Web-Based Cartography, Power and Community-Building

We were interested in the news that the Chinese phone manufacturer Huawei recently signed a deal with TomTom, the Dutch digital mapping company, for an alternative to Google Maps.

TomTom has been an often unsung but never ignored force in map applications. It has several self-branded products on iOS and Android devices. But Huawei will be building its own application, a mapping product, using TomTom maps—so a kind of secondary app based on TomTom’s primary apps. TomTom is no stranger to this kind of use. In the past the company provided data for Apple Maps, making itself part of a similarly “shambolic” patchwork of mapping apps. Huawei intends to build a full-on system, a “Map Kit” using data from Yandex, a Russian tech company. The TomTom deal will either serve as a bridge to Map Kit, or be integrated into it. 

Why can’t Huawei just rely on Google Maps? Well, here’s where it gets interesting. Last year, the Trump administration placed sanctions on Huawei. In May, Trump “issued an executive order barring US companies from using information and communications technology from anyone considered a national security threat” and included Huawei in its list of dangerous entities. That complicated relations with Google, even though the application of administration sanctions has been uneven and uncertain. Businesses hate uncertainty, after all. Meanwhile, Huawei is building its own operating system, which it calls HarmonyOS, and is using the TomTom deal to further reduce its reliance on Google.

What’s especially interesting about this is that trade policies, domestic politics really, and the Trump administration’s confrontational approach to international relations, is going to literally change the way people look at the world. There are nuanced differences between the way Google and other companies map things. The methods, devices, and features of interactivity vary across systems and platforms. Many of the differences will be subtle, but they will still be differences, and over time, their aggregate will grow. In however nuanced a way it might be, politics will determine mapmaking differentials. 

Historically, cartography has been a ruling-class sphere. If the first task or problem of cartography is “map agenda-setting,” where the features and area of the place to be mapped, then historically, that task has privileged the kingdoms, countries, states, and localities with the authority and resources to make the maps. Likewise, cartographers eliminate characteristics and areas deemed irrelevant to the purposes of the maps and materials being created. Even the very act of generalization—creating categories of landscapes and ocean depths and similar profiles—relies on areas of both informational and material authority that perpetuate and emerge from great powers. Maps, critical scholars tell us, are “sites of power-knowledge,” and judgments about which maps are best “arise from privileged discourses.” 

All of which suggests that what we’re seeing in the escalation of trade disputes is a series of power-shifts that will again exercise influence on how we map the world. But now, instead of the changes being reflected in model globes and poster-sized maps in school rooms and offices, they will be reflected in millions upon millions of digital devices guiding people around in their cars or from their homes. 

So what does the business end of big data-informed, and satellite-sourced web based mapmaking get us? What social tendencies does it reproduce and strengthen? 

In many ways, web-based mapping has created an interesting piece of sociological data: it gives us more information about our surroundings and communities, but it also entrenches us as solitary beings in our vehicles and domiciles. We can access information about what’s out there, what’s around us. But then we click our keypads to navigate us through a geographical location so we don’t have to stop and ask for directions. We can order meals, groceries, office supplies, and other goods and services using apps that link from these maps. We never have to “be in public.” It doesn’t turn us into recluses, necessarily, but it changes our social dynamics. 

But consumer-based or user application-based maps are not the only way we’re seeing technological progress affect cartography. Another area that has emerged stronger because of big data and satellite technology is called collaborative mapping, and collaborative mapping is helping humanity re-define cooperative work in new ways. Collaborative mapping has the potential to bring diverse peoples and communities together rather than isolating us. 

Collaborative mapping uses open source collaborative software to create and develop (and thus never really be done creating) collective maps. Maps are created collaboratively on a shared “surface.” Problems sometimes occur due to people having concurrent access and competing for mutually exclusive data. This might happen at the same time, or it might be a matter of one party correcting a previous iteration of the map, potentially causing conflicts in interpretation. But just as commons-based encyclopedias like Wikipedia or other common knowledge libraries have (admittedly imperfect) procedures for dealing with these conflicts, collaborative mapping can also develop such procedures. The outcome is still likely to be a more egalitarian knowledge base, and we now know that many hands and many heads not only make light work, but also create better epistemology, and better knowledge. 

Based on the work of Christopher Parker and colleagues, as well as many other researchers, we are learning that collaborative mapping can do a number of other socially positive things. The public-oriented consciousness that one might expect from collaborative mapping work is also found in many of its practical applications. For example, the potential of collaborative mapping extends to creating ease-of-access maps and guides for people with limited mobility. A crowd-sourced “mashup” of mapping data can be created to provide that information on an accessible and free platform. Researchers say that it’s a challenge to collect that “subjective” data in the first place, but they are coming up with many potential solutions, from pre-populating local regions and then expanding coverage from there, to creating mashups without the crowd-sourced data and then create ways for users to easily add their own data to the collective data pool. 

For people who study the history of mapping and cartography, the idea of egalitarian, collectively-created maps is pretty revolutionary. Immediately following the end of World War One, there emerged a deep dissatisfaction with territorial thinking. Progressive-minded activists and scholars began searching for alternative ways of “viewing the world” both in the paradigmatic sense (worldview) and the cartographic sense (criticizing the construction of borders and the representations of the world that show up on maps; think of the conversation about why the “north” is “on top” and that kind of thing). It’s worth thinking that perhaps activists can forge links between cooperative map-making and cooperative international and other political relationships. 

The building of that political power and relationships will also be continually shaped by how we utilize data. From geo-targeted ads on social media that help turn out voters, to using partners like our client Accurate Append, a phone, email and data vendor, to get the contact info campaigns need to text and call voters. Data and tech are shaping every aspect of our future. From how we navigate our world, to how we change it.

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