No Neutral Map

So geographers, in Afric maps
With savage pictures fill their gaps
And o’er uninhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns


This snippet from 18th century writer John Swift’s epic poem “Poetry: A Rhapsody” demonstrates that for centuries we have grappled with the politics of drawing borders, naming places, and mapping. There is no such thing as a neutral map, and being able to create maps comes with power. Drawing Africa smaller than North America and Europe helps bolster white supremacy, painting swaths of the United States as untouched wilderness aided Indigenous displacement, and stripping towns and villages of their namesake in the place of exotic animals dehumanizes the locals.

The internet has changed the world of cartography, creating a map seems simpler than ever. Prevalence of maps on the web is incredibly high. According to our static analysis of the HTTP Archive, 16% of web pages use maps and 22% of those have interactive geographic features. This outweighs the use of other incredibly common features, like the picture and video elements, or YouTube embeds. However, despite the popularity and ease of map making there are still barriers and frustrations. Geopolitical decisions inform borders which are drawn by technology companies. These coded borders lack context or narrative but represent sovereignty, for better or for worse. Without access to the tools used to create or change borders, map tiles, or projections, map users and makers do not have the ability to make maps meaningful for their lived experience. Through the Web Maps project, Bocoup engaged with the team at Natural Resources Canada to explore a pathway to fix this by centering accessibility and equity in map creation.

Designing Together, Not For

This year Bocoup is striving to codify our co-design practices. Web Maps was a great opportunity for us to engage myriad organizations and individuals to figure out what communities really need.

The Web Maps team conducted in-depth interviews with low vision map users, web developers, and social justice oriented cartographers. Co-design allows us to center accessibility and equity from the beginning of the project lifecycle. Involving myriad voices, especially centering lived experience experts, helps us create better tools for the folks that actually want and need them.

When our interviewees were asked what was missing with maps today the answers centered on equity and accessibility. The desire to add anything and everything to a map is high, and as one of our experts said, “Every map is missing everything except what is on it.” The respondents highlighted the difficulty mapping Indigenous ancestral lands, the labor intensive process of making maps interoperable across platforms, and a desire to expand accessibility by adding aural components like a sonar system and haptics. Our accessibility tester Louis said he mainly uses maps to track his location, especially when being driven around to ensure he’s being taken to the right location, or in one instance not being taken advantage of with circuitous routes to drive up fare.

The technology and methods used by the cartographers varied, but there was a consensus that the barrier to creating maps on the web was high. The map makers were creating maps to chart evictions, track wildfires, share ancestral knowledge, and to simply get from point A to point B. All of the experts interviewed agreed that creating new maps and customizing pre-existing ones needs to be easier. They expressed desires for customizing text and display for low vision accessibility, the ability to switch between multiple projections, drawing ancestral borders rather than state recognized ones, and finding a better way to enter in alternative text for screen readers. Better mapmaking doesn’t just benefit cartographers – it places agency into the hands of marginalized communities to define the space around them.

In addition to our in-depth surveys, Bocoup conducted a larger survey of web developers and map library authors. The data collected from the 78 respondents will help flesh out even further the best way to create maps by and for the people. The pain points that arose from our dataset were similar to what we found in the interviews – difficulty implementing interactions and lack of beginner-friendly mapping options. Additional trends were desires for browsers to have better load times and to better assist mapping/zooming and accessibility. A majority of the respondents have been making maps for more than 5 years. Over their many years creating maps 84% of respondents said that they don’t have the necessary tools to make maps a11y compliant – and 96% expressed a desire to do so.

Onwards!

Our co-design and research findings indicate a need for standardized accessible web maps. When we met with browser implementers and map framework authors, they encouraged taking an iterative approach to standardizing maps by finding stop-gap solutions within existing map frameworks to inform what changes to browsers are necessary. We can do this and also learn from and build upon prior work with MapML. To facilitate this approach we plan to utilize Bocoup’s Inclusive Standards Lifecycle (more on this soon!), which integrates a wide range of stakeholders and collaboratively designs solutions that incorporate their expertise and lived experience. By engaging communities impacted by maps as key stakeholders in the design of web maps we will have the opportunity to improve accessibility and performance, making maps easier to create and use.
We are grateful to the many voices that have helped shape this project, and look forward to continuing our co-designing practice in this project and others. Changing the way maps work on the web is no small feat! You can check out our research summary here, follow us on this journey with our detailed roadmap, and reach out to us directly if you’re interested in partnering.

Special thanks to our interviewees: Jordan Engel founder of Decolonial Atlas, Andreas Hocevar from Geospatial Solutions, Professor Erin McElroy from University of Texas at Austin, Lisa Jakubczyk from the Anti-Eviction mapping project, Bryan Haberberger from Saint Louis University, Tim Wallace Senior Geography Editor at the New York Times, and Louis Do from Bocoup. And a big thank you to all of the incredible folks that filled out the survey for us.

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