Queering the Map: A Look at the Balance Between Representation and Moderation in Interactive Mapping EnvironmentsRead Now
Written by Lindsay Cumella
We as GIS professionals know that it is the information which we attach to our spatial features that deserves the focus. And while some data are objective, many are subjective, dynamic, and personal. How the latter category of data is generated and by whom can be incredibly important, as a recent issue with a project called Queering the Map highlighted.
Queering the Map began in Spring 2017 by design student Lucas LaRochelle in Montreal, Quebec after they biked past a spot that held a memory about a past relationship. Rather than publish this information in any other forum available on the internet, LaRochelle chose a map. They chose to present the information in spatial terms, leading to a publicly modifiable Google based interactive map, which quickly became home to a collection of location based queer stories from around the world.
Upon hearing of the project, I assumed the map would contain features like gay bars, community resource centers, queer owned businesses, etc. But the entries are much more personal and diverse, from people marking the places they came out to now extinct gay spaces to the locations of intimate relationship moments. The experiences also represent a greater breadth of the queer community, with a greater percentage of stories than are usually seen in mainstream coverage of the LGBT community coming from people of color, people in rural areas, and people pushing against gender boundaries. This result represents the ideal of what can be achieved by an interactive map; crowdsourcing spatial information can build new pictures that change our understanding of what happens where.
When the map was spammed with thousands of pro-Trump messages in February 2018, the site had to be taken down. LaRochelle, a designer rather than someone in the GIS field, drew upon the expertise of volunteer coders and web security professionals to re-secure the website. It went back up just earlier this month, April 2018, with added security features, some of which are necessary to safely maintain the original idea of the map story project and some of which necessarily push back against the completely open nature of public contribution. The site, for example, no longer collects any of its users’ geodata, which means practically the site always opens centered on Montreal, but also protects users in countries and regions of the world in which it is still dangerous or even illegal to be gay.
A panel of moderators also monitor the entries for obvious trolling and language of many -phobic varieties. These individuals have the common on the internet, but near impossible, job of defining boundaries that are not universal and most likely in flux, e.g. what counts as hate speech or who is included under the ‘queer’ umbrella. Currently, the Queering the Map Project aims to keep the latter definition completely open regarding who can add spatial information to the map. “Whatever constitutes queerness or queer action, or queer space, or queer geography counts for this project,” LaRochelle said.
As GIS professionals, I think this situation highlights the challenge we face specifically while creating and maintaining interactive maps which are based on collaborative data entry. We must choose how to solicit, collect, classify, limit and censor the information around which our maps are centered. Choice of features, both interface and security related, must be evaluated to protect primary voices around the subject matter when the map is not meant to reflective purely objective data. The queer community is only one example of a realm undergoing active and dynamic change, and how we map information relating to those realms needs to include a balance between broad representation and security, one which respects that changing nature.