Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. 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.
Remember Pokemon Go? For a few wild weeks in 2016, the catch-’em-all smartphone game sent millions chasing augmented-reality pocket monsters through neighborhoods around the world. Though the app’s incredible ubiquity was fleeting, the way it weaved mapping technology into physical space hasn’t disappeared. And some of its peculiar side effects are only now being resolved.
Recall that as players searched for Pikachus and Snorlaxes—or rather their likenesses, projected onto sidewalks and storefronts through an alchemy of AR, GPS, and smartphone technology—occasionally they wound up in places they shouldn’t have. Some “Pokestops” were plainly inappropriate: the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., say, or Ground Zero in Manhattan. Other times they were illegal: Players could easily stumble onto private property, alarming homeowners around the world.
That included Melissa Perez of Tulare, California. Perez never played the game herself, so at the height of the craze, she couldn’t understand why so many kids were climbing over her fence, loosening its slats and ultimately causing it to collapse. Finally, her neighbors filled her in: “That’s when I figured out, OK, there’s a Pokemon in our swimming pool,” Perez told me over the phone last week. But who could she hold accountable for the damage—the kids or Niantic, the game’s maker? She was dealing with trespassers that were both digital and physical. There weren’t clear answers.
So Perez joined a class action lawsuit with other aggrieved homeowners around the U.S., accusing Niantic of ignoring their pleas to be removed from the digital map and asking for compensation for the nuisance. Nearly three years later, the case appears close to resolution: If a California federal judge approves a proposed settlement, Niantic will pay $1,000 to each of the plaintiffs, and will shoulder far more legal responsibility for future out-of-bounds roaming by its virtual creatures. For example, homeowners will be able to demand the removal of Pokemon within 40 meters of their properties, and the company will maintain a catalog of such complaints to help prevent troublesome placements.
Though the game has died down, Perez doesn’t think $1,000 is enough to cover her damaged fence, or to make up for sleepless nights spent worrying about her very 21st century intruders. “Someone has to take responsibility for what they broke,” she said. Yet we haven’t seen the end of maps-based games: Last year, Google Maps opened up its platform for game developers, unleashing new competition for Niantic. Perez’s case could set important precedent for how they operate.
Pokemon Go’s unwanted consequences also echo a more pervasive issue: frustration among neighborhood groups about commuter congestion apparently caused by Waze and Google Maps. As far as I can tell, those companies haven’t met any requests to remove public roads from their maps, “public” being a key distinction with the illegal Pokemon. But some observers think it’s only a matter of time before communities go to court with navigation apps, too, to force changes. ”Sooner or later there will be a class-action lawsuit,” Alexandre Bayen, the director of UC Berkeley’s Institute for Transportation Studies, told me over the summer.
Write me: When a virtual interface sends you into somebody else’s space, who should be responsible: mapmakers, or map users? Send me your thoughts.
Read more: From the CityLab archives, how Pokemon Go created a new kind of flâneur. (Lol.)
Patchwork city, U.S.A.
American cities are more fragmented than they used to be, finds a new study replete with striking maps. Elizabeth Delmelle, a University of North Carolina geography scholar, compared the demographic make-up of contiguous neighborhoods in the nation’s 50 largest metro areas, revealing stark divisions between neighboring communities along racial, ethnic, and class lines. Below, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Tampa are shown to be quite patchy.
On CityLab, Richard Florida writes about these findings:
America’s cities and metro areas bear little resemblance to the urban/suburban or poor city/rich suburban model of the past. But neither do they look like the inverted pattern of rich, urban centers surrounded by poorer suburbs that some say is a consequence of the gentrified city. Instead, the modern metropolis takes the form of a patchwork of polygons, a chaotic and jumbled mixture of neighborhood types. […] For example, in the core of Los Angeles, moving over just one census tract can mean entering an entirely different neighborhood.
For more details and more of Delmelle’s patchy maps, read the rest of Florida’s piece.
Lisbon’s spate of tile theft may be both helped and harmed by crowdsourced mapping. (CityLab) ♦ Citizen mappers are “slaying the competition” to revise Pennsylvania’s gerrymandered district maps. (WHYY) ♦ Locating 911 callers is surprisingly hard, and some companies are trying to fix that. (Wall Street Journal) ♦ Mapillary, the crowdsourced Google Street View competitor, is building cities impressive digital street sign catalogs. (GovTech) ♦ New Jersey, shhh: this map might finally resolve debate over what counts as North, South, and Central. (NJ 101.5)
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See you in March!