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Bike the District

Published in Neogeography, Society

A year ago I decided to become a bike commuter. I live on the east side of Washington, DC and we just opened our new office on the edge of the Potomac river on the west side of DC. Inspired by my colleagues in Portland that constantly tout the wonders of bicycling their fair city, I believe that DC has an adequate and continually improving bike accessibility.

Over the year I have commuted every day that I was in town, rain or shine, and did not have to be dapper in a suit, which was about 1000 miles. In those miles I came to prefer biking as the best mode of commuting and would dread days that required a metro ride packed to standing room, concrete, lights, and stations floating by the underground wormholes.


Daily, Historic Rides

By contrast, my surface excursion could take one of several routes. Either a scenic trip along the national mall, cruising past the Capitol Building, Washington Monument, Reflecting Pool, Lincoln Memorial and skirting the rolling hills of Arlington Cemetery. Or the shortest route along the obscure but great H Street corridor that is actually home to numerous global institutions.

My preferred route along H Street took me past Union Station, through China Town, over the newly constructed “City Center”, past the American Academy of Sciences and the World Bank Headquarters, the White House lawn, and finally through historic Georgetown or even along the small canal. It was those quiet mornings as the sun was rising and the fog burning off the Potomac that are only possible when you can stop on a whim to enjoy the city.

Besides the unique aspects of DC, having a bike gave me ultimate flexibility to detour through cafés in the morning, or to meet ups throughout the city in the evening without worrying about metro stop locations or bus routes.

Even travel estimation was simpler, where my times were consistent regardless of non-homogenous traffic. My trip from house to work was almost exactly 30 minutes, and one of the best parts was cruising past the traffic jammed cars that would have easily made a car trip 45-60 minutes over the same route.

bike dc.jpg

Beware the MD

Stuck Bike 2.pngOf course, urban biwheel transport is not without its threats. Coming from the east side of the city if I left close to an hour mark (e.g. 8am or 9am) I was sure to encounter Maryland drivers running late, speeding through lanes and annoyed by the bicyclist that was sharing the road. Again a secret pleasure is seeing them speed past to immediately arrest at a stop light where I would pull up next to them again.

This highlighted and oft criticism of DC, where there are numerous bike lanes yet little connectivity between them. It is not uncommon to follow a cycle track for a few blocks to have it merely stop at an intersection with no identified way to continue along other than by occupying a car lane. There is continued efforts to add more bike lanes and signs that I hope will result in a better and fully connected urban bicycle network.

Crisis Cartography

Published in CrisisCommons, Neogeography

The technology and methodology of digital interactive cartography is nascent but evolving. The fields of human-computer interaction and GIS are converging from both the consumer market: “where is my nearest good restaurant?”, as well as from the enterprise: “where should I open a new restaurant chain?”. Designing useful interfaces requires understanding user workflows, iterative development and testing. Too often this effort can be retarded by conflicting viewpoints, changing market and business models or even lack of imagination.

While the consumer and enterprise markets are slowly iterating through concepts, there is nothing so significant as a crisis where minutes and meters can mean the difference in saving a life. What can we learn from the agile and emergent development of tools during short-lived response events which provide insight into further research and development. This post are some notes from my talk at the American Association of Geographers annual meeting in Los Angeles.

Familiarity and Expectations

During a crisis people use the tools that are available and ideally familiar. This often means repurposing in a way that was never intended but yields innovative new applications. For example during Hurricane Katrina people caught in New Orleans could not call 911 or other emergency numbers. Instead they would text their family members in remote states such as Michigan who would then call back down to Red Cross with the address of the person that was stuck in the flooding. By contrast typical mapping and analysis would take days to gather data such as shelter locations, flood modeling inundation zones and finally the proposed response. With people knee deep in water this restricted and limited capability had demonstrable and severe impact on the efficacy of the response.

Subsequent disasters demonstrated the effective repurposing and development of cartographic tools such as the New York Public Library historic map warper to instead rectify un-classified CIA maps of Haiti that were used to derive road networks in OpenStreetMap. Then using consumer-grade hiking GPS units this data was made available to search and rescue teams from Virginia to find the locations of trapped individuals. What had been designed for researchers and public volunteers provided an easy to use, on-demand, and flexible mapping interface for people around the world to provide overnight support to responders that were deploying on the ground.

This cycle of prediction, warning, response, relief and reconstruction is a well known pattern in disaster management. Unfortunately current typical cartographic products are either static aggregates that provide only cursory assessment at a coarse geographic area, of little use in actual response and planning; or they are disjointed, out of date, and paper-based. During a disaster there is cognitive overload from the inundation of information and with a static product no way to filter or zoom into a particular area of interest. It is a by product of a bygone process of unidirectional information flow through a priori information channels.

Fortunately the information landscape is dramatically evolving. In the past few years alone the ability to dynamically share data, collaborate and develop maps has enabled new mechanisms for understanding and response. In reflecting on the Haiti response, particularly relating to the public information sharing, numerous emergent technologies as well as traditional organizations were able to innovate and provide better access to important data and support. This will be an increasingly imperative capability as the types of data, and expectations of response are changing as well.

In recent American Red Cross surveys, they discovered the following surprising traits:

  • Emergency social users are also most likely to seek and share information during emergencies. While they look for the hard facts—road closures, damage reports and weather conditions—they share personal information about their safety statuses and how they are feeling.
  • Three out of four Americans (76 percent) expect help in less than three hours of posting a request on social media, up from 68 percent last year.
  • Forty percent of those surveyed said they would use social tools to tell others they are safe, up from 24 percent last year.


Simply, the people involved in the informational aspects of crisis response are changing. Technologists, domain experts, diaspora, and numerous other citizen communities are now actively and intensely engaging within moments of a disaster to build maps and gather geographic data. And the people in the affected area are leaning to their daily tools such as mobile phones, twitter, maps, and Facebook to find out and share the event as it unfolds.

The result is that cartography, and in particular interactive geographic analysis and visualization, is evolving. Ushahidi is a well-known platform for gathering and publishing crisis data from eye-witness reports and aggregated media. Emerging from the 2008 Kenyan elections, it is a simple example of the need and creation of a new tool for public and media to temporally animate, investigate and track realtime reports.

However there are still many shortcomings of the current tools. While there are clear positive impacts they have had – the combination of ad-hoc technologies that are separated from user-interaction design or disaster management workflows results in a lessened benefit from the thousands and millions of volunteer hours that are being contributed and could benefit saving lives.

Crowd Sourced Data

WaldoCanyonFire.pngAt the heart of the volunteer technical communities, and arguably the capability they are the most suited to support is creating, curating, and making data accessible. Using tools designed for casual bike-riders and pub connoisseurs has actually proven remarkably effective. Fortunately there was designed flexibility meant to accomodate peculiar attributes such as wheelchair accessibility or tree diameter meant that it could be used to house a humanitarian data model.

The US State Department is supporting microtasking analysis of imagery for IDP camps and structural damage. How do you train new volunteers to do remote sensing analysis and data input in a repeatable, and accurate way?

On the ground, US wildfires have demonstrated the potential for crowd-sourced photography as well as geolocated Tweets to provide updated fire progress, impact and evacuation. What are the interfaces for visualizing official models compared with potential fire models from uncertain data? And how do you account for the over-abundance of information from singular sources, “the Racerboi8 problem”.

Dynamic Visualizations of Dynamic Events

What are mechanisms for defining more structured and even dynamic information? During Hurricane Sandy High School students at IMSOCIO called gas stations to get the current availability of fuel and power that was published in a KML feed and map. How do we visualize this data to reflect recency (i.e. is older data have questionable accuracy), or trustworthiness (did the station owner not want people to over-run his shop so gave false information)?

Can we even detect an event through implicit information such as the increased viewing of imagery over specific areas such as identifying the location of the meteor through map tiles.

Mobile Citizens

Most importantly, even going back to 2005, people are increasingly connected through mobile devices. These new personal tricorders offer a continuous connection to people, alerts, and access to maps that can provide important information in evacuation as well as response; but they require a different interface for viewing and annotating this data.

And sometimes Paper is still an incredibly important medium. During a disaster text connections are surprisingly resilient, but power may not be. Having tools for personalized, and even ‘zoomable’ paper map may mean someone being able to find shelters or meetup with family members such as through Safety Maps.

Room for Exploration

Crisis events compel people to go above and beyond their normal efforts in order to help communities in a time of need. Maps serve a fundamental underpinning for responders and citizens alike. Cartography has the opportunity to evolve in order to address these important issues, and create new, innovative methods and technology that also have broad application.

Everyblock closes

Published in Neogeography, Technology, Web

EveryBlock_ Building permits in Schuylerville - Throgs Neck - Edgewater Park | EveryBlock NYC.jpgIn 2007 at the beginning of the popular emergence of local maps and amidst a changing journalism industry, an innovative platform was launched that provided a uniquely local and up to date view of cities. Everyblock, a news feed for your neighborhood, was built as an open-source platform that used government open data feeds to provide a user friendly dashboard of the various activities, crimes, 311 service supports, and even chat messages and social media posts.

Unlike most other sites, Everyblock really considered how people could access and understand the numerous data that permeated around their home every day. At the time I was working on Mapufacture which took a more abstract view of the same data and I always appreciated the care and experience the Everyblock team put into making the information accessible.

Communities and Their Tools

Unfortunately today NBC, whom acquired Everyblock in 2009, decided to shut the site down without any warning. There are likely justified reasons why NBC did not want to continue to support the site. Adrian shares his views on the shutdown and the community are sharing their suprise and thoughts on the official post. Clearly people that enjoyed and even relied on Everyblock as a way to access important local information are now left without this key resource. This is obviously not the first, nor the last, time that a web site that people loved and expected to work was shutdown and they were required to move to an alternative.

Underlying this particular example is something more concerning. Everyblock was a site that was designed to build community and as an interface to local, civic and government life. In some ways it could be considered as a basic public good that served a need unmet by other official and commercial sources. Additionally it provided a forum for citizens to share their experiences, needs, ideas and issues. I always thought there was a lot more opportunity in Everyblock to create real collaboration for neighborhoods to solve their local issues.

People are generally more mobile. I know very few people that now settle into a single place for decades, let alone in the neighborhood that they were born. We are moving, shifting, and finding ourselves consistently in new areas where we don’t understand the local issues or have an opportunity to meet all of our neighbors. Social networks reinforce maintaining our existing connections independent of distance which subsequently can ‘fill your dance card’ and leave less time to connect with the neighbors.

In addition we are constantly engaged with technology and the web. By providing an avatar for the real world in our online social networks, Everyblock reconnected us to the place where we live and our children are growing up. Perhaps Everyblock didn’t reach a ubiquitous engagement that may possible or desired, but it was a well crafted platform that was useful even if it only had a single user.

Git and go

The Everyblock code is open-source and the OpenBlock Project is an attempt to build a community around the project. However there are many other components that go into a site such as the data feeds, community management, and general infrastructure and monitoring. Creating an instance for a city is a big effort that also requires a long-term strategy. I’m curious if this becomes a government run service or if local technologists such as Code for America Brigade could become reliable and sustainable provides of this type of service.

I am truly sad to see Everyblock go – and very thankful to Adrian, Wilson, Paul and Daniel for their vision and work to make Everyblock a reality and inspiration for what is possible.

CBC Spark Interview – The Future of Digital Mapmaking

Published in Neogeography

CBC Radio SparkEarlier this week I was fortunate to interview on CBC Spark with Nora Young about the “Future of Digital Mapmaking”. We discussed a wide range of topics on the state and future of map making. Open data communities such as Openstreetmap, location ads, Google and Apple’s new platforms, augmented reality and more.

I truly enjoy thought provoking conversations that think more broadly about the domain and where it’s going. I hope you enjoy the interview and please let me know any comments or thoughts you have.

(direct mp3 download)

Guerilla Geography from Daniel Raven-Ellison

Published in Neogeography, Technology

Guerilla GeographyAs part of Geography Awareness Week National Geographic hosted a talk about guerrilla geography by Daniel Raven-Ellison. You can read more about Daniel’s work on his site or blog The Geography Collective.

Daniel’s talk was enjoyable and resonated with what made me adopt geography as a new career. He passionately seeks to experience and perceive places and to teach others. His Mission:Explore books provide intriguing experiments, particularly for children, to learn more about where they live, how they move, the history, culture, and environment of places. And particularly relevant to guerilla geography, about how they can impact and influence this space as a medium for expression and commumity.

He also riffed a bit on psychogeography and reminded me of Tim Waters’ sense tours where he advises people to stop when they see something interesting, close their eyes and smell or hear in order to leverage the other senses in really understanding a place. Or Christian Nold’s biomapping and sensory journeys. Daniel has done “urban earth” walks through major cities while taking a photo every 8 steps. The result is a visceral flow through living urban centers giving you a mere glimpse of the life, paths, and people that inhabit these areas.

Mission:Food bookDaniel is building very simple and effective tools and experiments for anyone to engage with geography. It has large similarities and goals to my work in Neogeography which utilizes potentially more advanced, and often technical, tools but in similarly colloquial ways to share stories and personal experiences with location. What’s also interesting about his work is that he introduces the scientific method in subtle ways such as challenging kids to record the outcome of days they walk under a ladder and days they don’t in order to determine if there is in fact an impact on one’s luck.

Perhaps more controversial, but arguably important, he encourages children to “Meet your meat” that you’re going to eat. Visit the local farm to see the cows, sheep, or other animals and understand the flow of food through the land and from the environment that forms your meals.

I’m not sure if they’ll post his talk from this week, but you can watch his talk from NatGeo Live!.