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Maps that move the needle

Why are we all obsessed with maps? There is something mesmerizing about maps. When I tell people that I’m a mapping expert they often exclaim, “I’m obsessed with maps!”


I rarely hear the same level of excitement about other data visualizations. I’m still waiting for someone to say “I'm crazy about bar charts! ” or “I can’t get enough of boxplots”


But why do we love maps so much?


One reason is that they allow us to see our world from another perspective. In looking at a cartesian map we are transported from the street level of a mere mortal to a god-like elevation in the clouds, looking down on all that was or all that is. This perspective can feel both empowering as we expand our scope and humbling as the individual shrinks to a level of invisibility and insignificance.


We also respect maps. While we might be suspicious of other sources of information, we rarely question what’s shown on a map. And as humans on a constant quest for truth, we turn to maps to learn more about our reality. Mapping always feels like a first step to understanding the unknown, the unexplored. We map the cosmos, the deep seas, the human genome…


Warning! Mapmaking in Progress…


The ability of maps to show us the world from another perspective and validate what’s real is what makes maps so interesting to us, but it’s also what makes them dangerous.


Especially in the Western world, mapping has historically been used as a tool of domination and violence. We can think about the many world maps that completely left off the presence of indigenous peoples and marked their territory as blank spaces that could be claimed by colonial powers.


Even when mapping isn’t consciously being used to oppress others, the very act of dividing territory according to political authority can be experienced as a form of violence. We see political borders and boundaries countless times on maps. Over time they become real in our imaginations and we often forget that absolutely nothing is holding them in place other than a socially constructed legal code.


Given this reality, it is a radical act for those at the bottom of the power hierarchy—historically oppressed communities—to create maps that show what exists from their viewpoints.


Using mapping for radical social transformation is precisely the goal of “critical cartography” and critical cartographers, such as myself and my North Arrow co-founder Charles Grosperrin. Rather than using mapping to reinforce the status quo, critical cartographers create maps that have the potential to challenge social inequities and bring about more liberatory spaces.


Radical mapmaking: leveraging maps to inspire action


When I was getting my Ph.D. in geography I became obsessed with learning about all of the radical forms of mapmaking. Two of my favorite traditions are “feminist GIS” and “indigenous counter mapping.”


Feminist GIS: Mapping Women’s Domestic Labor


When feminist geographers began to seriously engage with the field of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in the 1980s and 1990s they challenged several fundamental ideas about mapmaking. Most importantly, they argued that all maps are biased since maps show what is important to the mapmaker. And in a field dominated by men, feminists demonstrated that the experiences of women had largely been ignored.


My dissertation advisor, Marianna Pavlovskaya, interviewed women in Moscow and mapped the amount of domestic labor they did under communism versus the transition to capitalism. She showed that the rise in GDP at the macro level was in part driven by a rise in the amount of unpaid labor done by women in the household. In mapping domestic labor she made visible something that had been ignored and undervalued as an important contributor to economic growth.

Map of Moscow, Dr. Marianna Pavlovskaya
Maps at the household level that quantify women’s domestic labor pre- and post- the transition to capitalism in Moscow, by Dr. Marianna Pavlovskaya

Indigenous Counter mapping: The Amiskwaciwâskahikan map


Some of the most radical and powerful maps that I’ve seen have been created by indigenous and First Nation peoples. Their work has helped to birth a form of mapping called “counter mapping” since they counter Western notions of geography, which are rooted in settler colonialism. In particular, indigenous counter maps communicate indigenous knowledges and challenge dispossession by demonstrating the historical and modern-day presence of indigenous people and their rights to ancestral lands.


Beginning in the 1960s, Indigenous groups in Canada began using mapping as part of their struggles for legal rights. One the first mapping projects came to be known as the “Inuit Land Use and Occupancy Project (ILUOP).” Its aim was to record Inuit peoples’ knowledge and their deep relationships to their lands. Researchers asked Inuit participants to draw on maps and indicate all the places they had ever used for hunting, berry-picking, fishing, camping, and so on. The maps were then used in negotiations with the Canadian government and played a key role in helping the Inuit people attain self-governance over the former Northwest Territories in 1999.


Nunavut Atlas: Distribution of Wildlife on Foxe Peninsula
Foxe Peninsula: Distribution of Wildlife, Page 11 of the Nunavut Atlas

Inuit Land Use and Occupancy Project : Southampton Island
Southampton Island: Distribution and movement of wildlife, page 211 in Inuit Land Use and Occupancy Project


Who Drew the Line?

I could have provided dozens more extremely different and inspiring radical maps, and will luckily be able to do so very soon as we launch North Arrow's new blog "Who Drew the Line?".


In Beyond Walls and Cages, Loyd, Mitchelson, Burridge (2012) study the concept of criminality and remind us that questions of “who crossed the line?” are often far less important than questions of “who drew the line?” and who has the power to move and reshape the lines in question.


Charles, myself and our guests will use this platform to trace the origins of the borders and boundaries that divide us so that we can better understand the roots of our social divisions. We will also provide examples of radical maps that are challenging these lines, including many of North Arrow’s own maps.


We hope you’ll join us on this journey through a wide range of topics, from mapmaking to social movement building. Get in touch if you feel like writing with us!

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