Dan Phiffer dan at phiffer.org
Mon Sep 23 04:23:21 AEST 2019

> On Sep 20, 2019, at 9:50 AM, margaretha haughwout <margaretha.anne.haughwout at gmail.com> wrote:
> But I'm wondering about the ways 'we' see the Amazon from afar -- the technologies we use, and how they themselves are implicated in colonial histories and colonial futures that have us leaving earth -- could you comment. How do you use these mapping and satellite technologies in your own practice?

I try to keep in mind that maps, and the data they depend on, necessarily reflect the cartographer’s bias (and the embodied bias of data collection). Maps certainly have a long history of being instrumental for resource extraction and settler colonialism, and it seems important to take that into account somehow in mapmaking.

My last job was working on an open data gazetteer (the component that puts labels onto maps) called Who’s On First [1] (aka WOF). It’s an open dataset indexing all the places in the world, and eventually throughout history. It’s a conglomeration of liberally-licensed sources combined into a single comprehensive (if biased) view of the world. The premise is that by working in the open, with an inclusive editorial process, the project could incrementally improve by including more and more diverse perspectives in its rendition of the world [2]. (And it’s not lost on me that imposing any such system onto distant places is colonial by nature. So it goes.)

Only recently has the WOF project grappled with how to incorporate indigenous territory, and how to designate those places into its hierarchy. There has been some discussion of adding indigenous territories at the  “country” place type, while some have argued that could lead to confusion and might undermine "trust in the data.” Whatever they end up being called in that dataset, I support including more community-sourced maps of traditional sovereign territories [3] in favor of the US Census's so-called American Indian Area Geographies [4]. As Aaron Straup-Cope, WOF's editor at large, put it in a NACIS conference talk, “the past is our burden” [5].

As someone who has built a number of online maps over the years, I’ve been frustrated by Google Maps’s tendency to break due to shifting business priorities ("gotta pay up!"). I see lots of “This API key no longer works,” or "Oops! Something went wrong.” In an effort to minimize this long-term maintenance pitfall, and because I took a break for a couple years from using smart phones, I’ve been working on building my own open source mapping software, all built on open Mapzen technologies [6]. Compared to Google, my map loads a bit slower, the search is not quite as good, and it is less refined in many ways. It’s designed to more easily invite editing, and lets me easily build collaborative maps without depending on the whims of the world’s largest advertising company.

Open source mapping is a long-term work in progress, and when Mapzen (the company that oversaw Who’s On First) shut down it felt like a huge setback for those of us who believe in the value of a "mapping commons." Mapzen's projects were designed to outlive the company and most of them continue today as volunteer efforts under the governance of the Linux Foundation [7]. Using an open mapping tech stack still feels like a worthwhile effort to me, and essential to having any kind of leverage over what types of biases creep into one's maps.

Bringing it back to the AMAZON IS BURNING subject line, I guess the point is to try to pry apart the cartographic artifact from the territory it depicts. It seems so easy to mistake the little blue dot on the phone as the present here and now, missing the very particular perspective projected onto what we see around us.


[1]: https://www.mapzen.com/blog/who-s-on-first/
[2]: https://www.mapzen.com/blog/weird-and-wonderful/
[3]: https://native-land.ca/api-docs/
[4]: https://www.census.gov/cgi-bin/geo/shapefiles/index.php
[5]: https://www.mapzen.com/blog/whosonfirst-nacis-2017/
[6]: https://maps.smoldata.org/
[7]: https://www.linuxfoundation.org/press-release/2019/01/mapzen-open-source-data-and-software-for-real-time-mapping-applications-to-become-a-linux-foundation-project/

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