02 October 2014

Dossiers
Maps are All about Making Choices

Text: Anja Neidhardt

Maps are not only an important tool for those fighting conflicts but also for the new generation of journalists, programmers and designers aiming to keep the public informed about these conflicts.



 

New possibilities

 

The data journalist Marco Maas (opendatacity.de) has outlined on various occasions why he thinks programmers are “the conjurers of the future”.1 Together with journalists and designers, they collect data from various platforms, then combine and evaluate them, creating infographics and maps that are “a kind of visual translation of data” – in the words of the Dutch book designer and map specialist Joost Grootens, with whom we spoke during this year’s Typo Berlin.2

“We live in interesting times,” he says. “We are reinventing design and data journalism. For me, this is the future: a new kind of profession that is part designer, part journalist.” After all, information design is in demand. “Especially in the world of today in which we are all surrounded by so much (unfiltered) data and information”, Grootens explains. He cites Petr van Blokland, who, in his previous day’s Typo talk, said that making choices is perhaps the only thing designers now have left.“And maps are all about making choices”, Grootens adds.

 

Decisions

 

A cartographer, after all, makes choices about what should be shown on a map and what shouldn’t, judging what will be relevant to the subject and message of the map and what won’t. There is no possibility of neutrality, but the map designer can at least choose to publicise the selection criteria used and thus ensure transparency. This is exactly what Grootens does, using, among other things, the prefaces of the atlases he designs – after all, since the Balkan conflict he has been all too aware of the power of images (see part one of this text, form 255).



 

The “Geheimer Krieg” project

 

While Joost Grootens was busy with projects such as an atlas that visualises the conflict between Israel and Palestine,4 Marco Maas and his OpenData City team were working on the design and implementation of the project Geheimer Krieg (“secret war”). Investigative teams from Süddeutscher Zeitung and North German broadcaster NDR have been “getting in the face of national security organisations such as the BND, NSA, CIA and GCHQ”. Articles in the newspaper and special broadcasts of the Panorama TV programme followed by panel discussions are thus supported by a website presenting research from the participating journalists in the form of a map embedded with videos, pictures and texts.



 

Bottom up: orientation and aid

 

In the aforementioned text “Das Territorium ist die Karte. Raum im Zeitalter digitaler Navigation” (see part one), it says: “Although maps were already ever present when they were still printed on paper, it must be obvious to all their users that digital technologies have brought significant changes to maps. Not only has their availability increased – every car and every computer comes fitted with GPS these days, likewise many mobile phones – maps are also now realised in digital formats more often than in paper form. Today, our typical interaction with mapping is to log into a database that gathers information in real time via an interface (mostly a computer).”5 What’s more, this has the advantage that “the platform allows the user to enter up-to-date, personal information in the database. The user of a map thus becomes one of its citizen contributors.”6

The organisation of relief operations, for instance, has in recent years increasingly involved people joining forces after natural disasters and working together on a map. Each individual contributes his or her own knowledge and location so that help can be got to the crisis-hit region as quickly and effectively as possible. Another example of a bottom-up approach to mapping.

 

The Future Landscapes project

 

The development of the new high-speed railway between Turin and Lyon, the TAV or Treno a Alta Velocità, on the other hand, was anything but bottom up. On their two-dimensional drawing board, the planners simply drew a straight line from one city to the other. Unfortunately, the reality is rather different, with the Alps and their often densely populated valleys lying between Turin and Lyon. Opposition to the plans grew and the simmering conflict between those in favour and those against the infrastructure project has now been ongoing for twenty years. With the construction of the line largely at a standstill, the media coverage mostly only addresses the visible effects of the conflict (such as the clashes between police and demonstrators) rather than the actual problem and its causes.

Kim Costantino, one of Joost Grootens’ students, decided to look into the background and asked himself what role maps and their design could play in the coverage. For his master’s project at the Design Academy Eindhoven, he decided to go out there and explore the situation on the ground. In early 2014, he thus walked the 300 kilometres from Turin to Lyon on foot, photographing the territory along the way, noting the number of “No TAV” signs and tags and speaking to local residents (bottom-up approach).

His Future Landscapes (FL) is a project that looks into the building of the high-speed line and the protest movement No TAV. Costantino’s work doesn’t just examine the sociopolitical conflict caused by the planned line, however. It also shines a light on the role of design, asking: “Can design help to make a complex subject visible and comprehensible?” His conclusion: the disciplines of information and communication design can offer an alternative to traditional words-and-pictures journalism. FL gives far greater prominence to first-hand reporting and to first-hand local investigations as a complementary source of information. Costantino doesn’t claim that his investigation is neutral, but instead points to the fact that the project is transparent in its standpoint and methods.

“For my walk”, he explains, “I had official maps with scales of 1:50.000 and 1:200.000. I used them to find my way but also to record the presence of the No TAV movement on the ground in the form of tags and signs. At home, I then used these maps as the starting point for developing maps of my own that show the route of my walk and other relevant information about the conflict.”

The conflict brings together a whole range of political, social, economic and environmental aspects. Costantino is thus keen to stress that the “local dimensions don’t make the conflict just a local problem”, but that it is, in fact, “very strongly linked to global themes that affect us all.” This is a dispute about control over territory and changes to landscapes, about concepts of democracy, progress and public interest and how those concepts are put into practice. And, of course, about top-down versus bottom-up designs.

 

 

 

Future Landscapes from form – Design Magazine on Vimeo.

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