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Geospatial Information Design or Journalism?

I’m at a Microsoft Research event called Social Computing Symposium that brings together researchers, designers, writers, and strategist types for what amounts to a two day mutual teaching session. One of the focuses of today was locative media and the mood among the audience was optimistic and excited about all the things that can be possible in social computing if we show the right data and don’t violate people’s privacy.

O’Reilly’s Brady Forrest gave a presentation on the future of locative media. In general, the talks were optimistic and inspirational, but there was this strong sense that the brainstorming was coming from very specific locations — tech-enthusiast, Western professionals.

The location struck me at two points during the presentation. The first was when Brady claimed that we’d be doing less of looking up profiles on the web and more of seeing World of Warcraft and military video game-style overlays of information over people. We’d see information about the places we’re occupying on our mobile device. Throughout the talk, the information focused on focused on the consumption and peer sociality. All good, well, and fun for people like me.

But it did get me wondering what kinds of blind spots recur in our imaginings of locative media. When a mobile device tells me about the place I’m occupying, why can’t it show me labor complaints and relations in the area? Pollution in the air above? Traces of pedestrians at different times of day? Voter participation rates?

We ended up having a discussion of critical geography at lunch where designers and researchers hashed out some of what’s at stake in curating particular kinds of “data” and placing them in an information display. Designer Matt Webb had worked on several London maps projects, including crime maps and consumer map startups, and faced these sorts of decisions first hand — what kinds of information about a crime ought to be accessible off of a map? Anthropologist Thomas Malaby pointed out how in the 1970s, London police had created a category of “street crime” to encompass both muggings and protests, effectively cordoning off particular parts of the city as dangerous and improper for the average Londoner, giving a compelling example of categories can be intensely consequential for and shaped by social interests. Ubicomp designer Mike Kuniavsky asked what might happen if certain geospatial information is only visible to those who occupy the “represented” space with their bodies, pointing to an experience of map reading that hadn’t occured to me and that seems to force contextualization.

One of my big takeaways from the breakout was the importance of language in shaping our design imaginations in this space. When discussants talked about information and data, they talked about it as if it was out there, in the environment, as a matter of fact, and that people generally had a right to have it available to them. Here, the rhetoric is of information design and visualization — putting it out there for indeterminate uses. In reflecting on his experiences in mapmaking, Matt reframed the work as journalism, describing the work of designing data maps as one of telling a story with data. Describing the work as journalism and storytelling invokes a reader, framing, and a professional code of ethics that, while imperfect, is more than engineers and information designers have.

What happens if we reframe design as storytelling and choreography? What happens if data is described as a story, with values and messages encouraged and discouraged, if not determined? (Interestingly, James Clifford describes how anthropologists have done much to separate their practices from those of journalists.) While professionalism certainly has connotations of classed and, in some cases, gendered behavior, it certainly seems a step ahead of a free-market “vote with your dollars” mechanism of design that might end up having the effect of narrative or policy.