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New Cartographers: How Citizen Mapmakers Are Changing the Story of Our Lives

"Individuals are creating maps for themselves and in fact giving us their own narrative of what a cityscape is about."

We see them every day, popping up on our Twitter feeds, filtered through blogs, or even scattered throughout the New York Times: maps portraying not the usual locations or destinations, but data.

From people’s kisses in Toronto, to the concentration of pizza joints in New York, to the number of women who ride bikes, to the likelihood of being killed by a car in any given American city, the list of lenses through which we can now view our cities and neighborhoods goes on, thanks to data-mapping geeks.

“The map user has now become the map creator,” is how Fraser Taylor put it to me in an interview. The director of the Geomatics and Cartographic Research Centre at Carleton University, Taylor is one of the world’s leading cartographers, standing as the director of the International Steering Committee for Global Mapping and a member of the United Nations Expert Group on Global Geographic Information Management as well as a host of other major international mapping organizations.

He describes what’s going on as an enormous cultural shift from a previous era when the mapping of our cities (or countries, or world, for that matter) was placed mainly in the hands of government mapping authorities.

But even more importantly, Taylor says, we are also mapping new things—intangibles like social phenomena, feelings, impacts, and more.

“Individuals inside cities and elsewhere are creating maps for themselves and in fact giving us their own narrative of what a cityscape is about. They are telling us what is important to them, and they’re mapping the kinds of things that previously would not be mapped,” he says. “It’s becoming part of the creation of a culture of a city.”

The democratization of mapmaking is the result of a potent mixture of digital revolutions.

Combine the phenomenon of governments opening their data to the public with the new ability to crowdsource information. Then add the introduction of open-source mapping tools like OpenStreetMap, and the fact that within just around five years nearly every one of us has equipped ourselves with a mobile device with GPS technology.

Suddenly—boom—we’re seeing our cities laid out in front of us in an entirely new way. Every day.

But at some point, as with any technological revolution, it warrants taking a step back from the excitement and asking ourselves: what is it all good for?

Sure it’s fun, fascinating, and informative to see our city through these various curious lenses. We understand it in new ways, yes. But does it actually matter? Does it change our behavior, or it is just a toy?

In other words: Now what?

One glimpse of the potential this all holds can be found on Datablog, the Guardian blog dedicated entirely to data-based journalism. Datablog has mapped everything from the impact of cuts to housing benefits in the UK to government attempts to get Google to remove content or reveal data about its users, providing not only the maps and data sets but often the analysis necessary to understand the implications.

The impact of this became especially apparent during the riots that shook the United Kingdom in the summer of 2011. When UK Prime Minister David Cameron denied outright that the riots had anything to do with poverty, Datablog countered the claim with, well, data.

When Prime Minister David Cameron said UK riots were not related to poverty, Datablog produced a map overlaying income districts and defendants' addresses.

Overlaying the addresses of the defendants in the riots with concentrations of poverty, the website produced a map showing a much different picture: nearly 60 percent of those appearing in court lived within the top 20 percent of England’s most deprived areas.

“Ten years ago you would have had to be a major GIS (Graphic Information System) specialist to even approach to do that,” says Datablog editor Simon Rogers. Now anyone with basic computer skills could learn to do it at no cost.

Rogers says the key to making data maps work lies in layering. While one set of data on a map is interesting, two or more tell a story that really teaches us something.

Much like rioters’ addresses spread atop a poverty map illuminates a potential factor in criminal behavior, perhaps Torontonians’ kisses laid over a map of traffic congestion, open public space, or concentration of trees would tell us not only where we experience moments of intimacy, but why.

It suddenly puts citizens in a powerful position by giving them the ability to make demands from their governments based not on anecdotes but on more detailed facts and correlations than ever before—should they choose to.

“I think we’re now in a position where we [the media and the public] can really make a difference. When the rest of the world is desperate to know what this stuff means, we can be that bridge to the data,” says Rogers.

“Government-released information is brilliant. But at the same time the government is not going to analyze it for us. It’s not their job to do it. I think people have kind of stepped back a bit and are waiting for them to do it, and they’re not going to. It’s up to us to do that. It’s our job to hold them to account. It’s kind of impossible to lie on an issue that’s data-led, because someone will pick you up on it.”

And while Fraser Taylor is equally enthusiastic about the potential that crowdsourced and open-data mapping holds, he says that the biggest hurdle yet will be finding a way to convince governments and mapping agencies of the data’s reliability.

“As of yet there is still a resistance on the part of both government and national mapping agencies to this information. They’re always saying, ‘What is the quality of this information? Is this stuff reliable or not?’ But increasingly people are coming around to realize that there are ways of dealing with the so-called reliability issue and the accuracy issue in a way which can lead to an enrichment of society and an enrichment of their own products,” he says.

Taylor himself is currently working to develop a crowdsourcing framework that automatically creates metadata (data about the data), thus enabling the merging of crowdsourced data with that of authorities and hard science.

He points out that an increasing number of mapping agencies, including the national mapping agency of Canada, where he is based, are already looking at volunteered geographic information as a direct input into its official mapping.

There’s no doubt in Taylor’s mind that this is the beginning of a very new and exciting era—one that puts citizens in the position to understand and influence the politics of their cities as never before.

And as for those kissing maps? Are they worthwhile, too?

“Absolutely,” Taylor says. It’s all part of the historical narrative of our cities—one that will be more democratically recorded in this generation than ever before.

“The image of your society was once determined by those who had the power to determine what would be mapped, and what wouldn’t be,” he says.

“Today that is changing.”

Lab Notes I is an eight-week series focusing on trends that emerged from the BMW Guggenheim Lab New York. Curators Maria Nicanor and David van der Leer, blogger Christine McLaren, and a prominent group of guest contributors will explore the forces and transformations shaping the future of cities. The eight-week series will focus on four successive trends; the first is the Rise of Open-Source Urbanism

  • Jason Lally

    Thanks for the heads up on Twitter about this. I think there may be an excellent space to actually engage people in the collection of important data as defined by the participants in a planning process.  Maybe it’s too ill defined for a specific plan, but I could see this becoming built into an ongoing engagement strategy to help a community define itself by providing simple tools to participants in workshops to go out and collect, curate and define data on their own.  Then feed that back into a workshop where participants work out ways to use the data to inform themselves and the community.  This is already being done in some form or another through hack-a-thons, data camps, and other unconference type events.  But I see a possibility to really engage the non-coders and less technical people in empowering themselves with data.

    I’m really interested in taking this organic trend and amplifying it’s impact on planning and community engagement.  Just some food for thought, but I hope it’s got enough legs to become something transformative for community planning.

    • Christine McLaren

      Hey Jason. Thanks for a great and thoughtful comment. I definitely encourage you to check out some of the work Professor Taylor is doing with his project up in the Canadian arctic, called Nunaliit (which means “community” in the Inuktituk language, an Inuit dialect) – more info here:

      It’s a fascinating example of exactly what you’re talking about – albeit on a very small scale. They’re using it as a tool to better understand a multitude of changes in the community as a result of climate and other changes. 

      Fascinating, though, would be to see this could be applied on a larger scale within big cities. I believe the goal is to have the tool available to anyone, all over the world.

      I’d be curious to hear if anyone else knows of similar examples?

  • Christine McLaren

    This story was re-run on the sustainable city blog, This Big City, and the first comment someone left was too good not to share:

    From gregorylent: “The external manifestation of the internal truth that we all see a different world.”

  • Bernard

    Next step: political thinking.
    In this perspective, see also this article: Y. Rumpala, “Knowledge and praxis of networks as a political project”, 21st Century Society, Volume 4, Issue 3, November 2009.
    Modern-day society is increasingly described as an extensive web of networks, but as such, it is often perceived and experienced as elusive. In light of this paralysing description, this paper aims to highlight the potentially political dimension of network analysis, namely as defined in the social sciences, and of the notion of networks itself. It will be shown that a political project could, in this case, be built on the desire to know this reticular world better, but also to be able to act appropriately towards it. Three steps are proposed to specify how such a political project could be built. The first step aims at deploying knowledge of networks and emphasises the usefulness of a procedure to trace them. The second step shows the possibilities that this knowledge offers, particularly in allowing one to find one’s bearings in a world which is frequently described as veering towards an increasing complexity, and by helping to rebuild the selection criteria for connections in this world, thanks to an additional degree of reflexivity. The third step draws on these points to extend them and bring out potentialities with regards to the intervention capacities in network configurations.
    (also downloadable at: )

  • Lindsay Patross

    Great post.  I have started a project to put blogs with local content on a map. Currently there are lots of great blogs with content about specific places.  We have started a map at to plot these local blogs on one map.  In the future you will be able to filter these by topic and tag. Anyone who has a blog about a place or knows of a great community blog is invited to submit their blog to the map –

  • Christine McLaren

    Lindsay – I love this!! As someone who is both very tied to my local community, but also a frequent traveller who likes to get right into the heart of what is going on in a city, I think this is a brilliant and incredibly useful tool. I look forward to following where it goes from here.

    Any chance you’ll be expanding to Berlin or Mumbai in the near future? I’m on the hunt for locals’ opinions on who and what to read when I get there!

  • Mark

    One area the author missed is the value that high-resolution commercial satellite imagery brings to the table. Imagery from these satellites, mainly owned and operated by GeoEye and DigitalGlobe, can see objects on the ground as small as 41 cm (16 inches) in size but most importantly map the position of an object that size to within a few meters of its true location on the planet. So these satellite are mapping machines in orbit and provide the accuracy behind the maps.

  • Anonymous

    Following on from Jason’s comment, there’s a chance we are getting carried away with technology and need to step back a little.  People can map their own neighbourhoods with little or no technology – if they collaborate with their neighbours they can produce a community map, and through that perhaps define their community.  I love the opportunities that technology in mapping offers – with the Chorley Institute (UCL, London) we looked at running “Walking Geography” events to explore how walkers / pedestrians could share their discoveries through their mobile platforms.  However, I am a great believer in walking about with your eyes open and all your senses attuned to your surroundings – gathering information and sharing it with others through the simple process of drawing a map with pen and pencil.  We did this in 2007 with Map Rambles and were judged the best thing to do n London by Time Out – we are reprising Map Rambling on the 8th Feb with a group of PhD Planners from the Bartlett (also at UCL), and they are set to explore and map Deptford in south east London – all I ask them to bring is an open mind and I’ll provide them paper and pens when they come together at the end of their exploration.  If anyone reading this blog would like to join us on the 8th Feb, you are most welcome – it is a chance to step back from mapping technologies and witness the empowerment that drawing out a collated map can engender.

    • Jason Lally

      I wish I could attend!  This sounds great.  We’ve found sending people out into the community can be powerful just as a general concept.  We do this in some of our projects where we send folks out to take pictures and really observe the community.  Ultimately, the pictures themselves are less important (although not entirely unimportant) than the act of taking the pictures.  It helps people “frame” the issues in quite a literal way and enhances the level of discussion at our follow up workshops.  We call this process a walkshop.  Will the results of your workshop be made available in any way?  This is the kind of thing we’re trying to highlight and test as part of a range of engagement approaches through the PlaceMatters Decision Lab (  It may be something we could replicate in the communities we work in.

  • MapsMarker

    Hi Christine,

    thanks for the interesting post. The democratization of mapmaking is an important
    trend and needs to be supported not only by tools from big companies but also
    by tools using OpenStreetMap data and open source technology. This was one of
    the reasons, why I developed the freely available WordPress mapping plugin
    “Leaflet Maps Marker”, which allows you to pin, organize & show
    your favorite places through OpenStreetMap/WMTS, Google Maps/Earth (KML),
    GeoJSON or Augmented-Reality browsers. As it builds upon free maps and saves
    the location data to your local WordPress instance, it might become a valuable
    tool for all WordPress users wanting to display location info in their sites
    (at least I hope so 😉

    A demo of the plugin can be seen on,
    download is available via the WordPress plugin repository. Perhaps you want to
    give it a try 😉
    Kind regards from Vienna in Austria,


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