Thinking Critically About Maps: Researching, Resisting and Re-imagining the World

By Yung Au

IN SHORT: Thinking critically about maps is not just about being conscious of potential harms and biases that maps can sometimes reveal, but also a way of investigation itself. New insights, perspectives and vantage points are gained when we challenge dominant perspectives about geographies and locations. This is a case-based guide on how to critically “read” and use maps for investigation, resistance and more.

The many Norths

Maps in Chinese are called 地圖 or “portrait of earth”, and there are certainly many ways to paint our world (and beyond.)

The online Cambridge Dictionary defines maps as “a drawing that represents a region or place by showing the various features of it.” Maps might present to the viewer a sprawling megacity, a network of underground tunnels or the contours and currents of a rambling river. However, as representations of our infinitely complex word, maps are inherently political, subjective, and imperfect. They contain multitudes.

This piece aims to build on other ETI Kit guides describing what maps can be, what we should be attuned to when we use and build them and how they can further investigations and awareness.

Thinking critically about maps is not just about being conscious of potential harms and pitfalls that come with them, it is also a method of investigation itself. When we question commonly held ideas and points of view, we gain new insights in the process.

As we unfold the maps we rely on, it is important to remember that maps, like other types of data, have inherent biases. Maps attempt to summarize the infinitely complex time and space we live in and are necessarily - and often usefully - reductive, or simplified in some way.

Flat maps, for example, are always “projected” in certain ways, where projections are ways to flatten the 3D globe into a 2D format (see images below). This happens because earth is a sphere suspended in space where there is no objective “up”, “down”, or “center.” Therefore, every projection reflects a deliberate set of choices decided by the cartographer(s) and guided by certain point of views. As such, projections have always been controversial.

One of today’s most widely used projections is the Mercator projection, which is most commonly attributed to a Flemish geographer, Gerardus Mercator, in 1569. In this projection, Europe is placed at the center of the map and the continent of Africa is distorted to look smaller than Greenland when in reality, it is 14.5 times larger (see image below). Screenshots from, an interactive website that compares a country’s real size which is distorted by the Mercator projection.

Even the parts of a map many people take for granted aren’t always straightforward. For instance, we might be accustomed to a single “north” that guides us and orients a map the “right way up”. However, many norths exist, including:

  • True North: The northern most point on the spherical earth (which is distorted when looking at flat maps).

  • Grid north: The north that runs upwards alongside the grid lines on a flat map.

  • Magnetic North: The north as indicated by a compass; the magnetic fields that “pull” a compass’ magnet is influenced by solar winds and the earth’s rotation, and as such, are not necessarily situated at the northernmost point of earth at any given time. This point regularly shifts; sometimes closer to Canada, other times traversing towards Russia.

  • Google Maps’ North: There is also an increasing recognition of a “Google Maps’ North” due to the platform’s prevalence where their north is adjusted for their particular projection used. Screenshot of shifting magnetic north. Source:

Whether created by meteorologists or tech corporations, our maps vary according to who made them and who they are intended for. Our realities are calibrated to the mapmaker’s truths. There are entire fields of study dedicated to the idea that maps are not objective. Approaches such as “Decolonial Mapping”, “Indigenous Mapping” and “Radical/Critical Cartography” in particular examine the many implications of presenting our multi-dimensional realities on a piece of parchment or flat screen for instance.

“Decolonial Mapping”, “Indigenous Mapping” and “Radical/Critical Cartography”

These spheres of knowledge production have various definitions and often overlap but some simple definitions would be:

However, despite these inherent shortcomings, these bodies of work also remind us that maps and map-making are often central to investigations, storytelling, resistance, governance efforts and daily life. They can enforce territorial claims, empower communities and erase certain realities. Maps can also take on many forms - on paper, in virtual space, or even as words - as long as they help situate oneself in the wider world. Examples of popular map projections. Source: (you can explore more “projections” here

The critical map

Now that we’ve clarified that maps are not completely objective, how can we think critically about maps when conducting research and investigation? This section presents some examples of mapping elements to break down for new insights:

  • The Vertical and Beyond

  • Missing Data

  • Careful Crowdsourcing

  • Mapping Infrastructures and Authorities

The vertical and beyond

Maps are often flat and presented with a bird’s-eye-view. This is great for convenience, but it is important to remember that these orientations are not fixed and can be adjusted for further insights. Think, for instance, of the top-down view of mapping compressing our multi-tiered world into a single layer, collapsing certain nuances on the vertical axes of life.

The spaces we inhabit always extend vertically and volumetrically.

Vertical refers to the direction or alignment of being upwards and downwards; the right angles to a horizontal plane.

Volumetric refers to thinking in terms of measurements through the volume of a city (rather than of area), for instance the density or compactness of activities in a given urban space. Read more at Volumetric Sovereignty.

For example, Hong Kong contains some of the most vertical and voluminous localities in the world. Home to some of the busiest and densest square miles, social life is built in and around the mountainous and oceanic terrains that underlies the city. With winding underpasses that turn into overpasses, miles of continuous elevated footpaths and outdoor escalators, and with life teeming from the sub-terrain layers to the rooftops of skyscrapers, the urban sprawl is not easily captured in the flat map (see image below). Images of Hong Kong, by Yung Au

Here, charting the nuances along these axes of life is often important.

See for example, the investigations into the Kowloon Walled City, a settlement in Hong Kong that was demolished in 1993 due to safety concerns. It was best known for its later years as a dense and haphazard enclave where by 1990 it was home to 50,000 residents within its 2.7 hectare borders. Formidable, unruly and crowded, Kowloon Walled City constituted of 500 interconnected high-rise building, living quarters, shops, classrooms and other structures, stacked haphazardly on top of each other. The settlement grew organically without any one particular architect and came under the control of various triads and families over the years.

Investigations into the Walled City required attention to the stacked, vertical nature of these interwoven structures. See for example, below, the hyper-detailed maps published in 1997 by Japanese anthropologist, Kani Hioraki and a team of researchers. Collapsing the vertical axis here meant omitting a great deal of the uneven, overlaid labyrinthine structure of the settlement and the lives that stretched upwards. Likewise, modern day recreations of the Walled City attend carefully to its precarious, stacked nature - including how, despite the disorder, all the buildings were arranged to be just under 14 floors to avoid the low flying planes that landed at the nearby airport, and how the extensive water system consisting of 77 wells, rooftop tanks and electric pumps were organized to allow water to trickle down to reach its inhabitants.

Images: 1997 illustrations of the Kowloon Walled City by Japanese researchers led by anthropologist Kani Hioraki (published in Daizukai Kyuryujo, 1997) Image: a depiction of the Kowloon walled city which illustrates how important it is to pay attention to the vertical axis and the difficulties of flattening a map. Image source:

As such, during an investigation it might be good to ask whether the vertical, volumetric aspects of the environment might be important (also see S. Elden, Secure the volume: Vertical geopolitics and the depth of power, Political Geography, vol. 34, pp. 35–51, 2013.).

Some starting questions to ask are:

  • What dimensions and details might be missing in a flat, bird-eye-view map?

  • Are the uneven topographies, elevation, and city structures important in this investigation? In movements, conflicts and clashes, the vertical elements are often important, for instance:

  • Are there elements of conflicts over air-space or sea-space in the investigation? These are becoming increasingly important arenas to pay attention to as our urban expansions continueup and downwards – from drone warfare to “air rights” (rights to control and develop unused airspace above a real estate property.) Image: “SUBTERRANEAN FOES: The fighting women of the Cu Chi tunnels”, by Erik Pauser. Source:

These questions require a nuanced understanding of the case in question. As such, it is in your advantage to be intimately familiar with the locality you are investigating, or be collaborating with local individuals and organizations as there might be important details armchair research might miss out.

Advanced tools and examples of using them to investigate:

Advanced tools to investigate the three-dimensional (3D) world are becoming increasingly accessible and affordable. This includes remote sensing, 3D modelling, photogrammetry, Lidar scanners (which are beginning to be integrated with iPhone cameras), Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). See investigations from the research agency Forensic Architecture, where these tools are utilized alongside other methods to explore multiple dimensions in a given case.

These are basic definitions of the main processes and tools involved with 3D methods and analysis:

  • Remote sensing - is the process of gathering information about an object of phenomenon is done without physical contact with the object.

  • 3D modelling - is the process of developing a 3D representation of an object or place using specialized software

  • Photogrammetry - is the process of extracting 3D information from photographs.

  • Lidar - is a method for calculating ranges by targeting an object with a laser and measuring the time for the reflected light to return to the receiver.

  • Virtual Reality (VR) - is the creation of a simulated environment.

  • Augmented reality (AR) - is a way of enhancing an environment by superimposing computer-generated information on top of the real world.

At Forensic Architecture, 3D modelling (physical or digital), VR and photogrammetry methods are used to better examine the landscape from images, camera positions, how events unfolded relative to one another. Understanding the perspectives of any given source is useful to establish what was within the frame and what remains outside – giving “investigators a fuller picture of how much is known, or not, about the incident they are studying” (Forensic Architecture.)

3D modelling was used as part of their investigation on “Environmental Racism in Death Alley, Louisiana” (1718-Ongoing) in partnership with RISE St. James (see images below). Here they reconstructed an interactive 3D representation of a ‘typical’ sugarcane plantation in the lower Mississippi River. Based from a composite of several plantations and cartographic evidence, along with historical archives, property surveys, interview transcripts and other data, the 3D representations helped communicate the scales and the logics of these plantations which “was at once industrial facility, farm, prison, death camp, and luxury estate”. Source: Forensic Architecture, “Environmental Racism in Death Alley, Louisiana”:

Virtual Reality (VR) is used in their investigation into “The Killing of Mark Duggan” (see image below.) As part of a civil claim against the UK’s Metropolitan Police, Forensic Architecture developed a VR environment that emulated the event as it unfolded to illustrate the various inconsistency in police testimonies. Source: Forensic Architecture, “The Killing Of Mark Duggan”:

Photogrammetry was used in their investigation into the “Destruction and Return in Al-Araqib” (see figure x). Forensic Architecture collaborated with local families, Zochrot and PublicLab to collect evident on the history of the village of al-Araqib in the northern Naqab desert. Synthesizing aerial footage, archaeological survey, images taken from cameras suspended from kites, and photogrammetry, they launched a navigable digital platform that documents the expulsion, destruction, but also the ongoing life and resistance in the region.

This platform aims to support a legal petition by the al-Tūri family of al-Araqib. Source: Forensic Architecture, “Destruction and Return in al-Araqib”:

In sum, new insights might be possible in a careful examination of space. Social lives sprawl across all sorts of directions - what are we missing in our fixation of the horizon?

Missing data

While it may seem that we have thoroughly scoured the corners of our world, many things remain unmapped, unrecorded and obscured. For example, much of our oceans are still unexplored — while Google Maps uses infra-red modelling to infer contour lines on the ocean floors, and this is still only an approximation. See more about this in Here Be Dragons. Finding the Blank Spaces in a Well-Mapped World by Lois Parshley.

Writing about the wider world of missing data, Nigerian-American artist and researcher Mimi Ọnụọha states that blank spots often “exist in spaces that are otherwise data-saturated,” and that a lack of data “typically correlates with issues affecting those who are most vulnerable in that context” (see Missing Datasets by Mimi Onuoha. 2020.).

What might our maps be missing and what can this tell us?

The late British geographer J.B. Harley was particularly fixated on this question and wrote about what he called “cartographic silence” in maps — where blank spots are not necessarily the result of mistakes, ignorance, or technical issues, but rather part of the map itself where “silence can reveal as much as it conceals” (see more in “Cartographic Abstraction in Contemporary Art: Seeing with Maps”, by Claire Reddleman - book published in 2017 by Routledge - also available here: For instance, colonial maps of the Americas often erased Indigenous locations and names as a way of showing that these lands were “available” for settlement (see Anita Lucchesi ‘Indians Don’t Make Maps’: Indigenous Cartographic Traditions and Innovations, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 42(3), 2018; and  J. B. Harley, Silences and secrecy: the hidden agenda of cartography in early modern Europe, Imago Mundi, vol. 40, no. 1, pp. 57–76, 1988.

Likewise, in 2014, Brazilian geography scholar André Reyes Novaes argued that Rio de Janeiro’s official maps mostly ignored the city’s informal favela neighborhoods until the 1990s where this “silencing” was indicative of the indifferent attitude of the political elites towards favelas – the omission being a way of flattening the complexity and humanity of life in these settlements (see A. R. Novaes, Favelas and the divided city: mapping silences and calculations in Rio de Janeiro’s journalistic cartography, in Social & Cultural Geography, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 201–225, 2014.)

Mapping the unmapped is then a way of investigation, activism and resistance. For example, formed in the mid-70s, Unnayan was a collective of “radical planners” in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta, the capital of India’s West Bengal state) who mapped missing spaces as part of their fight for dwelling rights for the working poor (see image below). They sought to place on the map the various unauthorized settlements that were labelled as vacant land on government issued maps. With the community of dwellers, they created maps that made these settlements visible, which also helped implement and document water systems, drainage schemes and roadways. These maps became an important part of gaining recognitions for housing rights at the national and international levels (see Unnayan / Jai Sen: Source: “An Atlas of Radical Cartography”:

Different maps will have different information voids. For an illustration of this, see Sterling Quinn’s work on Geographies of Empty Spaces. Through a detailed comparison of various paper and digital maps of Washington in the United States, Quinn found varying patterns of missing data, defined as areas where no map features appear (see image below).

In an investigation then, it is important to be aware of the biases of any particular map and triangulate data where possible. Image: Sterling Quinn’s research on “empty spaces” in maps. Row above indicates the digital maps she compared, row below indicates the paper maps she used. Black shaded area represents areas where no map features appear. Source:

If certain communities, activities, and landscapes are hidden from view, how can you tell what is swept under the rug?

Some starting questions to ask include:

  • Whose maps does the investigation rely on, and what missing data might exist? What features of a map might a mapping authority deem unimportant or worth hiding?

  • Are certain parts of the map blurred, pixelated or only available in low resolutions? This is a common practice in satellite maps for particularly strategic locations such as military airbases, refugee camps, power plants, and important infrastructures. Examining the selective obscuring of particular features of a map can be a useful investigative tool - see Federation of American Scientists’ investigation into how blurring of satellite images can reveal the exact location of secret facilities: Widespread Blurring of Satellite Images Reveals Secret Facilities. Also, see this crowdsourced Wikipedia entry List of satellite map images with missing or unclear data.”

  • Are the maps intentionally outdated? Some maps intentionally depict an older time period or omit data within certain timeframes. For example, see the Associate Press’ investigation into post-9/11 obfuscation in US maps (original link: / archived with Waybac Machine here.)

  • Might the map have vague or misleading labels or features? This is a common tactic to direct unwanted attention away from a certain area. For instance, military and intelligence assets are often omitted from UK maps, or labelled as “farms” and ambiguous entities such as “depot,” “works,” or “disused airfield” (see, as an example the article of C. Perkins and M. Dodge, Satellite imagery and the spectacle of secret spaces, in Geoforum, vol. 40, no. 4, pp.546–560, 2009.)

Sometimes maps omit important data due to technical and design decisions too. For instance, “cartographic generalization” is a common process in digital geographic systems such as Geographic Information System (GIS). Cartographic generalization controls how much detail is represented in a map where trade-offs are necessary (where this is shaped by human and/or automated decisions). This can result in problems such as the Baltimore phenomenon, the tendency for a city to be omitted from maps due to space constraints while smaller cities are included on the same map because there is enough space to display them (also see more details in this useful General Cartography syllabus from Eiilm University, page 44 for Baltimore Phenomenon - syllabus archived with Wayback Machine here). The city of Baltimore in the United States is often omitted on maps of certain scales due to the presence of larger cities in close proximity of it, despite the fact that smaller cities often appear at these same scales. For further reading on this topic see: How to Map Nothing (Shannon Mattern, March 2021) on

With so many ways to obscure or hide data, it is important not to assume that any one map is definitive. It might be important to consult a variety of sources and to not write-off paper or locally created maps. At the same time, it is important to note that not everything can be or should be captured. There are reasons why communities and actors may wish to remain off the maps and other radars. When investigating it is important to acknowledge data refusal and incorporate ways to truly gain consent. For more about this see research by:


While filling out missing data is a valuable exercise, it is always important to ask:

  • Am I working with a community in a mapping project?

  • Does the community I am mapping wish to be counted or exposed in a certain way?

  • Do they have a say in whether they wish to be involved, the questions being asked, and throughout the mapping process?

These questions are essential if the community at hand is marginalized or precarious in some way. There are ways to preserve anonymity and confidentiality however location data is especially revealing: see controversies from the Muslim Pro App and phone location data mapping as some examples.

Mapping communities with careful crowdsourcing

It is important to consider whether you are mapping your own community or a community you are not a part of. What might you be missing as an outsider? Always remember to situate yourself in the mapping exercise, properly contextualize your maps, and carefully consider the localities you are studying. Ask yourself:

  • Whose maps are you relying on?

  • Whose knowledge and interpretation are you using?

  • Who are you including and excluding?

If you are not a part of the community at hand, consider partnering with community members in your investigation, including at the research design stage (for further reading on this topic, see: Annita Lucchesi’s work on Indigenous Mapping principles in Spatial Data and (De)Colonization: Incorporating Indigenous Data Sovereignty Principles into Cartographic Research including her talk on this topic; and ideas on Co-produced Ethnography in the book Decolonizing Ethnography: Undocumented Immigrants and New Directions in Social Science by Carolina Alonso Bejarano, Lucía López Juárez, Mirian A. Mijangos García and Daniel M. Goldstein, 2019 Published by: Duke University Press (reviewed here.)

Crowdsourcing is a popular way of involving a community in the mapmaking process, but this method does not mean the work is necessarily being co-created, or that participants have equal footing in the project (see more about Collaborative Cartography here.)

The critical thinking surrounding commercial maps should be extended to other types of open-source projects too. Some questions to think about include:

  • Who is defining the questions and parameters being investigated?

  • On whose terms are the information being collected and analyzed on? Is there room for substantive feedback and change?

  • What input is actually allowed from the participants?

  • Who is the arbiter of what gets mapped and what does not?

  • Who ultimately owns the data, maps and knowledge produced? Who are the cited authors and who benefits?

  • Is the crowdsourced data from a representative sample of the community?

  • What languages are the maps available in and will this allow for different members of a community to contribute?

As authors of the book Indigenous Data Sovereignty, Tahu Kukutai and John Taylor argue, data ownership, including control over technical adjustments, content, and infrastructure, matters immensely, particularly when indigenous and minority communities are involved (see more in T. J. McGurk and S. Caquard, To what extent can online mapping be decolonial? A journey throughout Indigenous cartography in Canada, The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe canadien, vol. 64, no. 1, pp. 49–64, 2020, doi: , full pdf here )

Maps faces, including the thousands of fake company listings present in its services, the map’s underlying commercial orientations and many biases of their framework despite attempts at making mapping “open”.


While working with open-source and collaborative frameworks is generally great, it is important to remember that crowdsourcing data is not inherently good and that there are many elements to pay attention to (also see A. Basiri, M. Haklay, G. Foody, and P. Mooney, Crowdsourced geospatial data quality: challenges and future directions, International Journal of Geographical Information Science, vol. 33, no. 8, pp. 1588–1593, Aug. 2019.) Critical reflection and acknowledging your own limitations while assessing when it’s important to think of collaborating with other experts are crucial processes in investigations.

Mapping infrastructures and authorities

It is vital to carefully think through what mapping infrastructure underpins investigative projects. While many freely available mapping infrastructures allow extensive customization, we need to pay attention to what is not customizable.

Maps are tethered to certain places and jurisdictions. Both paper and digital maps often have layers of intersecting authority. For instance, Google’s headquarters are in the US, but it is a global company, subject to local legislation and pressure from various communities, where maps can look different depending on where you are accessing them from. One example is Kashmir, a contested area of land straddling the borders of China, India, and Pakistan. When viewing Kashmir on Google Maps from Pakistan, the borders are disjointed and appear disputed. However, when viewing from India, a single, smooth line carves out Kashmir as a part of India. Mapped borders and territories are less concrete than any printed black lines would suggest. Image: The Kashmir borders on Google Maps which appear disputed when viewing from Pakistan (left). When viewed from India however, the solid,continuous border implies that Kashmir is part of India (right) 2020. Source:

Maps are also subjected to certain laws. For instance, many of the largest platforms providing digital maps are based in the US including Google Maps, Microsoft Bing Maps, and Apple Maps – and as such, they are all subject to a law called the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment (KBA) which was put in force in the 1997. The KBA essentially ensures that US companies are only allowed to disseminate low resolution satellite imagery over Israel-occupied territories (with several exceptions). Here, the importance of who the mapping authorities are is made explicit.


It might be helpful to remember that restrictions can also be challenged and circumvented depending on the circumstance. See here for an example of a team of archaeologist who were successful in challenging elements of the Kyl-Bingaman Amendment (KBA) and in reducing its restrictions.

For this reason, it is worth comparing various maps. See below for a table of some popular web-based mapping services and examples of how they differ.

Origin Type Some notes on maps
OpenStreetMap (OSM) UK Non-Commercial OSM is an open-source mapping project that has a large community of volunteer contributors and is the basis of many other mapping projects around the world. OSM is a non-profit entity sponsored by various universities and organizations. OSM does not track its users' activity. OSM allows and encourages their users to download its mapping databases, whereas commercial maps tend to limit data sharing through API funnels. OSM was made to be shared and built upon, so the core functionalities are intentionally basic.
Apple Maps US Commercial Apple Maps is another popular mapping service that is pre-loaded on Apple devices. Apple Maps in China adheres to the Chinese government's data policy surrounding maps (e.g. using government-sanctioned names and territorial boundaries). Other mapping views include satellite and terrain views, 360 panoramic (Street View), “Flyover Views” and “City Tours” for certain places, among others.
Google Maps US Commercial Google Maps is one of the most popular mapping services in the world. It supports over 54 languages and comes pre-loaded on many mobile devices. It tailors searches according to user histories and tracking networks, advertisers, and algorithmic ranking systems that are connected with Alphabet’s (Google’s parent company) larger suite of services. Different “user profiles” may prompt different mapping results. Google Maps is blocked in China, and therefore often lacks community contributions in that locality. Other mapping views include Google Earth (including satellite and terrain views), Rotation View (beta), 360 panoramic (Street View), Google Earth Virtual Reality (VR), and so forth.
Baidu Maps China Commercial Due to China’s firewall, citizens have less access to other maps, thus locally made maps are often more detailed and contains more crowdsourced information. Baidu Maps is only available in Chinese and is commonly used in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Baidu Maps is blocked in India for “national security concerns”. Other mapping views include satellite views, 360 panoramic (Street View), and an “indoor view”.
QQ Tencent Map China Commercial QQ Maps is another popular mapping service in China. The maps are available in Chinese and is particularly used in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Other mapping views include satellite imagery, 360 panoramic (Street View), and historical view.
Microsoft Bing US Commercial Microsoft Bing is a popular mapping service that is supported in over 117 languages. Bing was previously banned in China, but has since been unblocked. Other mapping views include satellite, 360 panoramic (Street View), and venue maps (inside views of a location).
Yandex Russia Commercial Yandex is a mapping service from Russia. It offers particularly detailed maps of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Turkey, and Kazakhstan. It is available in English, Russian, Ukrainain, Kazakh, Belarusian, Bahasa Indonesia, and Tatar language. Other mapping views include satellite, 360 panoramic (Street View), and rotation view (mobile version).
Native Land Maps Canada Non-Commercial Native Land Digital (Canadian nonprofit) provides a map of Indigenous territories, languages, and treaties. Comes with a guide on how to think critically about this particular map and beyond:
Bhuvan India Government/Public Bhuvan is a web-based utility that allows exploration of maps by the Indian Space Research Organisation. It is available in Hindi, English, Tamil, Telugu.
Qwant Maps (beta) France Commercial Qwant Maps is launched by Qwant, a French search engine that positions itself as a privacy-respecting service that does not utilize user tracking or personalized search queries. Launched in 2019, Qwant Maps was a relative newcomer, but it builds on OSM databases. Qwant also launched Masq, an open-source technology that allows online services to offer personalized results from data securely stored on the user's device. Because Qwant is based in Europe, it adheres to European privacy laws including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Only a select few digital maps are included here but this might be a good starting point to think about the peculiarities of any one map. Of course, building your own map and using locally created maps are worth considering where possible.

Through careful examinations of how maps are calibrated and crafted (e.g., the vertical & missing data) and who owns and creates maps (e.g., communities, commercial entities, or governments/jurisdictions, and in which languages) we can glean new insights and envision alternative representations of our messy, complex realities, in our investigations and beyond.

Maps and UnMaps

Maps and mapmaking can be used in countless ways — to inform, control, resist or simply to better relate to our surroundings. This last section is an exploration of some of the ways to use maps in an investigative project. This list is non-exhaustive and overlapping, but it serves as a starting point to explore what maps can do:

  1. The Patterned Map

  2. The Map of Reimagining

  3. The Power Map

  4. The Storytelling Map

  5. The Real-Time Map of Protest

The Patterned Map

(Concerned with analysis)

All maps contain information but some maps places patterns at the forefront.

Some maps are static images that we use to navigate. Other maps might be used more as a way of analysis, looking for patterns across space and time. Maps can be compared, examined over time, and overlaid with data in order to tease out trends, relationships, and patterns.

One example is Detroit Geographic Expedition’s map called Where Commuters Run Over Black Children on the Pointes-Downtown Track” (see image below). This was part of a series of investigative projects led by Gwendolyn Warren, which used a mixture of qualitative data, ethnographic interviews, and personal testimonies to document the disparities between the Black and White neighborhoods in the area. In this particular map, Warren and a team of researchers set out to fill a data void surrounding children’s death that were caused by car accidents. By mapping data that was either nonexistent or not publicly accessible, they demonstrated that accidents were clustered around commuter traffic from wealthy White suburbs to Black neighborhoods. This highlighted that there was a pattern with Black children’s deaths and that each accident was not an isolated incident, but instead “indicative that the spatial and racial injustice of the city leads to the bodily harm of the most vulnerable members of its lower classes” (source: kanarinka, The Detroit Geographic Expedition and Institute: A Case Study in Civic Mapping” – MIT Center for Civic Media, accessed Dec. 14, 2020.) Image: From Field Notes III: Geography of the Children of Detroit by the Detroit Geographical Expedition and Institute, 1971. Source:

Another example is John Snow and Charles Cheffins’ mapping of cholera outbreaks in 19th century London (see image below). In the 1850s, cholera was believed to be an airborne disease however John Snow, a physician at the time, had a hunch it was transmitted through water. To investigate this, he decided to map the cases of cholera in a particularly bad outbreak in Soho, London. Using mortality report data from the Registrar General Office in London and interviews with local residents, John Snow and collaborators mapped out how deaths were clustered in the neighborhood. The maps pointed to a link between cholera cases and a contaminated water pump in which nearby residents were drinking from. These documentations were eventually convincing enough to persuade the local council to take action and for the medical profession at large to take the waterborne theory of cholera seriously (see more in _**this article by The Guardian.) Image: Thematic map showing incidence of cholera as black bars (each bar represents a death from cholera), first shown at a meeting of the London Epidemiological Society in 1854. Source:


Remember to pay attention to the nuances of the particular case you are investigating when trying to discern patterns over space and time. See the ETI Kit on “Using Maps to See Beyond the Obvious” by Alison Kiling for examples of thematic mapping as well as datasets and base maps that are available.

The Map of Reimagining

(Concerned with mapping alternatives and counter-mapping)

All maps imagine but some maps are intended to resist the status quo.

Since maps are constructed, they can be deconstructed and reconstructed. Some maps serve to reimagine borders, territories, and places. Maps can also rectify what was not mapped in the past, map an alternative future, or imagine the present along different terms.

For instance, the Detroit Geographic Expedition placed particular emphasis on “oughtness maps”, a map of how things are and of how things ought to (should) be. In their first publication - Field Notes I - they remind us that “afterall, it is not the function of geographers to merely map the earth, but to change it” (see more about the Detroit Geographic Expedition “Field Notes” here.)

Various Indigenous mapping projects in particular have sought to counter mainstream mapping narratives. This is especially due to how the history of cartography has contributed to the dispossession of Indigenous Peoples’ territories and languages. One example is the Native Land Digital project, which uses community contributions to map out Indigenous lands, Settler-Indigenous relations, histories, treaties, and more (see image below.) Image: Native Land (Canadian Nonprofit) a living map of Indigenous territories, languages, and treaties. Source:

Similarly, many borders and territories are arbitrarily carved out, especially during times of colonialisation. The Secret Countries” section of the cartographic issue of the Chimurenga Chronical envisions an alternative mapping of the continent of Africa. Inspired by Archille Mbembe’s At the Edge of World: Boundaries, Territoriality, and Sovereignty in Africa, it moves beyond nation state representations of Africa, and instead offers other arrangements and depictions of Africa where territories are tied together through shared history, trade, and other flows. Image source:

The Power Map

(Concerned with mapping relationships)

All maps are relational but some maps places networks at the center.

Power mapping or relational mapping is also a way of analysis, but it is more specific and often used by organizers, activists, and investigators to identify who has what type of power in a community. These maps help locate relevant parties, including allies and decision-makers. Power maps can look different according to their purpose.

For example, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project produced a community power map of Oakland in the United States, “a city that has historically faced disinvestment”. It presents a map of who and what the community values, as well as what threatens their place during this time of city development. Source: Anti-Eviction project:

Read more about this topic in:

The Storytelling Map

(Concerned with communicating)

All maps have stories, but some maps have storytelling as its main focus.

Various strands of investigative projects have emphasized the need to humanize data, especially in our data-saturated world (read more about data saturation in Danah Boyd and K. Crawford, Critical Questions for Big Data, Information, Communication & Society, pp. 662–679, May 2012 - full article here.) This extends to cartographic data. Storytelling through maps can help embed the realities of data, communicate difficult to understand concepts, and assist in conveying the scale or severity of an issue.

For instance, Views from the North Atlas a joint project by the Inuit training program Nunavut Sivuniksavut and Carleton University in Ottawa, presents an exploration of Inuit histories in Canada (see image below). Here, interviews between Nunavut Sivuniksavut students and elders from their home communities are situated alongside photographs, archival materials, and cartographic features in order to foster a living map of Inuit culture. Image source:

In Narratives of Displacement and Resistance the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project presents incidents of eviction along with oral histories in several US cities (see image below.) Each red dot represents a case of eviction that occurred, and each turquoise dot has an interview accompaniment. Image “Narratives of Displacement and Resistance” by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project. Source:

Likewise, geographer and artist Levi Westerveld’s Those Who Did Not Cross maps those who lost their lives at sea while trying to reach European shores from 2005 to 2015 (see image below). Here, the destination countries are flattened into a black coastline or into what one might see looking onto the horizon. Lines of text attempt to contextualize the tragedies that occurred. Image: Levi Westerveld’s map of Those Who Did Not Cross (2005–15). Source:

And, MintPress News Desk’s representation of the Israel government’s ID system, informed by Helga Tawil-Souri’s work, disentangles one aspect of how this larger system controls, stratifies and controls various Palestinian communities (see image below and Helga Tawil-Souri’s article Uneven Borders, Coloured (Im)mobilities: ID Cards in Palestine/Israel, Social Text (2011) 29 (2(107)): 67–97.) Image: MintPress News Desk’s Visualisation of the Complex ID Matrix informed by Helga Tawil-Souri. Source:

The Real-Time Map of Protest

(Concerned with mapping the now)

All maps are entangled in a certain time period but some maps are meant to be ephemeral.

Resistance is threaded through all of the above – including resisting information voids, resisting through narratives, and resisting borders. The above maps are also acts of resistance in themselves with how they reveal the multitude of injustices that may not be visible in our daily lives. Another type of map that takes resistance at center stage is the real-time maps of protests.

Protest maps are maps that accompany protests and conflicts in real-time where it is important to share information, document what is happening, and organize logistics of a movement as it unfolds. Some examples include the Hong Kong Live Map platform that accompanied the waves of protests in Hong Kong during 2019-2020 (see image below). Here, clashes between protestors and police were documented through crowdsourced data and faded away as soon as the incident ended. Image: Hong Kong Live Map that mapped in real time the 2019-2020 city-wide protests in Hong Kong. Source:

See also the ETI Kit’s OSINT piece about ScanMap, a real-time map that emerged during the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 (see image below). Built by activist group Radio12 with Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) techniques, ScanMap is a free and accessible tool that maps hotspots of protest, police location and key points of blockades in various cities. Screenshot from:

These maps were made to be used at a specific time and meant to be fleeting. As such, maps do not have to be permanent, and these serve as a reminder about how map design can be more intentional.

For instance, digital maps often extract data from users and having a centralized storage of personal data might pose a risk in terms of data leaks or in terms of government requests where law enforcement may gain access to data that is collected. If you are designing your own maps, be considerate of what data (or partial data) you store and whether you are putting anyone (including yourself) in danger.

Stay critical

“We use maps to find our way in the world, to locate ourselves in relation to others, to measure distance and record change. Maps are inherently contextual, which can make them seem old-fashioned in a culture that values immediacy, one that operates through image and spectacle. The image is a mask, a face, a front, an arrow. The map is its opposite, not an index of the world but a way of relating to it.” (Taiyon J. Coleman, 2017, Poems as Maps: An Introduction, in

Maps can reveal and hide. They can reinforce but also reimagine. As we incorporate, build and consult maps in our research and investigations, we need to remember to keep a careful, critical eye on how these maps are summarizing space and time.

What visions of the world will your maps hold?

Published October 2021


Articles and Studies



3D modelling - the process of developing a 3D representation of an object or place using specialized software.


Augmented reality (AR) - a way of enhancing an environment by superimposing computer-generated information on top of the real world.


Critical Cartography and Critical Geography - more generally is a wide field of practices grounded in critical theory and the starting point that maps are not objective and instead, reflects and perpetuate relations of power. See: Antipode Online and The Occupied Times – Critical Cartography.


Decolonial and Postcolonial mapping - seeks to resist maps and map-making legacies that stem from settler colonialism and imperial projects. Indigenous mapping in particular seeks to recenter Indigenous mappings and cartographies as spatial practices of world-making; a practice that has a long history. See: Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization: Vol 55, No 3 ( and The Decolonial Atlas (


Lidar - a method for calculating ranges by targeting an object with a laser and measuring the time for the reflected light to return to the receiver.


Oughtness Maps - a term that emerged from the Detroit Geographic Expedition which refers to maps that present “how things ought to be.”


Photogrammetry - the process of extracting 3D information from photographs.


Radical cartography - the practice of mapmaking that aims to subvert the status quo and promote social change. Radical referring to grasping at the root of the problem. See: View of The Search for a Radical Cartography / Cartographic Perspectives and An Atlas of Radical Cartography


Remote sensing - the process of gathering information about an object of phenomenon is done without physical contact with the object.


Vertical - refers to the right angles to a horizontal plane; the direction or alignment of being upwards and downwards.


Volumetric - refers to thinking in terms of measures of volume of a city (rather than of area), for instance the density or compactness of activities in a given urban space. Read more: Volumetric Sovereignty (


Virtual Reality (VR) - the creation of a simulated environment.