The Dot Matrix | Magazine Colombia

Above: Sarah Williams maps the activities of social media users in New York for a week in July 2011, based on their Foursquare updates. Green dots represent outdoor activities; mauve, artistic events; hot pink, nightlife; red, work; yellow, dining room; light blue, shopping; and dark blue, arrivals and departures at travel hubs.

IInterpretive cartography in the United States has a patchy history. Urban planners agree the low point came in the 1930s, when bureaucrats at the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation produced maps of some 240 U.S. cities showing the average residential income in each neighborhood. The cards were intended to help government officials implement a mortgage relief program for distressed borrowers, but they proved to be an ideal tool for those who wished to discriminate. Over the next few decades, private banks used the cards to justify their denial of mortgages to black people in poorer areas, on the grounds that residents of those neighborhoods could be considered “high risk”. Redlining, as the practice came to be called, was common in many American cities until the 1970s, when it was finally banned.

“These maps were powerful because they were colorful, easy to interpret, and told a clear story,” says Laura Kurgan ’90GSAPP, associate professor of architecture and director of Columbia’s Spatial Information Design Laboratory (SIDL) to Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Conservation. “Would the bankers have discriminated against the residents of these areas anyway? May be. But the cards made it easier. And at the time, only a small number of people had access to social data or the ability to visualize it, so few thematic maps were created. Those who existed were very influential.

More data, more maps, more stories. More voices participating in a conversation about how to see our cities, solve their problems and serve their residents. That’s the goal of Kurgan and his colleagues at SIDL, who over the past eight years have trained civic organizations, nonprofit groups, and everyday citizens to tell their own stories through thematic mapping. : the practice of creating maps overlaid with statistical information.

In Moscow, buyers are moving away from the city center.

SIDL researchers, together with collaborators around the world, have created maps that show where air quality in Beijing is worst, where traffic congestion in Nairobi could be alleviated, which neighborhoods in Los Angeles depend most on immigrant labor and which New York streets frequent. having trash build up from missed collections.

They even helped stop a New York City rezoning proposal. In 2009, as the city considered passing an ordinance allowing high-end commercial tenants into Manhattan’s Garment District — based on the theory that physical proximity to clothing retailers and suppliers is less important in the age of the Internet — SIDL researcher Sarah Williams distributed cell phones equipped with Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to dozens of garment workers. She encouraged them to text SIDL whenever they did a fabric delivery, trim pickup or costume inspection. The resulting maps demonstrated that garment workers were constantly rushing through the neighborhood eight blocks away; the city council quickly shelved the proposal.

“Some of our collaborators are nonprofit research groups who ask us for help in displaying their findings,” says Kurgan. “In other cases, like for garment workers, we help citizens collect data and then create visuals to show something about their lives.”

A thematic map, like any tool for presenting statistics, will reveal the biases of the person who produces it. Consider, for example, a crime map. If you had to plot on a map the 150,000 serious crimes that happened in New York last year, how would you do it? A map showing one point per crime would scare people away from Times Square and Midtown Manhattan. If the data were adjusted for each neighborhood’s population and commercial density, Times Square and Midtown would appear safe, and northern Manhattan and northern Brooklyn would appear the most dangerous. A map displaying only violent crime would be different again. Police departments, when deciding where to send their officers, typically use a combination of these mapping strategies.

Data visualization of social media user activity in Tokyo
In Tokyo, night-clubbers cling to the subway lines.

But all of these approaches share an underlying assumption: that the best way to stop crime is to see where it is happening. In 2005, Kurgan and his colleagues SIDL, along with the Brooklyn-based nonprofit Justice Mapping Center, has found a whole new way of looking at crime. Using state corrections statistics across the United States, they created a series of maps showing how much money is spent to incarcerate people in certain inner-city neighborhoods. The maps reveal that in some places the government spends more than a million dollars a year to imprison people as one block.

The stark black and red matrices that make up SIDL’s Million-Dollar Blocks project – several of which now belong to the Museum of Modern Art in New York – are meant to prompt questions, such as, if more investment were made in after-school programs , parenting classes or playgrounds in these neighborhoods, could the crimes have been prevented and the money saved?

“Our goal was to bring the problem of mass incarceration down to the street level,” says Kurgan, who notes that the maps, produced for New Orleans, Wichita, Phoenix and New York, have been periodically updated. . “We wanted to show the places, in a granular way, where policies were having an impact, and create something that could be useful for people who want to change those policies.”

Some SIDL projects are lighter. Last year, Williams programmed her computer to download massive amounts of information from the website of Foursquare, a social networking service that uses GPS receivers in cellphones to allow subscribers to broadcast their location to friends. Williams hoped that if she mapped the precise locations of Foursquare updates — publicly available information on the service’s main page — she might reveal something interesting about life in cities.

For a week in July 2011, a computer in the SIDL office at the school of architecture downloaded content from every Foursquare update from New York, Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, and Mumbai. By the end of the week, people in those cities had posted more than two million updates. Williams, using another computer program she created for the task, then translated the information into dots whose colors represent the type of activity popular at a location – green for outdoor activities, purple for arts events, yellow for dining, hot pink for nightlife and so on – and whose size represents the number of Foursquare users engaged in the activity.

Data visualization of social media user activity in Rio de Janeiro
In Rio, we see users flocking to Ipanema beach.

The brightly colored maps hint at patterns: in Tokyo, nightlife-seeking young people cluster around subway stops; in Rio, they rarely venture from Ipanema Beach; and in Moscow, shoppers populate the city’s outer belts, where several Western-style mega-malls have been built in recent years.

When the project began, Williams had expected to find Foursquare activity in New York City concentrated in wealthy, white neighborhoods. If true, she thought, it would suggest a digital divide in social media use with implications, among other things, for how city agencies and nonprofits communicate with those who need their help. services. “Imagine you’re a healthcare organizer trying to educate people about air quality issues,” she says. “Should we use social networks? It’s a popular strategy right now. But do people in poor neighborhoods really use these sites? It’s hard to know.

In fact, his map shows that New Yorkers across the city, from Chelsea to Harlem and from Brownsville to the South Bronx, regularly use Foursquare. (While most activity occurs in Midtown and Lower Manhattan, the number of updates in these areas is proportional to their density.)

“New York is a city of social media, top to bottom,” says Williams, who was recently asked by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office to show city officials how they could use her methods to find out which parks and plazas public are the most frequented. “We found patterns in the data that you couldn’t see before – stories that didn’t exist. The maps really bring them out.

Douglas Quenqua contributed reporting for this article.

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