Thanks to the open data movement, anyone can be a cartographer. Professor Laura Kurgan on geography as a storytelling tool.

Thanks to the open data movement and Google Map Maker, anyone with a computer can create a map. These maps tell a story, but it's a subjective one. And while that can be a powerful tool, it can also skew perspectives and cloud a debate.

"We should really teach people to read maps in that way," says Laura Kurgan, an associate professor of architecture at Columbia University. "Maps are arguments, just like a piece of written journalism is an argument."

That's what Kurgan is attempting to show in her new book, Close Up at a Distance, which includes several of her mapping projects. When Kurgan graduated from architecture school, she says, digital technology was just starting to enter her field. Today, data is everywhere. It opens a much larger realm of mapping and interpretation.

She's careful to avoid judgement about maps that have done more harm than good (although we can certainly think of a few silly arguments, here and here). But Kurgan alludes to this point in the book, regarding Secretary of State Colin Powell's 2003 presentation of satellite images of Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. She argues that the issue was not the images themselves, but the lack of context. She writes:

We need to learn how to agree and disagree with those arguments, to challenge the interpretations made of images that are anything but objective or self-evident. For every image, we should be able to inquire about its technology, its location data, its ownership, its legibility, and its source.

One of her most eloquent illustrations of the power of maps is the "Million-Dollar Blocks" project, which shows how incarceration can disproportionately affect neighborhoods.

© Spatial Information Design Lab, GSAPP, Columbia University

This project applied the idea of crime spotting to incarceration data. Kurgan notes in the book:

Simply by mapping the home addresses of people as they are admitted to prison, which are also the addresses to which they will most likely return upon release, and by correlating that with the amount of time they spend in prison (and hence the cost to the state), 'phenomenal facts' indeed emerge.

The 'phenomenal facts' in the map above are that 109 people in these 17 Brooklyn blocks cost $17 million in incarceration spending in 2003.

The argument here is clear: some American communities feel the impact of the jail and prison system much more than others. She notes in the book that "The focus shifts away from a case-by-case analysis" to a "geography of incarceration and return."

Kurgan also observes these hidden geographies in satellite images, such as the two images of the World Trade Center in September of 2001, on the 13th and again on the 15th. She writes in the book that high-resolution satellite images are "all-seeing" and "time-stamped evidence from an authoritative eye-witness."

But even these are open to interpretation. The images below are zoomed-in images of monochrome landscapes, but they aren't just pretty pictures. While displayed as art, she notes in the book that "the places on Earth that appeared from above as more or less a single color were also places that were contested, fragile, and subjected to an increasingly thorough surveillance apparatus." The road seen in the photo on the left is actually an illegal logging road, and was used in court evidence by the NGO Global Forest Watch.

Maps of incarceration and images of rainforest may seem vastly different, at least in subject matter. But they both say something about the world that is inaccessible any other way. Much like John Snow's 1854 map of cholera in London, the incarceration map and these images easily argue a point that is buried in data.

"All maps are there to tell a story," she says. It's our job to "decode them."

Left: Old-growth tropical lowland rain forest, Cameroon (© 2001 Space Imaging LLC/Courtesy of book); Right: Southern desert, southeastern Iraq (© 2003 DigitalGlobe/Courtesy of book)

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