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Verge Review: The Language of Geography

Even at just a glance, a map can reveal what no amount of description can. Maps are the language of geography, often the most direct and effective way to convey grand ideas or complex theories. —Harm de Blij This is a statement that was clearly evident in the talk last Friday with Mike Migurski and Sarah Williams as they discussed two of their recent projects. Migurski is a partner and the Director of Technology at Stamen, a San Francisco-based studio that specializes in map and data visualization projects. Williams is currently the Director of Columbia’s Spatial Information Design Lab, which concentrates on connecting social data with geography. This talk was of special interest to me, being a lifelong map aficionado as well as a second-year graduate student whose thesis subject is on geographic illiteracy. As the first in a series this year of On the Verge talks held here at the Interaction Design Department, the format for these events has changed a bit from past talks. Gone is the lecture podium and monologue. Equipped with a couch, pairs of speakers are invited to introduce, analyze and discuss each other other’s work in a moderated conversation. This approach to dialogue made for a more informative, relaxed experience. !~!image!~!Stamen’s “Oakland Crimespotting” Sarah then presented Stamen’s Oakland Crimespotting map, their tool for better understanding crime in those cities. The premise under which Stamen approached this project was that public information should be made public. Crime data already existed, but it was either for police or other government agencies, or it was cumbersome, unwieldy and hard to find, buried under a myriad of links. What Crimespotting does is to visualize in real time where crimes are happening in various neighborhoods, giving the user the ability to filter by date, time of day or the type of crime. With this information, people can look for individual crimes or see broader patterns and trends in crime over time. This project is beautifully explained in the BBC program “The Joy of Stats,” which actually makes statistics a sexy subject. What both of their projects shared was a marriage of data and aesthetics, design and technology to address important issues. Whereas Crimespotting focuses on the crime itself, Million Dollar Blocks investigates the repercussions for the perpetrator and their community. Both projects have garnered attention through their advocacy, bringing attention to these issues to the powers that be: police departments, legislators, community boards, and the mayor’s office. A question about data neutrality was asked by an audience member—namely, is there any bias within these maps? Migurski and Williams ended the talk with this shared belief and great insight: Data is never neutral. There is no such thing as raw data.

Chris Cannon, MFA candidate, 2012

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