Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Design Process of the Radical Map - Amrita Adhikary

American art historian, Roy Rosenweig, in his book The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, explains that people assemble their experiences into narratives which influences them and allows them to make sense of their lives. In mapping these experiences it helps to come with an approach that honors the individual’s perspective but gives a clear and distilled overview.
In simple words, there are layers of information that can surface through mapping rather than direct experience. The mapping can uncover hidden meaning and derive inferences from simple data. So a map can exhibit obvious data but mapping probes and derives conclusions and nudges hypotheses.
Mapping according to James Corner is ‘uncovering realities previously unseen or unimagined, even across seemingly exhausted grounds’. The possibility to stretch your mind by comparing and synthesizing various data opens up a realm of possibilities and expands your frame of mind. It uses the information from the x and y axis to construct the z axis.
The Operation of Mapping in the New Global Environment
In the move toward globalization, public life is scheduled more through time than according to place. Events in this space occur with such speed and complexity that nothing is certain. Overdose and accessibility to vast information has changed our perception of it making the shocking seem normal and the far, reachable. Mapping in this scenario helps find connections between disconnected information.
So if the act of ordering creates order and mapping creates the map, it is worth considering that mapping as a design process makes explicit, things that are likely to remain hidden until they have been mapped. Mapping according to James Corner has three parts. Field is the graphical system over which the observations (extracts) will be organized. Extracts are the observations that are selected and pulled out from the mileu and plotting incorporates drawing out of new connections among the various extracts within the field. The possibilities for plotting can only be limited by the imagination and curiosity of the designer or investigator of that mapping process.

The Genealogy of Influences
An Outline

In presenting a genealogy of maps which were used as influences for my radical approach to mapping the UT commute, the starting point was Peter Sloterdijk’s The Theory of Spheres. According to him we all exist in separate spheres trying to make connections with other spheres of our lives such as family, school, travel etc. which makes the global. Noting the emotional and vehement tone of the respondents of the UT mapping also connected to the Emotion or Bio-Mappings (TheStockport Emotion Map) by Christian Nold and Julie Mehretu’s Maps of my Life/Sounds of my World.
A Text Cloud, which is a visual depiction of user generated tags or words of a site or activity presented a way of quantifying the common concerns, suggestions, and random thoughts that were expressed by participants when responding to the problems of the commute. This added another facet to the Transparency Map, by Kerry Mitchell which graphed the appearance of the word ‘transparency’ in The New York Times for the last 19 years. The beauty of the Transparency map was the representation of hard data as visul art. Derivations from the UT survey suggested that problems and solutions coexist, which led me to my final influence, the Mandala, a cosmic diagram that represents our relation with the universe.

1. Bubble Map

The UT commute was assembled in a collaborative online document entered by interviewers recording the concerns and suggestions of the participants who were students of the University of Texas, at Austin. On analyzing the data, “potholes” and “mean drivers” jump at you. It makes you stop a moment and think about the bubble that we live in.
In my understanding of Sloterdijk’s sphere theory, each bubble has to connect. In these connections, potholes and mean drivers play a part in making the bridge connecting us to our commute bubble smooth or strained. As I look at it, each participant had his own story which is his point of view. These rants, ramblings, and composed thoughts expose more about how we connect with the other bubbles or spheres of our existence. These connections are also emotional which leads me to my second influence, The Stockport Emotion Map.

2. Emotion Mapping- Stockport
Mapping the intangible is fascinating and important. In 2007, over a period of two months in Stockport, UK, about 200 people took part in six public mapping events. This map collected together and mapped the results of two activities, Drawing Provocations & Emotion Mapping. People were asked to sketch their responses to a variety of serious and humorous provocations about their daily lives such as what really annoys them about Stockport, where they meet their friends, as well as who are the most important and dangerous people in town. All the drawings were geographically positioned where people mentioned them. The second activity involved people walking freely through Stockport equipped with a special device that measured their emotional arousal in relation to their geographical location in the town.
Usually views and opinions are never recorded and forgotten because we think of them as trivial. This map aimed to record the trivial and seemingly meaningless conversations and events of our everyday lives and allowed us to see them all simultaneously.
When we talk about issues, our responses are guarded and neatly packaged, but responding to things is freer. When a thing becomes explicit or public, it becomes an issue and therefore requires a different response. This mapping captures our response to daily things before they become an issue. The student data of UT lends itself to this mapping as the opinions and suggestion are vehement, meaningful, and heartfelt. Perhaps mapping these emotions would expose latent issues of greater importance than just the commute.
3. ‘Map of my life/Sounds of my World’
Map of my life/Sounds of my World’, is a mapping led by Julie Mehretu, where the artist asked the students of East African origin to record the sounds of Minneapolis, where they lived, to draw connections between the home they left behind and the home they inhabited now. The interface was an interactive audio-visual collage of sound bites and photographs contributed by the students. Similarly, in his book ‘Presence of the Past’, Roy Rosenweig, studies how deeply ordinary people are engaged by the past but alienated from history. It is felt that the past is viewed in a very complex way mainly emphasizing the individual’s interpretation of his and his family’s past and ignoring the interpretations of those in other communities. This ‘privatized’ version of their past reinforces barriers. Selective memory can be the bane of communication and peace efforts by resisting rather than promoting change. As in the India - Pakistan conflict, as also in the Middle-East crisis, it is difficult to move away from the atrocities committed against your own group. A rational approach or a middle ground is hard to reach when each group’s private memory is so raw, vivid and imbalanced. In mapping, it would be helpful to come with a view that honors the individual point of view but gives clear and distilled overview of all the stakeholders. This hypothetical map would ideally make your presence visible to others. As an idea it guided the objective of my radical map where one’s input featured and made a difference in the outcome.
4. Text Clouds
Text Cloud is one of the many data visualizations created by scientist and mathematician, Mike Wattenburg. Through his experimental website, Many Eyes, users can upload the data they want to visualize and generate interactive displays. A text cloud is a visualization of word frequency as a ‘weighted list’. It has seen a rise in popularity in analyzing political speeches. The text cloud of President Obama’s inaugural speech made by CNN highlights his main refrain ‘new nation’. Used as a tool it can effectively sort data and remove redundancies to enable a map that does not just exhibit obvious data but probes and derives conclusions. The importance of a tag is shown with font size and color. I saw potential in using it as a tool to substantiate my analysis of the data.
5. The Arrival of Transparency- Kerry Mitchell
Data is represented strikingly in this interactive map which was at the back of my mind for the sheer visual character. Access to infinite information has changed our perception of it and made the bizarre, normal, perhaps heralding a new normalcy.
This visualization that appeared in NY Times, captures instances of the word “transparency” in the Times articles from 1990 to 2009 and is a radial or timepiece graph. The first mention of “transparency” is at the 1 o’clock position. Each ray represents a month; the months proceed clockwise into an explosion of instances of the word. In concept it is similar to the tag cloud or the text cloud.
6. Mandala -The pattern of creation

The Sanskrit word "mandala" means circle. It is seen as a model for the organizational structure of life itself. It represents a cosmic diagram that reminds us of our relation to the infinite. Most mandalas have four concentric circles symbolizing the enlightenment which the meditating person must gain before she can enter the illuminated palace (centre) through the outermost circle, which is the purifying fire. Mandalas are a powerful tool for bringing the mind to a place of quiet and the soul to a place of connection to the Divine. Meditation on a Mandala may have the potential to change how we see ourselves, our planet, and perhaps even our own life purpose. The harmony of the mandala influenced my final representation of the commute as a spiral where the conflicting directions of the problems and suggestions still show their interconnectedness but disappear, or seem to emanate from one singular point.

Synthesis of the Influences
Radical Map depicting the UT commute
In Mapping the UT commute as a visual depiction of user generated data that quantify the common concerns of the participants and their suggestions for improvement, I also wanted the participants to matter and the mapping to reveal latent issues of the group. There were two directions that I wanted to explore with mapping the commute. The first was a Static map that would represent the concerns over a period of two months which was the time of the data collection. Being true to the data, I wanted to deduct what the main concerns were. Using a text cloud online software ( as a sifting tool, I was able to get an idea of keywords that were mentioned frequently. As discussed earlier, text clouds resonate the idea that is most explicit. Although there is room for error if care is not taken to enter the data correctly so as to minimize noise, a general idea is obtained easily. Using the text cloud as a guide I then went ahead and manually sorted the information to classifying the data as keywords under problems and suggestions. Each problem that was mentioned twice or more was in one category, while a concern or suggestion mentioned more than four times was in another category. The intent was to highlight each concern or suggestion by size and boldness based on the number of times it appeared in the data set.
Outcome of the Synthesis

Depicting Harmony in Conflict-Static Map
Mapping an activity like the UT commute could manifest itself into a map that reflects the feelings regarding the commute and the aspects of it that they love or loathe. The first reflection is of discontentment with the roads, its potholes, and the manic drivers. A lot of emphasis is placed on mean drivers. My map like the Stockport Emotion map or the Twin Cities image/sound map puts value to random thoughts that could actually be plotted to have consequential meanings. Problems and their solutions are integrated and co-exist and gives reason to believe that understanding the problem opens up the pathway for its resolution. The idea of mandala reflected in a cyclone form, where the extreme low pressure at its centre and the counter-clockwise movement of the wind in the Northern Hemisphere brings high winds. Conversely, anti-cyclones bring fair weather because of the high pressure at its core. Together, these spirals represent the positive and negative forces that balance each other. Using this metaphor to represent the UT commute that problems and solutions emanate from the same point, the problems were represented in the counter-clockwise cyclonic movement of the spiral while the clockwise spiral depicted the suggestions in a positive light. I wanted to highlight the positive nature of the suggestions and therefore the brightness of the text was featured.
For the purpose of clarity and perhaps to obtain an overview so that the viewer may make logical deductions from the data, I found the need to précis the information and use it as extracts to plot on the field of the entwined spirals. In the Mehretu map, a similar rationale was used to balance the individual emotions and to distil them and present them as an apt overview. Using the Text cloud as solely a sifting tool to help substantiate my manual analysis of the data to quantify concerns and suggestions, I designed a system where frequently mentioned concerns or suggestions were bigger and bolder and stood out to the viewer. If a map is a depiction of data then this would inform the viewer of the problems and suggestions on the mind of the majority. As a static map, it would be used as a poster of a set of 4 to depict concerns that would presumably differ by the seasons. Placed as a timeline it would reveal a pattern of what really matters in the lives of the students with regard to their commute over the year. Perhaps, like the emotion map it would also uncover latent information that would coax some changes in fields not related to commute. (behavior, all night classes?). Like the mandala, it interacts between entities.
Next Steps
Dynamic Map

Taking the same idea that problems and solutions are interconnected, I wanted to use the medium of real time to depict the relation of problems to solutions as a dynamic map. Users of UT website would be asked to enter information on a site that caters to the commute. Users would be encouraged to enter their concerns, limiting their input to one or two words that best reflect each concern. If it were more than a word they could be separated by a hyphen so that they were perceived as a single word for ease and accuracy. These words would appear on the spiral ranked by the number of times similar words were entered until then. The tail of the spiral draws the most attention and is also most visible. The most mentioned concern would take its prime place at the end of the tail while the ones which were lower in quantity would move down the spiral. Based on the cumulative volume that the word receives, it would be bolder and also occupy a prime place at the tail. Diminishing quantity of entries on that word would move it down the spiral eventually making it disappear. This interplay of information would make the map radiate in a spiral. Words that have seen a peak and are not a concern anymore reflect a resolution or a short memory span. The incentive for the students to participate in this live visual depiction of data is instant realization of where their concern ranks in the mileu. If it is not the main concern, they could also see it trickle down the spiral to take its rightful place. There could be another overlay of information that quantifies concerns that have hit a maximum count into issues needing immediate attention.

There is a thought that the more detailed and life like a map is the more redundant and unnecessary it becomes. Maps, like art must have mystery to have meaning and to make sense.
So is the map only as good as the imagination of the maker? Can the map reveal things that the cartographer had not envisioned?
I believe that the map can take a life of its own once the parameters of the grid and the extractions to be plotted are established.


Corner, James. The Agency of Mapping.
Holmes, Brian. Counter Cartographies.
The Mandala Project: Home Page. Web. .
Rozenweig, Roy. The Presence of the Past.
Sloterdijk, Peter. Theory of Spheres.
"Visualizations: The Art of Times APIs - First Look Blog -" First Look - First Look Blog - Web. 03 Dec. 2009. .
Wattenberg. "Text Clouds." Many Eyes. Web. .
Wordle - Beautiful Word Clouds. Web. .