Mapping the city

I’ve been interested in ideas about digital mapping and tagging. In the past I’ve thought about this in terms of apps, and gave a paper last year at the RGS about the Museum of London’s app ‘StreetMuseum‘ and how it connects objects and places and technology in different ways.

I’ve been thinking again about apps and maps, and this time about non-specialist maps. I thought about them this week when faced with a road googlemaps assured me I could walk down, and common sense confirmed I could not. I thought about them when I read this interesting article about mapping. I thought about the maps of Eric Fischer, which Rainey Tisdale reminded me of in a talk. And I thought about them again when I checked my Facebook privacy settings.

Although games like Foursquare and Gowalla presented mapping as a primary part of app use, it seems that mapping and tagging is more often carried out as secondary functions to other social media. Relying on your default settings you can send out a geotagged tweet, you can be ‘tagged’ somewhere on facebook and have your instagram photos mapped without making a particular decision to do so. I’m interested in how this distracted mapping occurs and where and when it doesn’t occur.

The driving-default of Californian Google maps is not an especially intuitive way to transcribe the experience of moving around London. Google maps data is road-based an often road-bound, providing something different to the level of detail of an Ordnance Survey map. Although Google may move into museums its road and satellite-based system only suits certain gallery styles and models of visitor flow. Fischer’s maps, made up of flikr location data and Open Street Map mirror these road structures because they rely on data from the road-based flikr map. Fischer’s maps reiterate an impersonal impression: I take few of my photographs on roads. Many more are taken in parks, on beaches, on footpaths, in pubs, in clubs and of course in houses and gardens.

The maps that these apps use, create and embellish, present hollow cities, not especially representative of the places in which we live. The technical constrains of road maps are often matched with an intentional process; we don’t all wish to map our locations, workspaces or our homes, so we are complicit in creating gappy cartographies.

Anxieties about mapping are often expressed in terms of criminality: commentators warned that Instagram and Facebook‘s maps might give information to burglers or stalkers. I’m less interested in the veracity of these claims and more interested in the discomfort they express. There are other objections too — when my dad first suggested I use Frifi I sent him a slightly peeved reply highlighting part of the promo text:

“Amazing software for finding the exact location of your friends – great for the beach, hiking, concerts, nights out, keeping tabs on the kids…”

The ways in which we use maps has changed, and it seems like maps are presented as harvesting data as often as they are providing it. “Any square mile of the planet can be described in an infinite number of ways”, argues Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian article and tagging gives form to a range of responses. I’m curious about how people manage these mapping processes, especially when they are a secondary function to doing something else. I’ve seen people disabling the functions or engaging with them playfully by renaming certain locations, and I’m especially interested in these kinds of mapping which are accidental, unconscious, resented or outright refused.




As ever I wrote this blog post to give form to my ideas, and I have shared it in the hope it is read in the discursive, speculative spirit intended. It touches on thoughts and writing I have come across serendipitously, rather than being built on careful research. I would be very grateful if anyone would like to share their ideas, thoughts, criticisms or links to articles, experiments and other research here.

Thank you for reading.

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