Of Maps and Men

It seems to be difficult to produce a map without producing a biased view of the way the land lies. The map of the world as it is generally known is famously skewed in favour of the West; William Smith, obsessed with the strata he discovered, created the first geological map of Britain.

Importantly, he created his map by walking around the country, in 1799. This was a work of obsession, created by a man who wanted to show the world how he saw physical space to the point of sacrificing his own wealth and relationships. 88 years later, Charles Booth, likewise concerned with the poverty he saw everywhere, was to map poverty in London in the same way; by walking around the city and rating every street on a scale of one to eight, ranging from “wealthy” to “vicious, semi-criminal”.

Since that time, tracking poverty in Britain has grown more sophisticated; this Economist article compares Booth’s late Victorian maps to the current UK census data, concluding that London has – despite some changes – retained a remarkably similar social map. The Financial Times map of Britain linked in the previous post shows how each region in the UK has fared according to various metrics (inequality, unemployment and public expenditure per head, for example) since 1997.

This focus on concrete data, however, seems to underrate both the importance of mapping by walking around and the increasing power of mobile technology. OpenStreetMap aims to map all the world through the GPS units of everyone who owns one; every journey can be uploaded and the map produced is free of copyright. The whole of the Isle of Wight was mapped earlier this year in an OpenStreetMap workshop.

This, in itself, is exciting enough. But what if the data from a GPS could also include ratings much like the one Charles Booth used; if streets, like songs on an iPod, could be rated on a numerical scale from ‘like’ to ‘dislike’ and that data uploaded to the web and shown in aggregated form? The map produced would not only show an interesting set of data such as that shown on Booth’s and the Finiancial Times’ maps, but it could also have great practical applications. A person who was unhappy walking home after dark in an unfamiliar city could choose only routes that were rated three and above where possible; the tourist who wanted to take a scenic route could set similar criteria. Further, those who wished to contribute to the project could set their GPS to the equivalent of ‘Play All Unrated’ – with half an hour to spare in the city, many new streets could be found.

By showing these routes, such a map would render the unfamiliar familiar and the familiar, entirely new. A different route through the city in which one lives; a new way of considering the world around us; a new awareness of what other people think; a map such as the ones William Smith and Charles Booth made, by walking around and describing what they saw.

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