Indelible Impressions: Why You Won’t Forget the Map Room Project

In my quest to improve data fluency among those who think of themselves as non-data people, I am always on the lookout for physical manifestations of data visualizations — what I think of as dataviz IRL. I collect tangible examples to inspire people to think about what data are and how they can use data to advance their efforts. It has been challenging to find accessible examples that everyone just “gets” immediately.

What differentiates truly amazing visualization is its comprehensibility — that you don’t need a dataviz background to understand its meaning. The Map Room Project has exactly that effect: once you see what the data are telling you, you can’t unsee it.

Launched first in St. Louis, the Map Room was an interactive exhibit that encouraged community members to engage with local maps through the lens of their own lived experiences. I learned about the project nearly two years after it occurred from an article by Shannon Mattern, a professor at The New School. What struck me was when Mattern, who writes about media spaces and infrastructure, reported a theme: that “nearly all participants discovered that historical redlining maps, which deeply carved racialized patterns of development and resource allocation into the city’s fabric, had an enduring legacy, conditioning so many other, lasting spatial patterns.” I was excited not only by the interactivity of the installation, but also by the collectiveness of an experience that mingled institutional, communal, and individual data.

“What we saw in St. Louis was that, when you bring those gates down, it can work for everybody.”

—Jer Thorp, Map Room creator

The idea for the Map Room Project was first conceived by data artist Jer Thorp in 2013, while he was working for the Office for Creative Research (OCR). In 2017, he partnered with Center of Creative Arts (COCA) to bring the St. Louis Map Room to fruition. COCA defined the project as “a community space for exploring and creating original, interpretive maps of the city that reflect[ed] the personal stories and lived experiences of its residents.” The project fused elements of technology, art, activism, and community engagement. It was hosted in a vacant school gymnasium. Accessibility was central to this choice; it needed to be on a transit route, close to walkable neighborhoods, and in a space open and welcoming to the public.

Thorp explained to me that the Map Room was designed to help people read civic data critically and broaden their perspective. “So much civic data is geospatial. People are not good at finding their own routes through data. If you look at a map, you and I are usually going to look at exactly the same point: where each of us are.”

The project encouraged visitors to consider multiple realities of where they lived. “On the maps they can come up with other ways to portray their neighborhoods beyond low-income.” Jer said.

“Every map based on census data shows the poor neighborhoods in bright red. It’s like, ‘Thanks for reminding me.’” One of the guiding considerations came out of a meeting with Detroit artists from Complex Movements. They challenged us to consider how our project was reinforcing the master narrative. These institutional maps remove community from the commentary of their own lives. What other stories do the data tell? What about mapping the churches to illustrate the strength of the community?”

Screenshot of an interactive dataviz from the New York Times about the impact of neighborhood on opportunity.
Source: The New York TimesDetailed Maps Show How Neighborhoods Shape Children for Life, October 2018.

In fact, the resulting maps depicted a range of themes like archiving memories, documenting history, chronicling visitors’ lives, and acknowledging social inequities and injustices. Thorp’s goal was for visitors to leave the exhibit with a new understanding of the stories and the narrative informed by the data.

Map of the St. Louis region by zip code that shows current inequalities in life expectancy, as it differs between zip codes.
Source: COCA/St. Louis Map Room, By Forward through Ferguson. One of the maps produced in the St. Louis Map Room divides the region to show inequalities in life expectancy (in red circles), by zip code (outlined in light blue). The map also proposes a vision of St. Louis’s future, in which life expectancy does not differ by race, income, or place of birth.

The St. Louis Map Room ran for a month and was visited by 29 groups who created 100 square feet of maps reflecting aspects of their own local context. Participants included diverse groups of students, activists, community organizations, and city planners and other city employees. “We had a group of planners that were kind of blown away,” Thorp recalled. “It’s hard for them to see what lived experience looks like. The Map Room was like a one-stop-shop to see all different perspectives of lived experience. It’s not that they’re uninterested, it’s just that the way we present the data and the available platforms — there’s a lot of gatekeeping. What we saw in St. Louis was that, when you bring those gates down, it can work for everybody.”

In a sense, the St. Louis Map Room was motivated by disillusionment. As Thorp explained, “The Open Data revolution never really happened. One of the reasons for that is that we expected people to interact with data and use it in the ways we have been trained to. The gulf between the ways that [data practitioners] interact and the way that people want to is too great. For most people the data are impenetrable. They are only for people with rarefied skills. Open Data did more for people who already had data privilege. We’ve expected people to come to our table. Data practitioners should be expected to build community data literacy.”

“For most people, the data are impenetrable. They are only for people with rarefied skills.”


Residential Security Map of St. Louis, 1937. Commonly known as a red-lining map.
Source: Jer Thorp, Residential Security Map of St. Louis, 1937. Commonly known as a red-lining map.

Emmett Catedral was a COCA Program Manager during the St. Louis Map Room exhibit. His background as a teaching artist provided valuable experience as the Map Room facilitator. In his role, he conducted approximately 30 mapping workshops with groups of community activists, church members, students, urban planners, health care workers, educators, and others. When he wasn’t running workshops, he was providing context for visitors with questions about the resulting maps on display. He told me he was repeatedly surprised by visitors’ reactions to the sheer physicality of the maps in scope and scale. “They come in with a sort of availability bias. We see what’s available to us. They’d talk about how well they knew the city, but when we examined the map they generated, there were no dots in North City, a low-income Black community. They were confronted with their own lack of knowledge and the relative smallness of their lives against this 10′ x 10′ map.”

At the same time, people were curious. Certain data layers really struck a chord, like the 1930s redlining map, the income variances, rates of high school graduation rates, insurance rates for adults over 18, and unemployment and crime rates. Examination inspired conversations — sometimes for the first time — about these topics. There were always a few participants that really wanted to further engage with the data layers. “They’d ask, ‘Where are these maps? Where can I see them after? I want to share them.’” The only barrier to further independent engagement was that they didn’t know where to find the data sets or how to make the data layer visualizations.

Removing obstacles like lack of awareness, access, and expertise is central to creating meaningful engagement with the potential to extend impact beyond a single experience. It affords a perspective into the daily lives of others. The St. Louis Map Room provided the attending mapmakers with reciprocity. “People want to engage,” said Catedral, “but you have to hand them the crayon. People will contribute when you give them the opportunity. Even the most disengaged-looking middle school kids got down on their hands and knees and participated. Once they could give of their own stories, they were so open to then learning and understanding what the data sets said.”

Some people came in with a sense of the power of mapping. Emmett shared the story of a group of curriculum planners who sought to use data to contradict the false narrative that St. Louis city schools were “all bad.” The map they produced highlighted the geographic divide between St. Louis City and St. Louis County. In it, they highlighted schools in the city that drew students in from the county. “They had a mission,” Catedral remembers. “They came in to show that it wasn’t just their opinion. They knew data would help them change people’s perspective.”

“People want to engage, but you have to hand them the crayon.”

—Emmett Catedral

The resulting collection of St. Louis maps now lives in the civic archive, fulfilling another of Jer’s goals for the project. They reside in the same place as the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) redlining maps, whose impact is still evident more than two generations later. “In making maps, communities and individuals can find power. Their maps are as important as the others in the archive, if not more. These community maps have equal standing.”

Map that depicts a dual vision of St. Louis: Past and Future in an upside-down orientation.
Source: COCA/St. Louis Map Room, By Goodmap. This map was created by visitors of the St. Louis Map Room to depict a dual vision of St. Louis: Past and Future. The past key designates red and orange areas on the map as locations that were negatively impacted by historical redlining. The future key overlays locations of intentional economic reinvestment onto the same geography. With an upside-down orientation, the mapmakers hoped to challenge preconceptions about St. Louis.

The St. Louis Map Room success inspired an Atlanta expansion in 2018. It was developed by Professor Yanni Loukissas and his students at Georgia Tech. The author of All Data Are Local, Loukissas specializes in data in context. His team adapted the original technology into a portable system called Map Spot that enables map-making pop-up experiences. With Map Spot, organizers project geographic areas and participants trace them as a foundation to which they can then add their own context. They have the option to apply preloaded data layers from a variety of sources. As Yanni described to me, “It starts with people tracing elements of the projection that are important to them. Then, they begin overlaying their personal experiences: things like, ‘Here’s the route I use to get from home to school.’”

Technical depiction of the Map Spot components: iPad controller, map server, computer, and projector.
Source: Yanni Alexander Loukissas, Atlanta Map Room

Accessibility and personal narratives are still cornerstones of the experience. As in St. Louis, the goal was to equip people to think critically about data, to prepare them for data encounters on other interfaces. However, maps are limited. They aren’t meant to do the work of a timeline. Yanni said, “One of the reasons I love the Map Room is that it doesn’t require any knowledge to use. Oral histories can work in parallel with events and location data.”

Exhibit participants use different colored markers to trace map lines projected onto large sheets of paper.
Source: Yanni Alexander Loukissas, Atlanta Map Room

Loukissas considers mapmaking the beginning of a conversation and the Map Room a safe space for data-informed questions. “The Map Room is about building connections and bringing people together. It’s the beginning of the process. How do we get people to think differently? For example, crime and school data. Why are those linked? The Map Room is a place to have those discussions.” Historically, the Map Room has been facilitated in educational contexts, discourse typically associated with schools, libraries, museums, community centers — places that Loukissas says encourage us to think about social and civic good. In fact, Thorp hoped the Map Room might inspire a new type of such civic space. But, if mapmaking is the first step, what comes next?

In this case, the next step was to move outside (literally) to identify gaps and collect and model data. After three years on pause, Jer and Yanni are taking the Map Room to Savannah, Georgia.

Yanni told me about a new series of Map Rooms they are setting up in Savannah. “People brought a variety of different concerns, like air and soil pollution. They’ll come to us, point to the map and say, ‘I smell this in this area.’ Then we can start turning on the data layers that we have. Data can be used as evidence to make a claim about something that you care about. We ask them, ‘What data would you like to have?’ Then we think about where we can get that data and we look online. If it’s not available we collect it, for example in Savannah, we’re installing sensors to collect particulates in the air.”

“The Map Room is about building connections and bringing people together. It’s the beginning of the process.”

—Yanni Loukissas, developer of Atlanta Map Room

Visitor-generated map of the Westside BeltLine trail in Atlanta.
Source: Yanni Alexander Loukissas, Atlanta Map Room

Scrolling through the visitor-generated maps from the St. Louis Map Room project expanded my understanding of redlining and the multigenerational reach of systemic racism. It transformed what was for me an abstract concept, thanks to my privilege, into something visceral. Now, I can not unsee the still-firm grasp of 80-year-old policies. Maps illustrate what systemic racism looks like in ways that that phrase alone cannot.

For example, in researching this piece, I came across these racial dot maps that highlight persistent segregation in four cities I have lived or live in. It’s been twenty years since I lived in Brooklyn. In retrospect, gentrification seemed like it was just beginning in my neighborhood then. In Milwaukee and in Chicago, the divide between the East and West and the North and South sides was evident. And, in Detroit, the so-called comeback story — justifiably offensive to many lifelong residents — is heavily intertwined with gentrification. Much of the City’s neighborhoods are vulnerable to potential resident displacement. As we are now witnessing in a new way through the lens of COVID, neighborhoods matter critically to fundamental aspects of people’s lives, like their economic opportunities, their access healthcare, and even the impact on their life expectancy.

Racial dot map highlighting racial segregation in Chicagoland.
Racial dot map highlighting racial segregation in metro Detroit.
Racial dot map highlighting racial segregation in New York City.
Racial dot map highlighting racial segregation in Milwaukee neighborhoods.
Source: Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Milwaukee, respectively via Fascination Hub, Lew Blank.

Maps are not the only interfaces to expose injustice and inspire change. Interestingly, Jer Thorp considered St. Louis Map Room facilitator Emmett Catedral an interface. “Without Emmett, the thing that happened wouldn’t have. He prevented people from misinterpreting the data and encouraged their examination.” Catedral agreed that the creative and collaborative mapping workshop involved participants uniquely, commanding “rapt attention” in a way that would not have been possible had he conducted a lecture-style tour of a room full of maps instead, for example.

Yanni Loukissas devoted a chapter of his book to evaluating Zillow and its relationship to gentrification. In it, he explores the tension between housing data rooted in a consumer context and individual preference versus its broader civic context. He wonders whether building friction into the interface — in this example, visibility into housing values over time — could change real estate culture.

A chart that depicts the lack of affordability for Black renters in Minneapolis.
Source: Yeshimabeit Milner, Founder & Executive Director of Data for Black Lives. While white people are able to move back into the city from the suburbs and other groups may be able to take advantage of neighborhood changes, data from 2016 revealed that there was not a single neighborhood in the city of Minneapolis where a black household with the median income for black renters could afford to live.”

Loukissas wrote, “Local perspectives on data can awaken new forms of social advocacy. For where data are used, local communities of producers, users, and even nonusers are affected. … We must do more to actively care for our data and any vulnerable subjects that they represent. When such work is degraded or undervalued, it perpetuates a long history of degrading care.”

What happens to the Map Room project during COVID-19? The limitations dictated for safety can compromise accessibility. It is no longer desirable to bring large groups together to huddle closely together to trace and draw on a map. COVID is frequently described as an indoor disease. During pandemic, sharing markers is a challenge. Keeping surfaces clean is difficult. Despite these challenges, how might this mapmaking continue? How might such community building continue? The pandemic itself and people’s experiences are spatial. Loukissas offered a range of ideas, including developing an archive of pictures people submitted, thinking about ways to make maps without a projector, and “evening Map Rooms outside, projected in the street, and traced with chalk would be really cool.”

Opportunity narratives — helping clients identify and frame possible pathways to address complex challenges — are a cornerstone of my work. Techniques that encourage collaborative input and produce tangible byproducts are essential to this framing. The Map Room Project serves as a leading practice in how to activate engagement that prioritizes data accessibility, local context, and diverse perspectives. Jer Thorp and Yanni Loukissas applied their skills to level the playing field. It is incumbent upon us to use ours to continue to broaden understanding (our own and others) and reduce inequity.

Below are a list of resources for more information on the topics covered.

Open source map room information can be found here.

Read Jer Thorp’s account of the project here.

Here is a video from the exhibit.

Here’s another piece about the St. Louis Map Room from Shannon Mattern.

For more detailed information on racial covenants, refer to the University of Minnesota’s Mapping Prejudice site.

For information on data feminism and using data to challenge power, see this.

Here is a report from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs about gentrification in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Here is a report about gentrification in Atlanta produced by the Housing Justice League and referenced in Yanni Loukissas’ book.

Here is another perspective on gentrification.

Here is an affordable housing approach from Singapore.

And, finally, more discussion about interface design and racial bias.

For 20 years, Mary Aviles has stewarded projects driving strategy and content, human experience, concept development, and systems change. A graduate of the University of Michigan, her work has spanned the business-to-business, health care, and nonprofit sectors. Mary is a mixed-method UX researcher at Detroit Labs and the managing editor of Nightingale. She writes about dataviz in real life (IRL) in an effort to help practitioners and “non-data” people enjoy better understanding and experiences in their shared ecosystems.