When it comes to the current collective imaginary about space, I guess maps are the most common instrument that comes to mind. I also guess that, although we are taught to use them since a young age (for example, studying geography at school, learning by heart the name of states, regions, cities, and so on) and keep using them on a daily basis (checking Google maps to get to a meeting), we hardly ask ourselves questions related to their development, the point of view they replicate, the people who developed them, for which scopes we use them. Simply analyzing mainstream mapping from an outsider’s point of view, it’s easy to detect the presence of a mapping canon that privileges a quite specific point of view and prioritizes some elements while ignoring others.
As we have already suggested in one of our previous articles on feminist geography, such canon is present in world maps as well as in more specific representations: when it comes to represent the earth, for example, mainstream mapping reflects a colonial point of view, giving more space and visibility to the “North” of the world. If we focus on local maps (e.g. a city on Gmaps), what emerges mostly is a bureaucratic and market-based representation that highlights, along public offices, centres of consumption: bars and restaurants, shops, banks, and sites of interest for tourists. To highlight this fact doesn’t mean to reject the utility of such information: the objective of this brief article is, in fact, not to state that normative maps are useless (it would be hypocritical, since most of us use them on a daily basis), rather to suggest a reflection on what ethics and principles are implicitly present in common mapping (yes, maps carry principles!) and whether or not these maps give space to the information that we, as individuals, collectives, and society, find the most important to deliver.
Leading this operation of re-thinking what we would like to see in a map can develop into an exercise of creative reflection, which can also be developed collectively: actually, it works better when collective, for the simple fact that maps are more accurate when more people create them, sharing their knowledge and points of view while leading, at the same time, a community-building activity.
It’s in this context that collaborative (or collective) mapping develops: when I use this term, I indeed refer to the practice of developing maps in a collaborative way by a community, whose size is variable. It can be led by a small group of people living in the same block, or it can be instead a big-scale project that develops more broadly and globally (in this latest case, the map-making is done through digital platforms). In any case, the name collaborative mapping as intended in this piece refers to a bottom-up and public process, since it is usually open to anybody interested in taking part in it, and finds its roots in informal – rather than institutional or corporate – environments. I personally interpret such informality and independence as a powerful potential that should be used to develop map-making into a highly creative, fun, and (last but not least) counter-hegemonic practice.
In many cases, collaborative/collective maps have some utility to those who create and use them. This utility can be direct, in the sense that the maps serve to disseminate information that is useful to the community that lives in the space represented or those that cross that space – that is, to the people that actually live that space. To make some of the first examples that cross my mind: maps signalling public bathrooms, local and independent shops, bicycle lanes, dog-friendly parks and beaches, and other similar information, could all take part in this category (provided that they have been drawn collectively, of course). This kind of map responds to a necessity of the people who actually live in the space represented, and fills a gap left by institutional or private map-makers. Another kind of utility that collaborative maps can have is that related to dissemination and investigation objectives: in this case, maps are not only directed specifically to the people who live in or cross the area, but rather to whoever is interested in the information delivered by the cartography. An example of this kind of dissemination is the work of Iconoclasistas, who are specialized in collaborative mapping and help communities and researchers create maps of various sizes and kinds on topics such as climate change, resources extractivism, rural economy. In this case, collective mapping takes the form of a collective investigation and is utilized to share specific knowledge among a variety of people (be them academics, outsiders, or residents of the area).
Yet, putting the notion of uselessness apart for a second, an additional form of creating maps that I find interesting, maybe even the most alluring, is the exercise of creating cartography without a predetermined scope. In this case, two outcomes are particularly worth of note: the first one is that the people involved enter into a discussion through which they share and decide collectively what information they find more interesting or worthy of representation; the second one is that this practice pushes participants to reflect both individually and collectively about their experience with space and the ways in which a cartography can represent it. It’s particularly curious, for example, creating maps with kids asking them to choose which are the relevant places they would like to signal: it becomes immediately clear that the sites that strongly shape their experience (and shape that of adults, too, of course), and therefore become relevant in the mapping, are strictly related to their personal and intimate life: a friend’s house, a park where they like to go play, their favourite ice-cream shop. The cartography that generates from this kind of reflection can never be delivered from an institution or company: it has to be thought in an informal and “safe” context, in which sharing one’s personal point of view and experience reinforces a collective reflection on which aspects of our existence and which places we find the most valuable, and on what is our relation with the space we cross daily.
Sharing collaboratively our relation with the urban environment can give us an outlook on the perception people have of their city and the issues common to the residents of an area. An interesting case I’d like to report is that of Hoodmaps, a crowdsourced platform in which users can playfully develop the map of their cities adding tags that mostly indicate the kind of “urbanite” we are likely to encounter in a certain neighborhood. Each city is divided into six categories proposed by Hoodmaps: hipsters, normies, suits, tourists, uni (students), and rich. Users can put these tags on the maps as well as invent and add new categories, making this mapping increasingly creative and hilarious. The peculiarity of Hoodmaps is that in doing something entertaining, its users collaborate in creating an outlook of their city highlighting at the same time problematic aspects of their urban context, especially tourism-centred development and gentrification: even if unwillingly, hence, the people that contribute in mapping cities through this platform are creating data which is useful to urban investigation and social movements that fight against gentrification.
In sharing personal experiences, collaborative mapping often develops into a feminist practice: in this case, it is not unusual for it to be based of strictly personal and intimate experience. If we think about the multitude of maps that indicate the places in which sexist violence has arisen, in which anti-violence shelters and/or other services for women are indicated, or where we can find bathrooms without gender division, etc., they are all part of a feminist cartography that is created from and develops through the sharing of personal events and knowledge related to one’s sex/gender. Such mapping uses a gender perspective to create and disseminate continuously updated information that becomes useful if not essential to the entire community and, above all, to the most marginalized groups.
Creating collective maps takes the form of an exercise in social criticism and research, since it allows to bring to light points of view that are different and alternative to the normative mapping perspective, which reflects, as stated earlier, a capitalist and bureaucratic paradigm.
Collaborative mapping in this sense represents a form of resistance in that it shares useful data and pushes, through the reflection on what type of information is really relevant for the individual and the community, to think about how we could better represent the space where we live and how we could improve it to make it more inclusive and “caring”, also challenging its mainstream representation.