The Dot Matrix

Some maps show us where to go. But the ones created at Columbia's Spatial Information Design Lab may show us where we're headed.

by David J. Craig Published Summer 2012
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Stumbling blocks: SIDL mapmakers, by showing how much public money is being spent to incarcerate people from certain inner-city neighborhoods, hope to make crime-prevention programs seem like better investments. In 2004, New York State spent more than $1 million to imprison people from the Brooklyn blocks that appear in bright red on this map / Map courtesy of SIDLA thematic map, like any tool for presenting statistics, will reveal the biases of the person who produces it. Consider, for example, a crime map. If you were to plot on a map the 150,000 serious crimes that occurred in New York City last year, how would you do it? A map showing one dot per crime would frighten people away from Times Square and Midtown Manhattan. If the data were adjusted for each neighborhood’s population and commercial density, Times Square and Midtown would look safe, and northern Manhattan and northern Brooklyn would appear most dangerous. A map displaying only violent crimes would look different still. Police departments, when deciding where to dispatch their officers, typically use a combination of these mapping strategies.

But all those approaches share an underlying assumption: that the best way to stop crime is to see where it happens. In 2005, Kurgan and her SIDL colleagues, together with the Brooklyn-based nonprofit Justice Mapping Center, hit upon an altogether new way of looking at crime. Using statistics from state corrections departments across the US, they created a series of maps showing how much money is spent to incarcerate people from certain inner-city neighborhoods. The maps reveal that in some places the government is spending more than a million dollars annually to imprison people from a single block.

The stark black-and-red matrices that compose SIDL’s Million- Dollar Blocks project — several of which are now owned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art — are meant to provoke questions, such as, if more investments were made in afterschool programs, parenting classes, or playgrounds in those neighborhoods, could crimes have been prevented and money saved?

“Our goal was to bring the problem of mass incarceration down to the street level,” says Kurgan, who notes that the maps, produced for New Orleans, Wichita, Phoenix, and New York, have been periodically updated. “We wanted to show the places, in a granular way, where policies were having an impact, and to create something that could be useful to people who want to change those policies.”

Some SIDL projects are less weighty. Last year, Williams programmed her computer to download huge amounts of information from the website of Foursquare, a social-networking service that uses GPS receivers in cell phones to enable subscribers to broadcast their whereabouts to friends. Williams hoped that if she mapped the precise locations of Foursquare updates — information publicly accessible on the service’s main page — she might reveal something interesting about life in cities.

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