The two faces of “me-centred” mapping

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I’m sitting in my living room, every now and then checking my iPhone to see when my friend will arrive for lunch.Back in the good old days of the 2000s, I’d have been reading a text message to get his personal estimated time of arrival. Now, I watch the little purple dot approach as his bus travels ever closer to the stop near my apartment. I’m using the Find Friends app. It’s a bit freaky – if you allow them, select of your contacts can watch your whereabouts at all times, and they can allow the same for you – but it’s useful for situations like this where I want to stay indoors and work up to the time he arrives.That’s one of the benefits of digital mapping combined with GPS location and smartphones. You can optimise your life for efficiency: minimising travel time, optimising savings when shopping, avoiding traffic jams, maximising your chance of finding the right home when you move. That’s all great, but there are some downsides.

As I point out in this New Scientist article, published this week, we’re less able to navigate on our own, for instance, and we’re also less able to create a mental map if we can’t see the broader context on a small screen.
But where digital navigation seems to be a mixed blessing for our minds, other mapping tools can help us remember.
Our use of social media to put ourselves on the map in real time is changing our interaction with place, says Didem Ozkul, a researcher at the University of Westminster. “Locative media does not necessarily replace the cognitive map. People use it as a platform to communicate and share things – it’s a form of nostalgia, diary-making.”The act of uploading our own data onto publically viewed platforms has another effect, says Ozkul: places without internet connectivity are considered by many as “off the map” – barely existing on sketch maps drawn by many of her survey subjects.
There’s no doubt that digital mapping is changing our perception of the world in many ways. Not least is that eternal balance between the marvellous tools we can access without handing over any cash, and the abundant advertising to which we are subjected – paying for the services with out brain space instead of our wallets.

Coupling the usefulness of maps with sale of goods leads to a shift from using maps to find trade to trading map data. In a world where I can scan a barcode on my smartphone and use an app to find the same product cheaper online or at another shop nearby, the opportunity for commodification of information is endless – and obscured. There have already been challenges around anti-trust issues against Google’s use of location in smart phone software, and their Ground Truth project is working to automatically recognise and map commercial logos.

The power of the digital interface is great – regardless of what data is available on the map, the quality of the interface has a huge impact in what we actually take in. Just as you can’t zoom in on a printed map, there are limitations to what you will see on a digital map, and how the interface is designed makes a big difference to whether you understand the data, or indeed are even aware it is there.There is no doubt that digital mapping holds the potential for data curation not for the benefit but for the control of consumers’ decisions.

 But where some data is in danger of commodification, there are other initiatives that push us into the open realm to try to empower our commercial decisions. Leo Bonanni founded the first platform for supply chain mapping, sourcemap.org. Companies and individuals can create a cradle-to-consumer map of a product, so when you head into a supermarket you can see the farm where your carrots, or clothing, came from.

“Food manufacturers are making supply chains public because consumers have been barraging them with questions about their products”. This visibility is having an impact inside the supply chain too, says Bonanni. “Some suppliers to major electronics companies are differentiating their products through transparency.”
The pull between proprietary and open source data, the commodification of place, is akin to more traditional struggles over capitalist economics, and our concept of value. Whoever wins it’s important to maintain openness and visibility. Happily, these are two things easy to come by in the digital realm.
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