Mapping Culture: from paper to bytes

From Paper to Bytes presents the theoretical foundation of the CAMRA proejct, featuring writing by members of the CAMRA team. Professor Ross Gibson writes about cultural mapping and the imagination. Professor Chris Gibson brings maps to life with digital technology. Chris Brennan-Horley gives us a primer for the map mashup whilst Nick Keys provides a general introduction to maps and mapping. You can browse through the content using the links at the bottom of the page.


Maps and Mapping: A general introduction

by Nick Keys, CAMRA Research Team:

Aboriginal Australia MapNouvelle Holland
Left: The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Straight Isandler Studies (AIATSIS) Map of Aboriginal Australia based on language grouping. Right: A pre-Captain Cook map of Asutralia made by the Frenchman Jacques Nicolas Bellin in 1753.

1. Maps serve interests

It has long been recognised that maps do not simply reflect and represent a geographic territory, but that they help shape and control that territory. This is the power of maps. They are less like pictures of the world and more like arguments being made about the world. For example, in the AIATSIS map of Aboriginal Australia pictured above, it is acknowledged that the boundaries between areas are not exact, it represents larger language groups, within which diverse clans, dialects or individual language groups may well exist. Despite this, the map shows the rich linguistic diversity within indigenous Australia. For me, this map makes the powerful argument against the idea of pre-Settlement Australia as empty, as Terra Nulllius. It argues that it was culturally and linguistically full and prompts us - or me, at least - to think more about Aboriginal Australia and its great worth. So maps serve interests, and those interests can be good ones. Important things can be mapped and therefore brought into people's consciousness.

2. Maps are for using

For all their power maps, of course, are for using. How often do we go a single day without making use of a map? In street directories, train stations, bus stops, shopping centres, on the news, computers, iPhones. Whether physical or digital, whether on a piece of printed paper or via satellite on a computer screen, contemporary life is saturated with maps. They are - apart from our bodily senses - the primary modes of locating and choosing our trajectories through the world.

3. We are what is mapped

The history of cartography tells us that its goal was to produce reliable pictures of things in the world, things like continents, nations, states, cities, towns, zones, councils, precincts, parks, etc. In fundamental ways this remains the goal, however, aided by the development of satellite technology, mapping is increasingly done by groups of people whose interests are not primarily cartographic. This frees the map to take on a new subject, or perhaps, allows it to reveal the subject it was secretly mapping all along: us. We are what is mapped. A new iPhone application is a good example to demonstrate this. The application is called Ghost Runner and it is for people who are serious about running. The application will map the route a runner takes as well as the time it takes to complete the run. The next time they run the course the iPhone shows them a moving line across the course in real time, giving them a "ghost" of themselves to race against. But this kind of self-mapping goes beyond geography. Mapping, in the widest sense of the word, is what almost everyone is doing. Scientists are mapping the human genome, cognitive scientists are mapping the neuronal assemblies of the brain, meteorologists are mapping the weather, climatologists are mapping the heating of the earth, human geographers are mapping cultural activity, stockbrokers are mapping market trends... just to mention a few examples. This explosion of mapping suggests that it is a one of the most powerful methods we have of understanding and interacting in the world.

The references informing this text, and many more, are in the Bibliography . . .

Cultural mapping and the imagination

by Professor Ross Gibson, Sydney College of the Arts.

For me, cultural mapping should have some 'poetry' and wonder in it. The processes of gathering and representing information about cultural activities should take account of the yearning and imagination that often drive cultural activity.  To map these forces, one needs to access qualities and impulses that are often invisible or not readily quantifiable; one needs to make startling connections and show the validity of these connections, particularly if the connections have started out as little more than hunches and speculations.

In their different ways, the following examples show imaginative but plausible and defensible maps of patterned behaviour and actions. Startling, imaginative but methodologically rigorous, these 'poetic' mapping activities give insights into qualities as well as quantities in human space and time.

PhotosynthLife After Wartime
 Left: An image of Microsoft's Photosynth mapping St. Marks plaza in Venice. Right: A promo shot from Life After Wartime

1. Photosynth

This famous, 2005 demo film is an experimental image-agglomerator that, in the near future, will allow people interested in inhabited or visited spaces to compile a rich pictorial understanding of these spaces, simply by gathering and combining all relevant photographs lodged on flickr and other public pictorial depositories.

 2. Life After Wartime

In 1998 I collaborated with Kate Richards on a suite of works, known collectively as Life After Wartime. In a range of different media, the suite of works responds to an archive of crime scene photographs from Sydney, 1945-60. Life After Wartime maps the emotions and narratives that are soaked into the city. In these emotions and stories, we find the patterns of care or callousness that organise daily life in the town. The latest project in this suite is BYSTANDER. It has recently been exhibited at Performance Space and at the Justice and Police Museum in Sydney.

 3. Mass Observation Project

This website is the repository of the great 'Mass Observation' project that was sporadically maintained in Britain between 1937 and the 1950s. A visionary 'social geography' project, it sought to capture data about regional life all over Britain.  Rather than using standard quantitative and statistical methods for gathering data, the project encouraged participants to take photographs, record sounds and music, write narratives and create small museological collections of local material culture.

Using Digital Technology to bring Maps to Life

by Professor Chris Gibson, University of Wollongong

Cultural asset mapping involves using maps to document what a community values as important to its way of life. Rather than relying on lots of words written about local culture, maps are used to locate important sites such as venues, heritage precincts and museums. Maps can also be used to illustrate changing social patterns; things like in-migration, growth and decline in agriculture, tourism trends and shifts in the creative industries. But maps really 'come to life' - as a geographical recording of mobility and cultural meaning - when they are used as a talking point for people discussing their everyday life, creativity and interactions with their town or village.

Once upon a time, all maps were produced 'hard-copy', on paper. Nowadays, it is possible for communities and scholars to develop their own digital maps using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technology. This is the technology inside car navigation devices and, increasingly, in mobile phones. A benefit of GIS technology is its ability to overlay  or 'stack up maps on top of each other', also known as a 'map mashup'. So a map of cultural heritage in a town could be overlaid on top of a map of venues and performance spaces, an aerial photograph, a map of demographic change, or a map of council zoning regulations. Sometimes surprising patterns of commonality and difference emerge from viewing maps 'stacked up' like this.

GIS SoftwareA screen shot mapping cultural worksite in Darwin, taken from arcGIS, ESRI's mapping software.

Digital mapping technology is at the heart of the CAMRA project. Over time, each project partner will become a co-creator of a series of digital maps of each case study location. What these maps will contain exactly will depend on the location, the interests of the project partner, and what local communities define as cultural assets. They may include: maps of cultural facilities, venues and institutions; maps of demographic change (including information on creative industry employment); maps of local heritage, cultural diversity and Indigenous country maps; maps of networks and linkages between organisations and individuals; maps of festivals and maps of creative industry businesses.

In 2009-10 the CAMRA team will work with industry partners on identifying their mapping preferences and exploring technical options for development of the CAMRA maps. It is anticipated that each region will develop a 'basic' mapping platform (including information on the presence of cultural industries in each region), but that some may wish to pursue more complex, creative and experimental uses of mapping technology.

As our project unfolds we expect the mapping component to inform other research findings (and vice-versa).

To see featured GIS resources from mapping projects around the world, visit the Featured GIS Resources. For references to texts on GIS, and many more, please see our Bibliography . . .

Map Mashups: A Primer

by Chris Brennan-Horley, PhD candidate, GIS Project Manager, Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research, University of Wollongong:

A mashup is an internet application that combines data from more than one source. When one source involves geo-referencing data to real locations, you get a map mashup. In other words, map mashups link information to place. That information could literally be anything, from real estate prices, to graffiti sites.

Map mashups have gained prominence only in the past couple of years, as part of the wider growth in web 2.0 technologies (including video sharing, blogging, wikis and social networking sites). Most importantly, they have leveraged off the ability to access the programming capabilities of web-based mapping applications such as Google Earth, Google Maps and Microsoft's Virtual Earth. This means that programmers have been able to legally get 'under the hood' of these applications to make them do tasks and display information in new and novel ways. More importantly, their resulting maps and tools can be made publicly available for lay users. The result is a veritable explosion of map mashups, ranging from the personal (photo and video sharing, social networking) the commercial (real estate, restaurant and bar reviews), transit, travel, subcultures (music, graffiti) right through to the downright bizarre.

Map mashups are a great device for displaying results of research to the public, for facilitating collaboration between individuals on a research team, or for observing what members of the public are mapping; essentially as data sources in themselves.

Capitol of PunkCommunity Walk
Left: Screen shot from Capitol of Punk website. Right: Screen shot of L.A. graffiti map from Community Walk websit

The Map mashups pictured above, along with many more, can be found on the Featured GIS Resources page. The references informing this text can be seen in the GIS section of the Bibliography . . .

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