Not to quote the great alaskin governor herself, but when in the heck did maps get so doggone trendy? Not that the idea isn't a bright one, it just feels almost supernatural the recent and veritable debutante ball for mapping. And I'm not talking google maps exactly, although their technology has certainly contributed to putting the skills formerly reserved for cartographers at the fingertips of the masses. I mean maps of things we never dreamed mappable. Maps of things that aren't visual, but audio; geographic, but not in terms of land forms. Maps are all of a sudden a new way to catalogue ideas and emotions and memory. I, for one, think it's pretty genius.
The genius lies mostly in that the maps evolving right now in cities across the country (and the world, probably) are made by many sets of eyes and ears. They are interactive, they are wiki and constantly being changed. I think their new digital character traits have much to do with their popularity of late: they are more accurate, more meaningful and in many ways, more like the things they represent. Traditionally, maps stood in for one person's approximation. And generally, the only thing they seemed to signify was that one person's subjectivity and bias. Lately, however, the genre has been reclaimed by many many well-minded groups who've been reinventing the concept of the map and along the way, authoring the new geography.
The first example I saw of this was the recently launched PGH Bike Map, a map of Pittsburgh's bike traffic, marked by information like accident reports, bike shops, interesting landmarks and events. You can print off a static copy of the simple geography to take with you, but the project is more engaging on the internet when you contribute and participate with the record itself, adding your own experiences of riding and thereby making the map more accurate. The subjectivity of the information actually makes the final product closer to accurate. And the stated purpose of the thing is to help make Pittsburgh, an unconventional cyclist's city, more friendly to new riders and to keep current riders informed and aware of the general cycling climate of the city. It is a new medium, by which community members communicate their experiences with one other and do so in the production of this terrific tool: the map. Every city should have one.
Open Sound New Orleans is another such visionary project. Only in New Orleans they're mapping sounds, music, dialogue--something the city is rich with, and putting the information into a very accessible, also collaborative map. Even in its early stages, the project has effectively created a document that describes many of the things that make New Orleans so verbally indescribable. And the map seems to infinitely illustrate that indescribability. The creators want more and more people to contribute sound to the map, show the many faces of their city and in the process, create a map to communicate their city's depth of character with one another and the world. The project currently has audio recording equipment available to rent out to anyone who wants to contribute bytes to the map and the Google image seems to grow more populated with little teardrop-shaped sound markers each time I visit their page. Talk about new media.
The nuance in these ideas is their public nature, keeping the information amassed by the project's participants in the hands of their city, in the most open sense of the word. They may be trendy, but also important. In some ways I have the sense people right now in time are grasping at the public experience as a way to reconnect and identify with place in the increasingly placeless reality of this contemporary American life. And maps let people do this. When you map something, you claim it. Public maps, therefore, are a way of collective reclaiming something people want to hold onto. Not so different from how graffiti once enabled people to reclaim urban spaces.
Know of any maps I missed? I'd love to hear about them.