Thursday, February 19, 2009

Off the Map

I rarely think of myself as living on an island. After all, although not entirely landlocked in my coastal city, I could walk on terra firma in most directions for many a mile on dry land. But when I look at Mapping LA, I'm conscious of how Santa Monica, the city in which I live, is a kind of island, because it is surrounded on all sides by the city of Los Angeles.

Thus, I am apparently excluded, since the Los Angeles Times is seeking user-generated content from the city's actual inhabitants, eventually -- one would assume -- to populate their map of LA neighborhoods with data.

We’ve built these shapes from census tracts and blocks so that we can use census data to profile them. And because we know that no single authority can dictate where communities are, or will be in years to come, we are asking you to tell us what you think. Scroll down to leave a comment or draw your community the way you see it. We’ll listen.

Yet digital mapping initiatives that claim to reflect any granularity about the complicated dynamics of the city have often created hostility in the past, as the newspaper should remember from having covered a scandal involving those who planned to map Muslim neighborhoods in a soon-aborted law enforcement scheme.

Comments indicate that Angelenos are generally grousing about where the Times's would-be cartographers drew the boundaries between their neighborhoods, and they are responding with the irritation of a backyard fence dispute. I've culled four representative comments from the many irked visitors to the site, which demonstrate the types of information representation strategies that have made them unhappy with the newspaper's aerial view.

The Southern boundary of Westwood is Olympic Boulevard. You have drawn the map to EXCLUDE both the Westwood Charter Elementary School and the Westwood Hills Congregational Church. The church has been at its location (with the same name) since 1928. Based on the boundaries you have drawn, nearly every child attending Westwood Charter Elementary School lives outside your "Westwood."

What am I missing? The Times' remapping of Eagle Rock makes no sense -- how can you profile a neighborhood that doesn't actually exist? Eagle Rock is already complicated as it has 3 zip codes and even jumps across York at one point -- let's keep things simple and stick with what we know. The ENRC map is well-established and is probably accepted by 99.9% of the residents here. I doubt Eagle Rockers will take kindly to this new-fangled map based on some blather about shapes, census tracts and blocks.

The area between Riverside Drive and the L.A. River is Elysian Valley- NOT Silver Lake. Your map is calling a good chunk of Echo Park Silver Lake. The border should be at Waterloo Street.

Like other commentators, I don't know where "Crenshaw" is. A "Crenshaw Neighborhood" doesn't exist, and if it does I don't think two people could tell you it's boundaries. The only area I've heard referred to as the "Crenshaw District" is Baldwin Village. So is it Crenshaw Manor and Baldwin Village?

It will be interesting to see how the newspaper handles such reactions to their crowd-sourcing effort if they continue to reflect majority opinion and if any of the borders will be redrawn in response.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Liz --

My name is Ben Welsh and I developed the site for LAT. We appreciate the trickiness of the effort you point out, but, so far, I don't agree that the comments you selected are representative of majority opinion.

In the past 24 hours we've had nearly 800 comments on the site. More than 40 percent have offered their own custom maps with suggested improvements, some have been critical, and some have been positive. Combine that with the fact only a small percentage of the site's visitors actually leave a comment -- and I don't think there's any clear case to be made about the state of majority opinion. I could just as easily cull four comments offering constructive improvements to our map -- or four comments praising our efforts -- and make the opposite claim you have.

I think that LAT deserves exactly the skepticism you highligh. But keep in mind that the whole idea of opening the process up for public comment and argument was chosen because the editors realize that they don't have all the answers -- and that mapping the city is a tricky thing. What's up now is just a draft and the comments will influence the next round of revisions they make.

And even if the whole effort is doomed from the start -- I still think it's going to be a lot of fun. =)

Thanks for checking out the site.

9:15 AM  
Blogger Liz Losh said...

Hi Ben,

On the day I looked I saw only one purely positive comment in about twenty I scrolled through, so I don't think I'm being unfair. But you have a valid point about the openness of allowing those comments. For that you certainly deserve credit.

I guess my fear at this point is that it may become like the Wikitorials experiment. There seems to be so little vision about web development at the paper and rich media content, that I honestly worry about the site's long term viability. (And I probably bore my academic readers from elsewhere in the country by constantly carping about the survival of the LA Times.)

As a longtime subscriber, I fear that the LA Times just doesn't have a clear sense of how to use the Internet to draw people to the site as an online news portal. I'd do something about the terrible online video that the site offers first, and improve the editorial page so people would be more likely to e-mail content as with the NYT.

9:48 PM  

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