The new geographers: How Detroiters are mapping a better future for the city

Last month, a quiet yet monumental shift occurred in the way government is run in Detroit when the city unveiled its new open data portal. For a city with well-known technological limitations, the portal is a major first step in its effort to modernize its technological infrastructure and develop a culture of transparency.   
GO DATA (short for Government Open Data Access To All) was created by executive order of Mayor Duggan and executed by the office of the city's first chief information officer, Beth Niblock, with financial support from the Socrata Foundation. The portal offers significant raw material for civic tech projects, startups, and nonprofits in the city, putting roughly 90 datasets (including crime and permit data) into the hands of the public. Additional datasets will be added to the portal in the coming months.
Put simply, GO DATA will provide Detroit's cartographers with a lot of data worth mapping.
Cartography is alive and well in Detroit, especially around issues of land use. Model D sat down with several local map enthusiasts on the eve of GO DATA to hear more about their personal landmarks, where they draw inspiration for their work in Detroit, and where they see their work heading in an open data context.
Utilizing historic techniques
Long before anyone conceived of the possibility of an open data portal, the Detroit Geographic Expedition & Institute (DGEI) was blazing a trail for citizen geographers and participatory mapping. Many of Detroit's new geographers cite the work of William Bunge and Gwendolyn Warren, founders of the Detroit Geographic Expedition & Institute, as a common influence.
Bunge and Warren created the DGEI, a free geography and urban planning training program for Detroiters, in 1968. Students received college credit while participating in community-led research initiatives related to equity, transit, education, and public health. While the DGEI project was short-lived (active between 1968 and 1972), the scale and innovative nature of its work resonates over 40 years later.
"[The DGEI] really went for the high-hanging fruit...and used mapping as a tool to drive discussions of social issues," says Rob Linn, an urban planner with the Detroit Land Bank Authority who also teaches mapping at Lawrence Technological University.
Linn's day-to-day work revolves around issues of land use. He manages the Land Bank's inventory of properties and helps the organization make strategic decisions about what to include in the ongoing Building Detroit auctions, where individuals can bid on city-owned vacant houses.
Alex Hill, author of the popular Detroitography blog, is also highly influenced by the DGEI's work (Click here for a smattering DGEI related maps curated by Hill.), citing it as precedence for much of his work, including his contribution to the Detroit Food Map (DFM).
The DFM gathers food pricing and availability data to further investigate possible food deserts and food pathways in Detroit. Anyone can volunteer to become part of a survey team and will become certified to implement the specific Nutritional Environment Measures Survey in the process.
Organizations at the forefront of community mapping in Detroit
Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD), a trade organization for community development groups in the city, uses a compilation of datasets to create indexes of land potential in neighborhoods throughout the city. Each index, or typology, is developed with assistance from Data Driven Detroit (D3) and can be mapped at the neighborhood level. The typology then serves starting point for participatory planning with communities.
During planning meetings, residents will add their own observations or data to a map, offering insights and visualizing next steps. CDAD has assisted most recently in Brightmoor and northeast Detroit communities, partnering with residents and community groups to create the Restore The 'Moor and RestoreNED land use plans.
CDAD's Madhavi Reddy puts it like this: "Mapping as a visualization tool allows us to communicate complex ideas around land use more effectively….When we meet with residents to review a map, the first question we always ask is, 'Where do you live?'"
Data Driven Detroit (D3) has played a critical role in the region with respect to warehousing data, visualizing it for social impact, and providing technical assistance to communities and nonprofits.
Diana Flora, D3 staffer and a Detroit Revitalization Fellow, describes mapping as a way to keep her work accountable; she is always interested in how the map might inspire action. She worked on several local election campaigns prior to her time with D3. Successful political campaigns utilize mapping and data to make strategic operational and communication decisions.
"My first introduction to mapping wasn't a spatial map at all," she says, "but a basic tool used by community organizers -- a power map." Stakeholder or power maps can be useful for groups to identify influential organizations and individuals.
"I'm not an organizer, but having been trained in community organizing, its principles and the strategic thinking required have had a huge impact on how I approach projects at D3," she says.
Loveland Technologies and Data Driven Detroit recently took a strategic partnership to a new level with their oft cited Motor City Mapping project, which employed Detroiters to survey every parcel in the city of Detroit.
Jerry Paffendorf, Loveland's CEO, sees this work complimenting the integral role parcel surveys have played in the development of the United States. Thomas Jefferson pushed for the development of a public land survey system to document and define parcels of land in the more rural areas and western states. The resulting parcels were used as building blocks for informed national development policies. The survey allowed for the implementation of trans-continental railroad, the establishment of townships and school districts, road systems, as well as the sale of land parcels to new owners.
As Paffendorf puts it, the U.S. developed "parcels as a national business model." The granularity of private property in the U.S. allowed land to be more accessible and affordable than it was in places like Britain and helped contribute to the pattern of homeownership in this country.
Loveland Technologies are committed to using their online mapping work to bolster and support homeowners and this country's legacy of parcel surveys. Throughout the recent Wayne County Tax Foreclosure hearings, the company has been interviewing and surveying renters, owners, squatters, and speculators to better understand the human stories behind the maps they create of the ongoing foreclosure crisis in the region.
Applying precedence to an inspired future
Beth Niblock and Garlin Gilchrist II of the newly-formed Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) at the city of Detroit acknowledge that the GO DATA portal is just a first step in building the city's technological infrastructure. Building data literacy in communities and helping more organizations and individuals access and utilize this data is a longer term next step for the civic tech community.
Whether paper- or computer-based, mapping can be an interactive civic technology, an essential tool for building capacity. Speaking about the DEGI at the Center for the Humanities in 2014, Gwendolyn Warren said this of the participatory research and education she helped organize in Detroit: "What we were doing then, you are doing now." In her mind, the process and the tools haven't changed all that much, but more importantly the individuals involved in the DEGI project were fundamentally changed.
Many of us who are interested in how research, data, and maps can help improve the quality of life for residents have consistently incorporated participatory approaches in our work. As a result, we are now living in a more human-centered era where even the president of the United States can celebrate his time as a community organizer. It's an exciting, but critical time. As a community full of cartographers and organizers, data visualizers and designers, we should plan some next steps!
Interested in mapping? Get connected with more local cartographers at the next #maptime event, hosted by Southeast Michigan Council of Governments and Loveland Technologies.
Interested in participatory approaches to civic tech? Check out Open Technology Institute Fellow Laurenellen McCann's piece on The Myth of Everybody and So you think you want to run a Hackathon?
And please add YOUR mapping project in the comments! Let's map the maps!
Kat Hartman is a Detroit-based freelance writer, data analyst, and information designer with data visualization firm, NiJeL. Prior to moving to Detroit, she designed illustrated health materials for UNICEF in Botswana and German Agro Action in Ethiopia. She is also a former fellow at the Civic Data Design Lab at the MIT School of Architecture & Planning. Follow her @kat_a_hartman and check out her online portfolio,
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