On a spring Sunday in a Soho penthouse, ten people have gathered for a digital mapping "Edit-A-Thon." Potted plants grow to the ceiling and soft cork carpets the floor. At a long wooden table, an energetic woman named Liz Barry is showing me how to map my neighborhood. "This is what you'll see when you look at OpenStreetMap," she says.
Though visually similar to Google's, the map on the screen gives users unfettered access to its underlying data -- anyone can edit it. Barry lives in Williamsburg, and she's added many of the neighborhood's boutiques and restaurants herself. "Sometimes when I'm tired at the end of the day and can't work anymore, I just edit OpenStreetMap," she says. "Kind of a weird habit." Barry then shows me the map's "guts." I naively assume it will be something technical and daunting, but it's just an editable version of the same map, with tools that let you draw roads, identify landmarks, and even label your own house.
"OpenStreetMap is referred to as a ground-up ontology," she says. What she means is that OpenStreetMap has no established data dictionary; you can draw anything on the map and name it whatever you want. "Like oh, this point? Yes, this is a restaurant of type 'Italian'; it has a name of type 'my favorite Italian restaurant'," she explains. Before I know it, I'm mapping my favorite Park Slope bagel shop -- a strangely thrilling act that unites me with the website's one million users, who (unlike me) mostly work at technology companies.
Citizen cartography is a time-honored practice; both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were surveyors. Crowdsourcing isn't new, either; every year since 1900, aviary-obsessed individuals have collaborated with the Audubon Society for an annual Christmas Bird Count. In the spirit of these traditions, OpenStreetMap was founded in 2004 as a response to the Ordnance Survey, England's national mapping agency, whose maps were then so inaccurate that small towns and villages put up signs warning drivers not to follow its satellite navigation.
"SUVs were barreling through churchyards and going down little dirt roads through pastures," Barry says. Finally, a frustrated physics student named Steve Coast developed OpenStreetMap as a way to give cartography back to the public. Now, data is the website's "raison d'être," says Richard Weait, a Canada-based contributor. In countries like Germany, which are considered completely mapped, a common joke is that you can route yourself to the nearest penguin because zoo enthusiasts have probably mapped them. "So because you're putting it into the hands of people, they can gather what's important to them," another mapper says. "Not only can you say, 'How can I get to my nearest penguin?' but, 'How can I get to my nearest penguin in a wheelchair?'"
Because of its origin, the website is still riddled with U.K. verbiage, which can sometimes present confusion. As we work, an older man named MacKay Wolff comes across a term he hasn't heard before. "That's for walking directions," Barry says.
"Or horse directions," Eric says.
"Oh my god, what if there's a horse cab?"
"I feel like civilization would be a very different place if we were all back to riding horses again," says an artist named Ingrid.
"A smellier place."
"There'd be a lot less mental health issues, too, because I feel like there's something natural about the sound of a horse clopping," Wolff says.
"But how would you time directions for that? Like, what if there's a really lazy horse? I guess that's true with biking directions."
"I heard that all the streets in Boston are just cow paths paved over."
"I feel like that's not unusual," Barry says. "MacKay, do you feel like the sound of coconuts accurately yields mental health benefits on par with horse hooves?"
Soon, everyone goes quietly back to mapping.
• • • • •
It isn't that outsiders are coming in and revolutionizing mapping; rather, a new democratization in mapping has occurred. "With the tools being much cheaper and relatively easy to learn, you get people who don't have a professional interest in being a cartographer figuring out how to make maps they want to see," Steiner says. Mary Spence, president of the British Cartographic Society, admits traditional cartographers are a "dying breed," since a large part of their job is placing themselves in the users' shoes. "I'm looking at a map of Saudi Arabia in front of me," she explains over the phone. As a cartographer, Spence would ask herself, "What do they want to see on a map of Saudi Arabia? They want to see the terrain, where the hills are and the deserts. They probably want to see the big towns and the roads. They might even want to see where the oil fields are." Now, because of projects like OpenStreetMap, users in Saudi Arabia no longer need a cartographer because they are the mapmakers.
"The thing I find interesting is that a lot of the most exciting work comes from people who aren't necessarily trained as cartographers," says Bill Rankin, a Yale University professor. Though he points to the architect Buckminster Fuller, whose 1943 Dymaxion World Map changed the way we understood the geography of World War II, Rankin -- who is also a trained architect -- might as well be describing himself.
A few years ago, he was giving a talk in Phoenix about a color-coded map he made of that city's racial segregation. In the audience were several county government officials. After the talk, they told Rankin that while segregation informed their work, as government employees they couldn't publicize the information themselves. "There was no way they could, on the official county website, say that the way to understand Phoenix is as a radically segregated city," he says. As a free agent, Rankin can use maps to make arguments the creators of the data can't always make themselves.
After the housing crisis, Rankin mapped housing foreclosures in New Haven between 2008 and 2012 using data from a nonprofit. He discovered that most of New Haven's foreclosures were happening to poor families of color -- unlike the national media narrative about middle-class families doing everything right and still losing their homes. The map was published in the New Haven Independent, and Rankin says it presented a clear case for directing economic resources to the affected neighborhoods.
"What I most care about is the sense of maps having arguments, not just being neutral descriptions of the world, but active participants in the discussion about that world," he says.
In fact, maps as visual systems have never been objective, but are susceptible to manipulation -- especially political censorship. Before statistics were widely available online from entities like the U.S. Census or the Center for Disease Control, the only mapmakers were either governments or large companies that could invest the capital to both gather the data and map it. Neil Alan, the current president of the North American Cartographic Information Society, pointed out that as a condition for its presence in China, Google currently lists the land contested in the Chinese-Indian border dispute as Chinese territory. Even color choice can be powerful. "Red is a warning, cautionary color, so you right away jade the readers by choosing the colors that you do," he says.
"My sense is that a lot of the political and geographic issues that people care about -- like poverty or international inequality or segregation -- I think they're often mapped in a way that is unable to deal with diversity," Rankin says. For example, if each country on a map of the world is shaded a different color based on average household income or GDP per capita, Brazil will look poor even though it has huge wealth in small pockets. In the United States, one might miss the economic difference between Manhattan and the Appalachian mountains. In his own maps, rather than shading areas with solid blocks of color, Rankin uses dots in hopes of stirring a more nuanced, granular discussion of space. He calls this "radical cartography" -- not radical in the sense of far-left politics, but radical because "the way we draw the map actually changes the thing that we're mapping."
Increasingly, the maps people want to see aren't just literal, but also conceptual. According to Steiner, the role of the cartographer is actually moving away from the notion of accurately representing the world and towards that of creating a symbolic representation of space -- which he means very broadly. "We just saw a great image of a woman's journey through psychoanalytic space," he says. Two points on a graph represented the woman, who was dissatisfied with herself: one plotted her ideal self and the other her actual self when she arrived in therapy. The points were very far apart. Over the course of several therapy sessions they moved closer together, and by the final session had nearly joined together. "That's a map," he says.
As the creative director of Stanford University's Spatial History Project, Steiner has pieced together maps based on evacuation photographs, diaries and testimonies from Auschwitz. Many of the data sets he uses are ambiguous, incomplete or uncertain -- such as the openings and closings of concentration camps -- but Steiner says that actually frees the cartographer from the pursuit of absolute truth, allowing for a nuanced interpretation by the reader. "These representations are more expressionist and provocative, partially because we're dealing with such a dense subject, but also because we're interested less in the absolute positioning of the information than we are in the experience of being in that place," he says.
Recently, the group received a large grant from the Mellon Foundation, which will allow it to pursue a few additional mapping projects. For one of them, Steiner hopes to take 500 novels that reflect on different communities in 19th century London -- "a square here, a road there, a house here" -- and create a literary map of the city. "The idea is that collectively across 500 novels, you could describe a space you otherwise might not be able to describe, and to describe it richly," he says.
• • • • •
Maps demystify space, and many new cartographers are harnessing this quality for social good. On SourceMap.com, a website that maps where things come from, you can follow the supply chain of your iPhone from a mine in Mbandaka, the Democratic Republic of Congo and a factory in Xiamen, China to the Best Buy in Minnesota where it's sold -- impressive when you consider that just one non-recyclable chip in your phone contains all the elements in the Periodic Table.
"As soon as you see a product on a map, you think about why materials come from these places, what those people's lives are like, what the environmental considerations are," says SourceMap founder Leo Bonnani. "So it really forces you to into a social construct." A trained architect, Bonnani became interested in supply chains after he mapped his laptop's life cycle as a graduate student. Not only did the act of mapping bring solidarity with the workers who made his computer, but it proved they actually existed. Bonnani created the website because he was convinced a similarly fascinating story lay behind every product.
Now anyone can map their own supply chain on Bonnani's website. One map submitted by Berkeley professor Jenna Burrell connected old New York Public Library computers to internet cafes in Ghana, where the outdated models found new life. Another by documentary filmmaker Laura Kissell traces cotton from its harvest in the U.S. to production in China and back. Bonnani says companies such as Office Depot, Proctor & Gamble and Stonyfield Farm have been economically motivated to map their own supply chains as well. "If you don't know where something comes from, the online crowd will find out," Bonnani explains. "So it actually became an accountability tool right away."
Andrew Turner, a former aerospace engineer-turned-mapper who now works at Esri, a geographic information systems company, says maps are effective advocacy tools because they tether abstract ideas to real life. Though someone might not care about ocean level rise, they will once they see a map showing their own house under water. At that point, behavior can actually change. "People start to think, 'What happens if I drive less? What will that do to my neighborhood? What happens if I plant more grass?'" he says.
Bonnani has witnessed this transformation firsthand. After mapping a segment of the beer industry in Scotland, he discovered all the breweries were relying on one single bottling plant located very far away, which was an economical and environmental strain. When the government saw the map, they provided a loan so that one of the brewers could set up a local bottling plant. "That's the dream, that you end up with the triple bottom line, the social-environmental-economic benefit," he says.
• • • • •
Back at the Edit-a-thon, Alyssa Wright is hunched over her laptop screen, her eyes squinting at an aerial photograph of Nepal's capital. Though Wright has never been to Kathmandu, for the past few hours she's been carefully tracing roads and buildings on a satellite image to create a blueprint of the city. Because Nepal sits on an unstable fault line, the World Bank is funding an effort to adequately prepare for an earthquake should one hit. A team of structural engineers on the ground is collecting exposure data and identifying building types, which will then be plugged into a map. Wright has spearheaded an OpenStreetMap group assisting with the creation of that map. "Is this a building?" she asks hesitantly, and a small group gathers around to study a fuzzy blotch on the screen. "That's a golf course," says MacKay Wolff.
Since 1989, Wolff has worked at the U.N., where he is now manager of disaster relief. He became interested in OpenStreetMap after its involvement in Haiti. Before the earthquake, maps of Port-au-Prince were outdated and incomplete, causing problems for aid workers who arrived in the aftermath. After the earthquake hit, OpenStreetMap users came together overnight to create a viable city map. "I've worked in earthquake emergencies before," Wolff says. "If everybody is at least pointed in the same direction, that can make the humanitarian response much, much more efficient."
Wright sometimes worries that the new focus on personalization in the mapping world could lead to a narrowed vision. Rather than orienting yourself to the world, online maps allow you to orient the world to yourself. Location-based apps like Foursquare track your favorite places; Navigon finds your parked car; RunKeeper charts your jogging routes. Rather than being a tool for an outward-looking exploration of the world, digital mapping becomes just another means of self-gratification.
And yet, it's not so easy to draw the line between what we do for ourselves and how we engage with the world. OpenStreetMap's existence is based on the premise that users submit data about their own environments, but Wright says she's always associated maps with exploring and connecting to other cultures. "I think if you feel like being safe in Nepal is as relevant to you as mapping the name of your bodega, then that sense of space could shift with the map," she says.
While we think we map places we already know, perhaps we also map to learn that which we do not.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.