The maps we are, the maps we make

This is based on an idea for a talk I wanted to submit to FOSS4G 2020, before I realised I wouldn’t be able to get there because of funding and then it was cancelled. Historically I’ve given technical talks about point clouds at open source conferences, starting with an embarrassingly naive shot in 2016, then slowly getting relevant over the years…

…and then I realised I’m really not actually that good at this stuff. Sure, I can whip up some use cases here and there and talk about them – but I’m taking oxygen from people who are far more active in both the developer and user space for a FOSS4G audience and have more useful things to say.

While on Zanzibar after FOSS4G 2018 I penned an abstract for a talk, titled ‘From Zanzibar, with love’. Inspired by the work of Codrina Ilie and Vasile Crăciunescu on open source networks, this aimed to walk through the open source geospatial community in the hazy afterglow of an insanely wonderful and eye-opening meeting of the global community. The same year I pushed hard for a panel discussion on ‘Open geospatial software, mapping and human evolution’ at FOSS4G SotM Oceania. It didn’t get a great reception and ended up being a bit farcical. I really love the topic still. I wish we discussed it far more often as a community.

This story attempts to wrap up a lot of the thinking behind those ideas. It is a pretty introspective essay, and also refers mainly to other stuff I’ve written where it fits – if you don’t like that kind of story look away now. I can’t tell you how this all looks for you. I am stuck with me as a metaphor, and have to hope that in the telling something resonates.

Humans map

As soon as we are conscious, we start to make maps. Those maps we make are based on whatever senses we have available at the time – emotional maps, maps of sounds in time, mapping out how our mothers respond to things around them without knowing that its what we’re doing. The sound-haptic-smell-taste-proprio-moodscape of the womb is our first ever map for most of us, assuming we’re lucky enough to have all of those senses. If we don’t, we still have a map – albeit a different one.

…and then we are born. Our old map is broken, our world is shattered. So we start all over based on a few shards that are left – there are still familiar parts – smells, sounds, chemistry… the light is harsher, the sound is louder, the temperature is so extreme now (assuming, again, we have the incredible fortune to be assembled with all 6 senses that we generally consider normal). Whatever our situation, a very wee while after making our first map, we have to make another one.

This one takes a lifetime.

Over the years to come, we develop into a new and vastly larger world which we need to make sense of – to map. We need to know how to get from point A to point B, where is water, where is food, where is sleep, where are other people, where are other creatures we live with. Being tool builders, we help ourselves out by making ways to record and communicate the places we need to go, and share them around. We start to make maps that are outside of ourselves as well as our internal plans of ourselves and our planet. We make tools to help us make maps, and so on, and so forth.

These maps, like us, take many forms.

We make all kinds of maps

The word ‘map’ generally conjures up a narrow set of definitions, and we love to engage in tetraplyoctomy when it comes to what is mapping, or geospatial, or geomatics. All of it can be cast as making maps. Sometimes with crayons, sticks, words, stories – and sometimes by counting cycles of pulsars and watching the decay of atoms. All are valid, and all have their role. Sometimes we need to understand the world with stories scratched in sand. Sometimes we need to understand the world with partial differentials and laser beams. Sometimes we need to understand the world with context, sight, sound, and a connection to our deep past.

Long before I became a ‘geospatialist’ I used a lot of the maps we like to construct in the western tradition of mapping – topographic maps. As an orienteer, a wanderer in the wilderness, a climber and sometime mountaineer. Terrain, contours, this way, that way, inference, misdirection, decision trees – all a part of my life based on topographic maps. Over time, experience and stories become just as important as the tools of navigation we build… and the lines on paper become less about truth and more just another tool in the extensive kit we build.

Here are a few different kinds of maps I make and come across. Sometimes they’re made of paper, sometimes snow, ice, coffee. Sometimes they’re obvious in the picture, sometimes they’re frameworks upon which to hang stories and experience in order to become a map. Sometimes the map is good for a day, an hour, a few hours – other times it will be there for generations to come.

In each of these images there is something communicated about our place, our space, and us. Some are obvious, and I hope you’re thinking ‘wow, some of those are drawing a long bow’ about others.

Because there are maps that many of us cannot comprehend.

Years ago one of my cognitive pyschology lecturers made an astonishing statement: she did not have the capacity to visualise imagery. Her mental landscape was made entirely of words. This was astonishing to me because my cognitive space is entirely imagery, and I’d pretty much figured ‘well everyone does this’. Her mapping of how to get from A to B was an internal monologue made of words. She’d remember landmarks and directions in words. Instead of picturing, say, a cube – she had a language based expression of the geometric concept. My own visually biased mixed media brain gets it but has absolutely no concept of being able to operate like that.

This is just one example. To pull out another story from life, in the 1990s I was a skateboarder – and cities were like playgrounds before shopping was allowed on Sundays. My map of Adelaide city looked different from most. It was filled with landmarks that made no sense to the hundreds of thousands of people who used the city on weekdays! That map still exists, only in the minds of a handful of ageing grungesters and people who still use it today. It was a spoken map, a set of stories. It never existed on paper. It was mutable, a legend in a small community. Our various subcultures all have these maps – ‘where is the best bar?’, ‘where is the best fishing spot?’, ‘where is the secret powder stash?’.

You have your own stories – your secret maps, your maps that belong to your communities, your ways and places which are special to you. Our vastly different internal maps and methods lead to an uncountable diversity of ways to navigate and interpret the places and spaces we inhabit. Which is pretty mind blowing, considering we are all genetically so nearly identical. Why do we do this? how did it come to be? and what forces shape it all?

Because we map. We must map. We are maps.

We are maps

Humans are maps, and you know this already. Here are my hands – take a look at yours.

Drawn on the back of each is a map of where my blood returns from my fingers to my heart – it’s a catchment map, right at the wellspring! I want you to notice that both of these hands are printed using the same genetic code. Yet, the network of streams in each catchment has evolved in its own way. The stories etched on each of these maps over the years has made them unique – in the same way each of our own sets of experience gives us unique insight into mapping our social, cognitive, emotional and physical spaces.

Your map is different to my map is different to your neighbours’ map, and so on. While we have general cultural understandings of different types of maps, we all interpret them slightly differently. In the old days when we had paper street directories this was incredibly evident for every day folks. Finding where to go with a street directory often led to robust debate! And in the outdoors every time there is a group of more than one human, there are many discussions about what a map feature might mean, or which direction to move in. Mini mapping conferences are a constant part of life, especially if it is wet or dark or foggy.

As well as being unique physical maps, we al have unique ways of interpreting maps.

…because we are unique emotional and psychological maps – given the same lines on paper we identify different things in different ways. Fortunately, we often arrive at consensus about what is important and why, if we’re given a chance. Important in the concept of consensus is the concept of consent. What parts of our maps are we willing to give? Where do we draw lines around who gets to make maps of what? What are the goals of our maps? What do we care about and why?

We care about things that we consider ‘us’ – and who we consider ‘our community’. How we draw and think about representations of the world is deeply influenced by what we consider as ‘belonging to us’. With that, lets look at where we are in our maps – and what our maps might include…

Where are you in your map?

In my first job out of high school I made stuff in a neurophysiology lab. Chemical solutions, bipolar microelectrodes spot welded under a microscope, histological preparations… it was also my introduction to both open source tooling and image analysis, since we had a side project trying to make 3D maps of neural paths using image stacks and NIH image, in 1993! The reason I bring this up now is that we had an ongoing lab question:

‘Where are you?’

By this, we meant ‘when you think about where your seat of consciousness – your ego – is, where do you place it in your body?’. The lab chief put ‘himself’ more or less where rave art shows 3rd eyes opening, right smack in the prefrontal cortex. This is apparently pretty common as a concept. I wasn’t able to answer until quite a few years later, after 3 years in this lab and then late into a degree studying cognition, haptics, linguistics, neurophysiology, medical anthropology.

The answer I came to eventually is ‘it depends’.

Sometimes I am infinitesimally small, occupying no space in an overwhelming universe. Sometimes I am landscape-sized, being all of the things I can sense around me (this is how I become in the mountains!). Mostly, I tend to occupy a wobbly bubble which describes the limits of my proprioceptive reach and maybe a bit beyond.

Right now, typing this, I feel like ‘I’ am sitting inside my head, driving fingers typing this. I may extend more or less to the room I’m in, but my focus is on a narrow subset of my proprioceptive and perceptive envelope.

The next photo is me in a different place – being the landscape, metaphorically zoomed right out. In this photo I feel I am… here. Less ‘here’ as in ‘latitude and longitude’, instead ’these valleys, these peaks, these passes‘. I’d been walking on my own for three and a half days at this point, meeting other people only at cabins in the evening. I stopped moving through the landscape, and became the landscape – part of everything there, everything I could sense – because ‘I’ was … well, all the things I could sense.


At this point, I am putting a stoic face on, it’s the last pass of the mountains before leaving to the valleys and towns below, and I’d been crying. The realisation of ‘oh, I have to separate myself from here now, and I may never return to this place I’ve become part of’ was hard. It took a while to be ready to leave, because it always takes a while to fold myself back into shape again, to face square lines and places where you can’t just stop a while and be part of our planet. Thinking about it this way reveals a lot about struggles to cope in our modern world, where we become too cut off from our source – gaia – mother. Our place. Us. I’m not the only person to feel like this connection to wild space is crucial for our being.

As you read this, where are ‘you’? what boundaries do you feel? For your own map of space and time, where is [0]? How big is [0]? what does it encompass? Try to answer the question ‘where am I?’ from time to time. We know really a lot about our location in space and time, on this planet, measured by some instrument. It’s also great to try and know where ‘we’ are, in different times and spaces.

Maps change, we change

By now I hope you’re thinking about how we are psycho-spatial-social-emotional maps writ in flesh and bone, shaped by our experience as we walk through life. I hope the analogy is working for you! Introducing this section because we need a picture is a totally unplanned map. It grew from an ever-evolving plan for a hike in the Carpathians following yet another wonderful FOSS4G event in Bucharest, Romania. This section was a last minute plan to abandon a traverse of the Fagaras and try to get to Piatra Craiului – enabled by the most random hitchhike of all, which arrived before I’d even decided to start to try for a lift…

There’s an old axiom that ‘anything that doesn’t change is dead’, repeated loads of times by more or less famous (lucky?) people over time in various ways. It’s also wrong, because we live in a universe in which every known thing is always in flux. More appropriately in that case, ‘anything that doesn’t change is also a fiction’. Applied to making maps, technology, and using maps, we could say that any time we get fixed or dogmatic about how to make maps, we probably need to do something else.

…because we live in this universe of constant change, we are so weird and wonderful and strange and different.

And alive.

We record our lives in our selves, and have the ability to change how that record happens at any moment. We remake our cognitive selves throughout our lives. We create and rearrange neurological connections until we die, and some evidence suggests we still make new neurons until we’re well into life. The only reason in an unrealistically abstract cognitive sense that learning things as we get older is harder is that we’ve told ourselves we can’t do it. And it is critically important for our wellbeing and cognitive flexibility as we age that we do continually learn new things, and adapt to new things.

In the past while we’ve generally adopted the trope of a map on a flat square-ish thing. Granted, it makes maps easy to produce, replicate, translate to screens – and also maps made this way are useful. On paper they can be easily folded and stashed someplace, they last a long time and you can make notes on them. The cost of this convenience is that we’ve been busily homogenising the concept of mapping, what mapping is, and what is is for. This is awesome for making tools with technology, and is a helpful approach a lot of the time.

An unfortunate side effect is that all our maps start to look the same.

…which can be great for communicating across cultures and regions and ideologies. It gets less great when we think about who gets to define mapping standards and why. Who gets to say what a map looks like? who gets to keep the gates? It also gets less great when we think about how we as humans thrive on – need – diversity and change. And less great again when we know that our development – our evolution – our ability to conceive of and perceive the world is shaped by the input we receive. By continually homogenising our view of the world we create an ever shrinking evolutionary spiral, ending up being unable to conceive of different maps. We limit our ways of describing and interpreting the world.

The good news is that we can and we do change. It might take generations. It sometimes takes just one minute or moment. Which way we go (hard/slow or instant/easy) depends on our level of open-ness to change. Our willingness to put away our lens for a while and look through a bunch of different ones. Our willingness to work. To potentially upset our entire lives to do something else. To take risks. To listen, to be open.

Open-ness, mapping and evolution

By now you’ve fully bought into this great circular idea about ‘we map because we are maps, we are maps because we map’ right? And of course, you’re busy thinking about how to make your conception of ‘where am I’ bigger so that you can increase your empathy and create the dynamic, wonderful, inclusive, revolutionary world we need to thrive in.

I hope so!

And you’re likely wondering a lot about how this relates to its intended audience at an open source geospatial conference. All of this story so far could be summed up in one concept – one I’ve tried to sell before: open-ness. Psychological, social, spiritual open-ness.

We are born open to so much, to absorb the world which we’re delivered into, and become trained to be closed. Sometimes we are able to un-train ourselves based on some key event or influence in our life, sometimes we simply don’t get trained to become closed as much as others. In technology-centric cultures we’re right now undergoing a generational work of re-opening ourselves. The open mapping community is a reflection of that movement. Whatever we think about spirituality or religion, we’ve seen that becoming increasingly closed in any aspect of our societal life doesn’t work, it is not our nature. We need to go back a ways, to un-do some training, to get to where we were in order to go forward…

…with much better tools. And stronger roots.

Sure, it does not all going amazingly well. ‘Open’, or rather ‘being ourselves’ hasn’t won yet. It hasn’t won yet because we still generally wear it like a coat, rather than a core principle of being. We experience dissonance between the world we need to thrive in and the one we have right now. We burn out incredibly valuable community members. We argue about trivialities when we work on building open communities. We worry about markets, we worry about what we sell to whom and why. Sometimes we close as many gates as we open, and keep recycling debunked ideas about which groups of people are interested in what, and why as a community we fail to look and sound like a randomised population sample of the planet.

In 2020, we have come a long way. However, it’s not time to rest – it’s time to look at our progress so far and keep asking ‘how can we do better?’. ‘How can we give away more of our privilege?’.

…and:

How can we listen more?
How can we embody change?

A privileged take on mapping and privilege

Some of us have the privilege of having to make only one or two new maps of ourselves in our lives. We are afforded physical and psychological stability, financial stability, and never have to seriously think about having to rebuild our maps. We can relax, and devote our energy to other pursuits. Some of us are making new maps all of the time. We have the standard regular life events that other people have, and then a bunch more. It is emotionally (and usually financially) hard work, to constantly recycle a sense of self and being, to build something and then have to build it all over again – a cycle I know pretty well. Some of us have maps we really didn’t want to have. These maps include unjust war, racism, genocide, sexism, cultural practice, abusive cultural norms, abuse, cultural theft, fear of rape or torture. I don’t have any of these maps, and this is my privilege.

It doesn’t mean my own life is an easy walk. It means that whatever the circumstances, there are things I never have to deal with. I don’t get unwanted attention anyplace outside of ‘lead generators’ on linkedin. I don’t have to fear anything. Authorities believe my story by default when I talk to them.

By appearance and by statistics, I am the scariest thing in the woods.

…and with that, comes the responsibility to give away as much power as I can, the responsibility of work to ensure that every single human can walk in the metaphorical woods without fear. The responsibility to take our colleagues and ourselves to task about racism, sexism and privilege. The responsibility to spend just that bit more energy to ensure that I’m not always just hearing from people like me.

In the event we think ‘oh but we have no power to give, we’re struggling to pay the rent doing this as it is’, sometimes our responsibility is to throw our ‘career’ into the wind. To take risks that other people simply cannot. Sometimes we need to reassess the thing we think we love. Sometimes we need to look a secure job or money or some other opportunity in the eye and say no, I am not willing to do what that asks.

Sometimes it is a lot easier – instead of taking the default path of looking to people like myself when an opportunity for work or profile raising turns up, work just a little harder to create space for somebody else to step into – and support them to do it!

If speaking up about privilege means to leave our profession behind and do something else for a while or forever, then that is our responsibility. And we need to speak up about it. After all, there is a lot we don’t have to deal with. It’s also a responsibility I don’t always carry well. I wrestle with it all the time and to be honest, most of the time I am someplace between a well meaning idiot and a blatant hypocrite. I also get to end this section of the story and walk away from it without consequence – which in itself is privilege.

Final words

This essay was inspired by the open source geospatial software community I’ve become a part of, by means of using open tools and helping to develop and promote their use as much as I can. It speaks deeply to me of a critical evolutionary path – shedding centuries of hiding knowledge behind walls of ‘expertise’ or ‘money’ – giving control of technology and tool-making to … anyone. I wanted to connect the motivation for making open tools back to our intrinsic nature as humans – beyond ‘we do this because we’re nice’. This motivation comes from beyond frustration with existing tools or nice feelings about doing good. It comes from all the way back to our first experiences while in the womb, to our first steps, to our need for connection, to our evolution as humans.

We’re evolved to make and share maps – we do it all the time, we’ve done it since before we became what we recognise as modern humans. We do it in all kinds of ways. We don’t always understand all the ways people make maps, and we don’t always understand all the things in those maps. We should always consider those maps as opportunities to listen and learn, to expand our own scope, to become more open, to evolve.

We are maps ourselves – breathing records of our physical and emotional and spiritual journeys. Our maps of ourselves influence the maps we make and share, just as the maps we make and share influence our maps of ourselves. Most of the can choose how to redraw at least parts of them, and we can help other people redraw theirs!

I’m finding myself needing to give some sage advice to finish this all off with, to provide a path on which to walk. And I can’t. It’s not the point of this chunk of words. I started writing with the hope that at least one tiny thread of your consciousness has resonated with something. It doesn’t really matter what, or how. After all – you are your own map drawn with your own set of materials and influences…

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