Cartographic poverty II: why does it matter?

In my last post I posed the question that if OSMappers like me can map anywhere they want, why is there a difference (in collaborative or volunteered mapping projects) in the number of areas mapped and tagged as residential landuse and in features marked as housing? I showed how wealthy areas in Dublin are mapped more heavily in OpenStreetMap than poor areas within the same city. This means that OSMappers are being partial in their mapping efforts and are mapping wealthy areas in more detail and more often than in poorer areas. It can be argued of course that these volunteers map what they know and wealthier people have more time and opportunity to do this work. But research has shown that for most volunteered mapping projects operate on a 90:9:1 ratio: 90% of users merely use the maps, 9% of users contribute occasionally and 1% is constantly active in making contributions. I am a 9%’er myself. A bigger question for me is: why does this mapping partiality matter?

In this post, I want to try and address this question. I want to take this idea on in two ways. Firstly, this idea of partial and incomplete mappings of Dublin city and other places like it across Ireland matters because these maps are used now more often than before. OSM has become the map of choice for many local authorities and other semi-state bodies providing online services (both user-facing and internal). Fix My Street for example is used by the four local authorities in the Dublin region to collect data on and resolve relatively easy public problems like potholes and broken street lighting. Users can pinpoint the problem they have on an API feed from OSM and then describe that issue, using a contact number and their own name. It is a responsive service for the most part although it is demand-driven, independent of budget decisions taken by Councils which, for the most part, are inaccessible to the vast bulk of us. If you have been on the Dublin Bus website lately you might have noticed how the Google Maps API is broken:

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Transport for Ireland, probably one of the most used sites on the web in Ireland, uses a Leaflet implementation of what looks like OSM. Reliance on Google basemaps has changed because Google have changed their terms. If you are a web designer for a relatively small government agency that needs to display a map for public or internal use, chances are, you are now going to turn to OSM, not Google. You are certainly not going to go to OSi.

Secondly, partial mapping within OSM matters because people who use maps need to see themselves represented. Some of the most significant social problems we have (educational inequality, housing shortages) are based on groups of people not being adequately represented, politically and economically. Homelessness remains hidden for most people because of government inaction on public housing. People impacted by these policies also remain hidden: in family hubs and hostels. Working class children leave school and remain undervalued in our institutions of higher education. For so many universities, it is about numbers, large numbers and not cultural contribution. Not being politically visible was at the heart of women’s struggles over reproductive rights in 2018. If you do not see yourself, how are your politics significant?

The same largely holds for maps. Maps are not neutral instruments of policy. They constrain, re-create and tell stories of their own construction and the motives of their makers. Feature density on publicly-accessible maps matters then because people see themselves represented. We recognize the things that we see around us and it helps us to embed our political struggles.


View Larger Map“>Matt Talbot Court in Dublin 1 is three large polygons and houses scores of people. Arklow Street in Stoneybatter seems to look like a series of formless strips of housing.
View Larger Map“>Merton Road, Dublin 6 has many individual units mapped, not one long strip. How we represent each other and how we view those representations make a difference to other political struggles. Such struggles are the fabric of the city.

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