Urban Gardening, Food Deserts, and Mapping was the title of the presentation Nicole Ryerson and I gave during this week’s Ribbon Cutting Ceremony for CURVE. Nicole and I are both M.S. students in the department of Geosciences and, and between the two of us, we have a diverse collection of original maps. These maps have been produced from the simplest of web mapping services to the heftiest spacial analyst desktop software. As we sat at Workstation II in CURVE, there was a pleasantly consistent flow of curious administrators, librarians, faculty members, and students stopping by to ask us about our work. As we presented, we offered what I now reflect on to be a gracefully orchestrated dialogue: I would give a short overview of the different mapping tools that were used to make the maps surrounding food topics that we had on display, and Nicole (who has constructed an awesome thesis surrounding urban agriculture in Atlanta) shared her wealth of knowledge surrounding food from “the plant to the policy.”

Conversations around urban food are extremely “sexy” in research right now and, because these conversations lend themselves to spatial considerations, easily translate into related discussion around cartographic representations. Cartography is becoming increasingly accessible to non-experts with the advancement of technology. You can hardly search through a newsfeed on Facebook without seeing some colorful map of the US declaring each state’s allegiance to a certain product or habit. The one that I’ve seen most frequently is this one showing Facebook fans of the NFL.

Both at my undergraduate institution and during my graduate studies here at GSU, I’ve been required to take a cartography and visualization course. These courses focused heavily on the production of maps in the ArcGIS environment. ArcGIS is a software produced by a company called ESRI which markets itself as “a platform for designing and managing solutions through the application of geographic knowledge.” In class we are taught how every map needs a north arrow, a scale bar, an informative title, supplementary text, and, most importantly, source information. Source information includes the name of the person who made the map, the date it was made, and the source and date of the data used to create the map. While students would get points taken off for excluding any of these elements in a map produced for class, the maps you see on the internet will rarely include them.  It is more common on web maps to see this information in the text of the article somewhere. As the images of the maps are shared, they are often at risk of becoming separated from their source text.

You might be thinking to yourself “Who cares?! The map gets separated from the source information-so what?” Well, take a moment to consider what sources you most commonly read to get caught up on the daily news. Do you prefer CNN? Fox News? MSNBC? HLN? NPR? BBC? Al Jazeera?  Reuters? The Onion? Regardless of the one you choose-we can likely agree that each source has a certain lens through which they filter the information they share. Although maps are often assumed to simply be representations of reality-just like news stories, they are often carefully constructed to support an argument that the organization producing the maps is in favor of.

Lets take an example of a hypothetical natural disaster and a map that shows the area a year later and the amount of recovery efforts the areas still requires. Maps produced by FEMA, the Red Cross, the local city planner, and the local Catholic church would likely all present different stories: some want to send the message of near completion, some want to say that there is still a lot of work to be done, and some just want to display all of the work that can be accomplished when communities come together during a tragedy. Organizations can do this by using different quantities of measurement, grouping the quantities in different ways (think natural breaks vs equal intervals), or presenting information at differing scales.

As I was talking to a good friend of mine about maps, she said to me, “You’re the only one I know who cares about maps this much. I don’t think people think about the power of maps. They just take them as fact.” Ding ding ding!! She wins the prize!!!

As the year progresses, I’d like to continue to use my role as a SIF as a platform to increase the cartographic literacy on GSU’s campus. We’ve started in a place where we are using the work that’s already been done in the hot topic of food to simply make people aware of mapping efforts in Atlanta and the types of mapping tools that are available to the GSU community. Next, we’ll expand the efforts to assist people who want to use maps in their own work by teaching about data collection methods and making professional looking maps. Most of all, I’d like to start a dialogue surrounding the power of maps and how technology has played a role in increasing their power.