Field summary for TransforMap: some insights about map commons

Over the past three months I’ve made almost 10 interviews with people behind the following: Living Lot (map of vacant land lots in NYC), Alliance Paysans Ecologistes et Consom’acteurs (CSA network in France), ESS Global/ (joint map for 3 solidarity economy national organizations), Velogistics (map of cargo bikes), Verbund Offener Werkstaetten (network of open workshops), Flaechen in Leipzig (map of vacant lots in Leipzig), Mundraub (German map of fruit trees), Falling Fruit (global map of fruit trees). 

This post mostly compiles information from previous posts: Field reports #1 and #2  and #3.

I have been focusing on understanding the way those maps are developed and maintained with a particular attention to their general governance and impact. Here are a few useful insights for TransforMappers and the likes!

Thematic maps vs one big map? While one big filterable map is unarguably something that many want, thematic maps, with their own website, own community are very important for many reasons:

  • discovery/findability: if you are looking for a place to repair yourself your bike on a search engine you will probably easily find the map of open workshops where you can find a place in your city. A general map of alternatives is unlikely to show up in a specific search. Conversely, a big map bringing lots of different practices in one place may bridge communities.
  • data maintenance: maps which display up-to-date data are backed by an organization, often with paid staff updating databases, or at least a dedicated community. It seems initiatives seldom update themselves their information even if they have their own editable profile.
  • in or out?: maps’ admins make sure maps stay relevant. It is easy for the admin of one thematic map associated with one community/network to remove points of interest (POIs) not complying with the thematic focus/definition.
  • maps are parts of communities’ identity: communities/organizations want to retain ownership of their maps.

Licensing. What did you say? Not a single of the organization/individuals I interviewed about their maps had actually attributed a license to the maps’ data. They generally don’t think about it. While reuse is often welcome, most are reluctant to see their data used for commercial purpose, even in the case when they recognize the nature of the data is public (“more like a phone directory”).

One common taxonomy. ESSGlobal put together a map application that displays data from three different databases. In trying to define common categories for various economic branches, there was so much dissent that the group used existing UN categories… This shows how difficult it is for different organizations with their own values, cultural and regional and linguistic peculiarities to agree on joint categories. Remember this was three organizations from three countries all dealing with solidarity economy…

Gender: is there one woman out there? All the interviews I made were with men (except one where one of the two respondent was a woman)… like in many other fields involving IT there are very few women busy with making online maps.

Matching people through maps. Living Lots has a feature that allows people to start a conversation feed around an empty lot and receive updates when other contribute to enable people to connect onland (vs online).Tom Hansing from Anstiftung & Ertomis indicated they’re working on a matching application for people interested in repairing.

Incremental development. It was once again confirmed that going one step at a time allows to keep in touch with the needs on the ground. Among others, interviews shown that using open software enable such incremental steps, reduces costs and vulnerability to third parties.

Should everything be made visible on a map? This question was raised by many in various occasions; people usually thinking about illegal occupations or things like guerrilla gardening. While interviewing the two urban harvesting platforms Mundraub and Falling Fruit I observed two diverging approaches: after receiving requests, Mundraub set up a “take-down button” for each POI so that private owner (or even in one case the city of Stuttgart) can get a POI removed from the map. Falling Fruit takes a pure apolitical and cartographic stand: every tree that is there, public or private, will remain on the map because it’s there in the real world, and it will be indicated when the owner does not wish its tree to be harvested.

Print maps: Online maps fail to reach a large part of the population, reproducing, or even increasing existing information inequalities: what about those who don’t have internet at home? Acknowledging this reality, Living Lots put a lot of effort to hang printed maps out in the streets to reach their targets (racial minorities, poor people) where they live.

Technical feats. ESSGlobal was a (small) technical feat, but lack of usability and the broad diversity of points being displayed kind of defeated it. The maps of the French CSA network, on the other hand, are a big mess (one different Google map for each region), but are the most visited section of the website…


Taxonomy. Compulsory categories being defined by a relatively small group will keep away most initiatives/organizations that already have their own categories. Forcing a taxonomy in TransforMap’s mapping tools is not the way to go. Henry Story, semantic web expert, puts it nicely “Vocabularies [like taxonomies], on the internet as in languages, get spread if they provide a value to users”. So let make our so-called taxonomy available, but not force it. If it’s good it’ll be used. If not, the crowd will provide better vocabularies if they have the opportunity to do so.

Decentralization. That’s not new for most, realizing the vision of TransforMap, there is no way around decentralization. Many communities, organizations have an existing database and they cannot afford to duplicate maintenance of data: i.e. updating both their database and one or more maps. This means we’ll need to pull data from different sources that are owned by different entities. Some organizations have shown their need for database software that would allow them to choose the degree of openness of each database field: allowing for example, to publish a public directory, but also enriched maps only accessible to members. There are sometimes financial resources for developing such services. Is there anyway to answer those demands while building Transformap’s infrastructure?

Licensing. This will be a hard issue to overcome for TransforMap. As shown, existing maps’ data is not licensed and many organizations are reticent to licenses that would allow commercial use… This means, a rigorous and convincing case needs to be written up and presented to convince stakeholders to opt for public domain (basically the exclusion of any license – emerged as the preferred solution to enable large reuse).

Gender. How can get around the gender gap? I observed that in the rare occasions women were involved, they were not focusing on technology, rather on community aspects. Could agile development with female product owners be some kind of solution to bridging the gap and avoid that the code (and therefore the governance) is set only by a male crew?

This post is part of an action research project forming a part of a PhD research. It aims to broker some knowledge into the TransforMap process.

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