How Digital Mapping Can Reinforce Inequity

Digital mapping tools like Google Street View often obscure the realities of cities and concentrate their resources in the wealthiest countries, effectively ‘erasing’ some places from the global map.

June 16, 2022, 6:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Google Street View car in rural area

Michal Zduniak / Google Street View car

Writing in ArchDaily, Matthew Maganga highlights the failures of modern mapping tools such as Google Street View, which can literally leave some places off the map and perpetuate unequal systems of power. “Historically, far before the realm of today’s digital technologies, mapping has functioned as a method of control. This control seeped out into how unmapped spaces were viewed, as European colonial powers termed unmapped land as terra nullius and sought to, through mapping, further their imperial commercial interests.”

Today, “In a ‘post-colonial’ twenty-first-century, neo-colonialism means that some of these unmapped cities are greatly reliant on a tourism industry that seeks to attract travelers mainly from the countries of the Global North.” According to Maganga, “In Africa, only 13 countries have been mapped by Google Street View. Almost all of Central America has yet to be mapped. Much of Asia and the Middle East is similarly unavailable on Google Street View.”

In other situations, Google Street View only shows the “sanitized” parts of a city, writes Maganga. In some places, Google Street View omits informal settlements. “This form of urban cartography essentially ignores those who live in examples of less ‘formal’ architecture, exacerbating what can only be termed as an urban digital divide where places not visible on platforms such as Google Street View are in turn then forgotten by governments and political powers.”

Maganga cautions that it’s crucial to remember that “Mapping has always been biased – it’s far from a neutral endeavor.” Planners and cartographers must remember that their tools, if not deployed with care, can reinforce systems of injustice.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022 in ArchDaily

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