies” around the German city. This could range from potholes to graffiti to sound pollution. The project, led by Professor Georg Trogemann at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne, seeks to encourage an inclusive conversation about how Köln can be improved and what improvements should take priority.

    Mark Glaser asks, “How Can We Improve Information Needs of Local Communities?” Garden Registry and Unortkataster Köln exemplify a new strategy to move map interfaces beyond mere aggregations of information by allowing users to network and share valuable information that leads to community involvement. Still, these services could be made even more valuable by tapping into the constant stream of information found on microblogging sites like Twitter and Brightkite. Anytime I find a good location for tree planting in my neighborhood, for example, I should be able to upload a photograph of it to Brightkite with the tag “#4treeplanting” and that information should automatically appear on a map like Unortkataster Köln, as well as alert the proper authorities at Oakland Public Works. In this model microblogging tools like Twitter and Brightkite become a command-line interface to prompt community improvement.

    Tagged: brightkite communities germany mapping news oakland san francisco twitter

    2 responses to “Maps for Social Change and Community Involvement”

    1. Great roundup, David! I agree that mapping and database mashups have incredible potential. The catch is that you can easily be swimming in data and maps, and while they are fun to jump around in, what’s often missing is the next step: filtering and analysis and *context.* I agree that the next step will be allowing people to combine more services as long as it’s in the interest of smart filtering.

    2. deisnor says:

      Mark and David, completely agree. The next step in community mapping will be action-oriented. How can we all take the vast amount of data which is increasingly available and use it as a resource for tangible results and collaboration. I’ve been collecting case studies for a paper here so please feel free to send along others. It would be much appreciated. And you may both appreciate this post on community cartography

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