Atlantic Cities
Maps

Mapmaker, Artist, or Programmer?

Some people look at the abundance of urban data out there and see an academic research paper. Others maybe see a table or a graph or a chart. Self-proclaimed "map geek" Eric Fischer sees some of the most intriguing maps and spatial images found on the Internet, just waiting to be created.

"Ultimately, almost everything I have been making tries to take the dim, distant glimpse of the real world that we can see through data and magnify some aspect of it in an attempt to understand something about the structure of cities," he says. "I don't know if that comes through at all in the actual products, but it is what they are all building toward."

The 39-year-old Fischer, who lives in Oakland, developed his cartographic interest while at the University of Chicago, when he came across the windy city's 1937 local transportation plan. (It was a "clearly insane plan" to replace the transit system with a massive freeway network, he recalls.) Until a few weeks ago Fischer worked as a programmer at Google, gathering the data that guides his projects in his spare time.

Over the years Fischer has rendered loads of raw numbers into informative and visually powerful maps on a diverse range of topics: from race to language to the use of social media. The work is published in sets on Flickr (alongside an impressive collection of retro urban maps and street signs). His most popular set — "Locals and Tourists" — used geotagged photos from Flickr and Picasa to examine where visitors and natives take pictures in 124 cities.

"It's a simple concept, but revealing about where the edges are where people turn back and stop exploring," says Fischer.

London, "Locals and Tourists."

"Locals and Tourists," which was featured at MoMA's "Talk to Me" exhibition in 2010, was actually derived from an earlier set called the "Geotaggers World Atlas." The atlas ranks cities by the number of pictures taken in their central districts. While that system favored monocentric cities like New York and Paris, some of the best visuals come from polycentric places like Taipei.

"What I think this really established was that each city has a few streets, areas of shore, or scenic outlooks that are core to its identity, and you can tell which they are by the places that people take pictures of over and over again," he says.

Taipei, "Geotaggers World Atlas"

Another set that received considerable media attention — called "See something or say something" — compared where people post pictures to Flickr in various cities to where they tweet. As Fischer's images show, most cities lean one way or the other. Berlin is very photo-heavy, for instance, especially placed beside a city like Jakarta, which is overrun by tweets. San Francisco has the healthiest mix, but that's not too surprising, says Fischer, since both Flickr and Twitter are headquartered there.

San Francisco, "See something or say something."

One of Fischer's latest sets is called "Paths through cities." For each map Fischer routed 30,000 random trips based on 10,000 random geotags. Fischer says he'd hoped to figure out "what a subway network that tried to serve as many origins and destinations as possible, without taking into account other practical considerations, would look like." The work is notable for its aesthetic as much as for its information: at a glance the stripped-down, black-and-white maps resemble cracks on a city sidewalk more than a city itself.

New York, "Paths through cities"

Since leaving Google, Fischer has been preparing visualizations for the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco as an artist-in-residence. He once described himself as "pretty astounded" that his maps have received so much positive attention. He also thinks it's the message trapped inside the data, and not necessary how he crafts it, that draws people to his work.

"When the maps succeed, I think it is when they can confirm something that the viewer already knows about their neighborhood or their city, and then broaden that knowledge a little by showing how some other places that the viewer doesn't know so well are similar or different," he says.

All images courtesy of Eric Fischer.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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