Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
A biweekly tour of the ever-expanding cartographic landscape.
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An article from ProPublica this week offers a juicy example of how two-dimensional maps have the power to shape three-dimensional space. It tells the saga of Port Covington, a largely empty section of Baltimore, Maryland, that qualified for a coveted federal tax break due to a tiny mapping error.
President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax reforms included a new provision known as “opportunity zones,” whereby lucrative tax incentives (in some cases worth 25 percent of the investment, ProPublica found) are made available to investors to redevelop poor urban areas. To determine which neighborhoods qualify, the Treasury Department releases a list of Census tracts that are in or adjacent to low-income areas. Each state’s governor then selects the few that they deem most important.
Initially, Port Covington was too wealthy to count for the Trump administration’s new tax break. And the billionaire chief executive officer of Under Armour, Kevin Plank, and his associates already planned to rebuild the sparsely developed peninsula at the edge of downtown Baltimore. They’d spent $100 million amassing properties to build a sprawling new headquarters and mixed-use real estate development. (Above, a screenshot from ProPublica’s moving map feature that shows Port Covington originally disqualified.)
But after Plank’s lobbyists met with the Maryland governor, Port Covington wound up on a revised list of opportunity zones, ProPublica found. The justification: On the Treasury’s map, a sliver of the tract overlapped with a neighboring area that was an “empowerment zone,” a Clinton-era redevelopment program. The problem: That overlap doesn’t exist in real life. A mapping error incorrectly shaded in a .0001-square-mile section of a parking lot beneath an interstate that actually divides the two tracts.
Now, thanks to that flawed bank map, Plank’s development project—which was already underway—is in line for a major windfall. And Baltimore neighborhoods that are actually struggling will miss out on the tax benefit. Some of the areas that the city had suggested as opportunity zones, which were passed over by the governor, have a poverty rate “three times higher than Port Covington’s,” write ProPublica’s Justin Elliott and Jeff Ernsthausen. Meanwhile, at Port Covington, new construction is kicking off.
Read the full story here: One Trump Tax Cut Was Meant to Help the Poor. A Billionaire Ended Up Winning Big.
In time for hurricane season, CityLab’s Linda Poon wrote about a useful new feature on Google Maps.
She summarized her findings for MapLab:
A slew of updates coming to Google Maps this summer could make our phones key to navigating natural disasters. Among other things, the new functions will route users away from road closures or a storm’s trajectory by crowdsourcing real-time information from official sources and fellow users. Map readers will also be able to contact their loved ones within the app, and in India, users will receive flood prediction alerts based on AI technology.
Such features highlight Google’s commitment to crisis-response, which the tech giant has been working on over the last few years. Yet they also underscore the lack of coordination among local and federal governments to properly communicate with the public in times of crises—when minutes matter between life and death.
College grads searching for direction: make yourself a map. (New York Times) ♦ Speaking of map errors: a 19th-century surveying mistake messed with residents near Charleston, South Carolina, until recently. (AP) ♦ Ghosts in the satellite: Why a sunken plane appears on SnapChat’s map of the San Diego coast. (Newsweek) ♦ Sprawl’s the word: mapping the global human footprint. (Phys.org) ♦ Retracing small steps and giant leaps: the Apollo 11 mission, in maps. (Scientific American) ♦ Money for “MAPPS”: the U.S. House Appropriations Committee has approved an additional $10 million to support critical geospatial research. (POB Online)
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