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: Whose Waze anyways?
Christos Christoforos fell in love with Waze quickly. The Greek-born, Italy-based, English-fluent graphic designer felt more relaxed on long drives with time estimates and traffic warnings in hand. He was extra-thrilled to briefly set the app’s navigation voice to that of his favorite comedian, Stephen Colbert, who was a limited-edition guest narrator for Waze in 2015.
After those cues officially expired, Christoforos pored through Reddit’s hacker forums for tips to keep Colbert en route. That was when he realized that Waze didn’t give directions in his native tongue, Greek. So in late 2015, Christoforos recorded himself giving directions, using the Colbert phrases as a template, with the hopes that they might be useful to drivers in his homeland willing to hack the app. He also sent the tapes to Waze HQ. The company replied almost immediately: Would Christoforos want to do this, for real? Six months and thousands of strings of professionally recorded speech later, he became the official Greek voice of the app. (Christoforos also had the help of other Waze volunteers.)
“Partially I did it for bragging rights,” Christoforos told me over the phone this week. “But I’m mostly just happy to have contributed.”
Within a month, registered users in Greece spiked by 400 percent, according to Waze.
This is a pattern in un-Wazed countries. Around the globe, about 900 volunteers lend their time, native knowledge, and occasionally their voices to the app store’s second-most popular navigation tool. These “localizers” add and translate map features like the special names of toll roads or endemic chains of gas stations so that the app can be viable in their home countries. A lot of this activity takes place on web forums and spreadsheets.
That’s on top of thousands of self-elected geeks who adjust street segments, fix addresses, add businesses, and otherwise tweak the map on the open-access Waze editing platform. And that’s on top of tens of millions of Waze users who indirectly “donate” data simply by using the app. Love it or hate it, this is how the Waze sausage is made: It’s crowdsourced, top to bottom.
Why do volunteer mappers do it? Usually, it’s for the satisfaction of providing others with a useful service. And for Christoforos, it’s the enjoyment of quasi-celebrity status. But while volunteers can make maps more expansive and up-to-date, they can also create inconsistencies and gaps. And while crowdsourcing sounds democratic in practice, the real-world consequences of maps “made by everyone” aren’t collectively decided: Look at the backlash against Waze in crowded communities where the benefits of real-time routing have reached saturation. Broader access in more countries is great, but the more users navigation apps have, the less useful they become. At that point, who benefits from a volunteer-made map, except for the owner—in this case, Waze?
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Gimme a shout.
Compass points: A paintbox for your walk
In May, the Galileo Reference Centre opened its doors in the small Dutch city of Noordwijk. Its mission: to monitor and manage data pouring back to earth from Galileo, Europe's global navigation satellite system. (Galileo is interoperable with but separate from GPS, the American satellite-based navigation system.)
As part of the opening celebration, an Amsterdam design firm called Moniker created Painted Earth, a smartphone browser tool that “paints” the user’s location traces on a blank canvas—that is, Earth. “The result is cumulative over time, so one day participants may see the entire world 'painted' on their screen,” writes the European GNSS Agency. Pull it up on a lunchtime stroll to walk your own digital Pollock.
Mappy links: The future of gerrymandering
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Democratic voters in Wisconsin and Republican voters in Maryland who had brought partisan gerrymandering challenges against their state maps. Both cases were sent back to lower courts, disappointing voting rights advocates who hoped to see the court establish an equitable standard for drawing district lines.
How gerrymandering works: “I acknowledge freely that this would be a political gerrymander, which is not against the law.” That’s how one North Carolina lawmaker justified the blatantly self-serving lines on his state map. (NBC News)
What Monday’s decision means: “Among major democracies, only in the United States are self-interested politicians given the exclusive power to design election districts for themselves and their allies,” writes Richard H. Pildes, a law professor who has argued about redistricting before the Supreme Court. (New York Times)
What the judges said: “At its most extreme, the practice amounts to rigging elections,” wrote Justice Elena Kagan in her opinion. (Los Angeles Times)
When gerrymandering is OK: “Sometimes you want to give minorities a voice and an opportunity to elect someone who represents their interests,” one redistricting reformer in Pennsylvania told me. (CityLab)
A gerrymandering case in North Carolina is up next: "It only takes four justices to move it forward.” (The News & Observer)
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