Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
A biweekly tour of the ever-expanding cartographic landscape.
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Orient yourself: Hard, but not impossible
A map only reveals as much as the mapmaker knows about the world, or at least, cares to show. When most mapmakers are men, there’s bound to be gaps.
For example, on Open Street Map, the free and open-source Google Maps competitor edited by volunteers around the world, “childcare centers, health clinics, abortion clinics, and specialty clinics that deal with women’s health are vastly underrepresented,” reports Sarah Holder at CityLab. It’s estimated that just 2 to 5 percent of OSMers are women. The vast majority are older, retired men.
That gender imbalance provokes serious debate among mapmakers—one of the more contentious battles in OSM history was in 2011, when editors rejected an appeal to tag “childcare” at all. (It’s since been added.) But more importantly, a map that fails to represent the needs of more than half the population is not a very a useful map. The stakes are highest in places where there is no Google, Apple, or any other company working as a back-up. Sometimes, a volunteer-made map is the only cartographic resource citizens and humanitarian organizations in developing countries have to go on.
That’s why a team of OpenStreetMap users—with lots of women involved—is intentionally creating maps that reflect space more inclusively. On International Women’s Day, Holder reported on a “feminist map-a-thon” in Washington, D.C., hosted by Missing Maps, a humanitarian mapping organization. There, volunteers worked to build a map for an NGO in Tanzania that shelters girls facing the threat of genital mutilation. Their digital lines and labels (such as: “women’s toilet”) could become real-world escape routes.
Inclusive geography is about more than mapping bridges and tunnels that everybody uses. “It’s shaped by asking things like: Where on the map do you feel safe?” Holder writes. “How would you walk from A to B in the city without having to look over your shoulder? It’s hard to map these intangibles—but not impossible.”