Saturday, November 10, 2007

Getting Lost with a Map

Today's Los Angeles Times airs a lot of criticism of plans by the LA police department to use computer technology to map Muslim neighborhoods, supposedly to target these areas for outreach and social services rather than for surveillance. "LAPD defends Muslim mapping effort" describes how technologists working with the LAPD would pinpoint sites of potential radicalism by using "U.S. census data and other demographic information."

As any L.A. native like myself can tell you, of course, the idea of drawing boundaries around "Muslim neighborhoods" in this polyglot multi-ethnic city is itself ridiculous, since there is a major mosque in Koreatown and another one in a black district known for its evangelical storefront Christianity. Furthermore, many longtime Iranian-American residents -- perhaps the only ones with recognizable ethnic enclaves -- are Jewish, and many Lebanese Angelenos are Christian, so data about national origin doesn't correlate to religious affiliation as closely as some may imagine.

According to an earlier story, "LAPD to build data on Muslim areas," this would be a joint effort with USC's CREATE: Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorist Events. Given my scholarly interest in the discourses ofl government-funded security related programs that use computer simulation and are based in local universities, I'm sure that I will have more to say about this academic think tank in the future.

On the LAPD blog Deputy Chief Mike Downing tries to send a conciliatory message about the controversy

Even as many aspects of Muslim culture have been explored and studied, an odd thing has happened: Muslim communities have been lumped together, in the eyes of many, as a monolithic presence in American society. In fact, that could not be further from the truth. Each community of Muslims has its own story - its own linguistic, cultural, ethnic and socioeconomic history. Unfortunately, that rich, holistic picture of these communities has not yet been captured in a scientific way in Los Angeles. As Muslim communities have struggled to be understood, American law enforcement – including the Los Angeles Police Department – has struggled to understand. Departments have had no road maps to use as they attempt to craft outreach strategies to communities that they know little about. The fundamental question is this: How do you attempt to have positive interactions with Muslims in Los Angeles when you don’t know where they are or what is important to them? That is the question that this project seeks to answer.

As a close reader, I noticed that Downing's full statement had a lot of information design metaphors in the text. For example, he talks about a "road map," "blueprint," "richer picture," etc. As he says, "Community mapping is the start of a conversation, not just data sets." Apparently Downing also testified before Congress recently.

Of course, I really want to know more about the specific types of software and data systems that the LAPD will be using on this project, since constraints on interfaces and applications will have a lot to do with how these communities are envisioned.

Update: According to today's LA Times, the plan has been scrapped. It seems that this is a case in which both political rhetoric and procedural practicability dictated that the LAPD chuck an unworkable initiative.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home