Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A biweekly tour of the ever-expanding cartographic landscape.
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Orient yourself: A smarter “smart city”
Perhaps you’ve heard that the future of cities lies on the internet. Buildings, streetlights, roads, and sewers will be blanketed with wifi-connected sensors, tuned to gather vital signs of the urban environment and our movements within it. At least that’s according to many a “smart city” product pitch from the likes of Alphabet, IBM, Cisco, and others.
The uneasy part is what happens with the information, collected by gunshot scanners, traffic detectors, even public wifi kiosks. It’s not that governments necessarily intend to do anything nefarious with people’s data. But “smart cities” are usually designed from the top-down with predetermined objectives, be it surveillance, prediction, science, or profit.
Carlo Ratti, an Italian architect, urban designer, engineer, and theorist, sees that heavily internet-ed future differently. I spent an afternoon with Ratti in May at the Senseable City Lab, his research consortium at MIT—you can read my profile of him here. He develops urban data-gathering projects where sensors interact with people and the environment in a more open-ended feedback loop, rather than in pursuit of particular outcomes. Take his exploratory sewage probes that somewhat inadvertently uncovered a new way to track opioid abuse. “It wasn’t supposed to solve anything. It was more like, what we can discover?” Ratti told me. Or take the GPS trackers tagged to bits of garbage that revealed the surprisingly broad pathways of American waste. Above, a map of a local trash route in Seattle.
There are often gorgeous mapping components to Ratti’s work, rooted as it tends to be in cities. Above, behold a visualization of Boston’s “Green View Index,” part of his lab’s “Treepedia” project, which gathered satellite imagery to determine the quality of canopy coverage in cities around the world. The idea was to help people get smarter about the living, breathing infrastructure around them, and possibly pique their interest in protecting it. A positive feedback loop, indeed.
Compass points: Inside the 100-mile zone
With the help of ESRI, CityLab’s Tanvi Misra recently mapped the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s “100-mile-zone,” a wide belt of American soil where CBP agents are allowed to detain, search, and seize individuals, including on the basis of race.
The zone happens to contain a whopping two-thirds of the U.S. population. But after Tanvi published the story, she got a lot of questions asking why all of Michigan was in there, too. After all, a portion of the state lies far beyond the 100-mile line from the U.S.-Canada border, as the crow flies.
In other words, when the government decides where to patrol “the border,” how does it decide where it is? Turns out, it makes up the answer. Exclusively for MapLab, Tanvi writes an update:
This issue came up in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 2016. In the complaint, the plaintiffs cited a map obtained from the CBP showing that the agency considered a "reasonable distance" of 100 nautical miles to extend from the shore of the Great Lakes. They marked it as the "functional equivalent" of the actual U.S.-Canadian border in this region—whatever that means. The agency declined to directly answer my question regarding this interpretation.
CBP's reading of the international boundary has also come up in the case of a lawsuit in New Hampshire, where, according to a statement the agency provided to a local news outlet, 100 nautical miles starts at "12 nautical miles offshore from the mean low-tide." By that measure, all of New Hampshire falls in the zone.
The big takeaway? Tanvi tells me that the "reasonable distance" from the border varies a lot from region to region, depending on the CBP's discretion.
Looking for more of Tanvi’s maps of U.S. immigration policy? Peer into where migrant kids separated from their parents at the border might have wound up, and which U.S. cities are helping detain immigrants.
Up and up: what a city’s “vertical agglomeration” says about its economy. ♦ Paris, c’est trop chaud: A map of heatwave hideaways in the French capital. ♦ ICYI: Apple Maps says it’s ready to be taken seriously. ♦ Beware the State of Solemnization: Fanciful maps of emotional terrain, circa the 17th century. ♦ Heart maps, but seriously: Advances in medical imaging reveal maps of the beating organ. ♦ Hot diggity: A tubular map projection by a conceptual artist, good for the grill. ♦ Hard not to balk: Montenegro, one NATO ally Trump might not help in a crisis, has its moment on the map.
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