Monday, July 27, 2015

British Library to Hampstead Heath walk

Today I was working from the British Library on my new book, The Geography of Names.  In the third chapter, which is now almost complete, I analyse modern day rogation practices, including a description of beating the bounds from a pamphlet called Beating the Bounds of Camden.  Having walked from Hampstead Heath to the British Library before, I though I could, this time, have lunch up at the park and do some reading once I'd arrived.  As it turns out I ended up buying a book at Daunt Books along the way (I had discovered this great little bookstore right at the edge of the park a year or two ago the first time I did the walk, but in the other direction, coming down from Hampstead Heath after grabbing a coffee at the McDonald's at Hampstead tube station).


Armed with my lunch, Jones's Holy Wells of Wales (my reading material for the day, a book that is heavy on toponymic lore relating to, well, holy wells in Wales), London A-Z, lots of water and my notebook I started up St Pancras Way into Camden, walking past the St Pancras Church, where we are told the River Fleet used to run visibly across the land.  It is now submerged beneath infrastructures, churches, train stations and the like.  It is also very close to part of the Regents Canal at this point.  I continued up to the Costa coffee where St Pancras Way meets the Regents Canal, and where once before when I was having a coffee there, a few months ago when I was doing a canal walk, a man borrowed my (mini) London A-Z to consult it.  I felt like a real Londoner then.  Today I was carrying my 'full-size' A-Z, in my hand so I didn't have to stop every time to pull it out of my bag when trying to figure out if I was on the right road.


Eventually things smoothed out once I got on to Highgate and eventually South End Road, where Daunt Books sits.  At this point I went into the store for about 45 minutes, pre-lunch, and had a look around.  At least five books presented themselves to me as either: essential, a must-read (now), or something I've been meaning to get for quite some time.  The selection there is marvellous, bringing the word 'curated' to mind.  You could probably pick up any book in the store, go home, read it, and be completely satisfied, the store is that good.  I left without buying anything, feeling completely overwhelmed, planning in the back of my mind to come back but not really being honest about it yet.  I was feeling (unrealistically) virtuous for having left without making a purchase (I've already reached my budget limit for the month, with three days left).

At this point it was lunch time so I walked just a bit up South End Road and broke out my Costa roasted chicken sandwich, smoky bacon crisps, orange, apple, and yogurt, and ploughed in for a bit.  Then I walked uphill into a field with fireweed and looked out over the city, especially the cluster of buildings that includes the cheese grater, walkie-talkie, shard, and others.  It was a wonderful stroll with a cool breeze and sunshine coming through fair-weather clouds at intervals.  I found the boundary path and went along it for a while, all this time thinking about my Beating the Bounds of Camden pamphlet, and the writing I had just been doing on this area.  I found that some of the things I had read were overlaying with my experience quite nicely, but I was wandering a bit too much for everything to line up perfectly.  It was perfect in its way.

Daunt Books pulled me back down into its gravitational force and I ended up getting a paperback of Karl Ove Knausgard's My Struggle (reviewed in The Guardian) which I'd somehow heard about through another favourite author's review, namely that of Zadie Smith, whose novel N-W is, I believe, about the very area I'd been strolling through.  If that's a bit of a stretch, it's not so much because it promises to be a great book, and if I really end up loving it, there are several more in the series to look forward to.  After getting my literary fix, I was out the door again, now with a Daunt Books cloth sack, and hellbent on getting some reading done.   Which I spent the rest of the day doing in the fabulous summer weather, soaking up the lore of the holy wells, their ritual, magic, boundaries, and names.  By the end of the day I was back on my bicycle, having made this fabulous link up to Hampstead Heath by way of the tube from Heathrow Terminal 5, where I'd locked up my bicycle for the ride home.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Heads of Geography: "see him cycling through the streets of London..."

Jeremy Corbyn evokes (or has created) a 'head of geography department' meme.

From The Independent, Saturday, 18 July 2015, page 18, in an article by Adam Lusher:

"To see him cycling through the streets of London, bearded, trousers safely tucked into bicycle clips, jacket allegedly from circa 1983, is surely to wonder whether somewhere, a school might be missing its head of geography"

He is radical, old-school, and not good for the Labour party.  There seems to be some consensus on this point amongst various writers in papers across the spectrum from The Independent to The Guardian to The Daily Telegraph.

A couple of the same writers point out that whoever takes the leadership role now is surely not the person who will be running for Prime Minister in five years.  Some on the right go further, making the point that the reason for this is that the party will for all intents and purposes cease to exist in any meaningful way under Corbyn's leadership.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Images from Singapore (ICTD2015)

After the ICTD2015 conference I finally got out of the Nanyang Executive Centre for a walk:

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Hubris of Proactive Disaster Mapping

The Guardian and The Economist have both (rightly) lauded the efforts of Humanitarian OpenStreetMap and the Missing Maps project.

There are at least two major ethical issues with the Missing Maps project, and with such proactive mapping projects generally.  These ethical issues amount to a new colonial mentality in mapping, one that seeks to assert power over space from a distance, using the allegedly free OpenStreetMap platform to do so, citing low barriers to entry (the FOSS paradigm) and the allegedly altruistic motives of the mapmakers.  Upon closer examination these same motives look remarkably self-centred, expert-driven, and dominated by non-local actors.

The first main issue is the opportunity cost associated with what are actually salvage mapping operations.  Anticipating a natural disaster that could strike anywhere in the world at any time, the mappers have a self-created imperative on their side.  This imperative is completely artificial, but images of landslides in Nepal, or Ebola victims in Liberia can always be pulled out to corroborate the (spurious) need to do the mapping now, at all costs.  The next disaster could, so the argument goes, be literally right around the corner.  So, volunteers are enlisted on the ground to add place names to maps created by other volunteers tracing building and road shapes on imagery from freely available sources or, increasingly, collected by drone.  There is an increased level of outside surveillance of local populations, from top-down perspectives correlated to increased mapping effort.  The scholarly value to the place name information collected is suspect.  Its value to local populations is that the place names form part of the topological and cognitive structures of everyday life.  These structures are being actively harvested by outside forces, with no compensation, under the auspices of an altruistic imperative.

With any rigorous mapping effort come the necessity of defining scale, extent, intensity of effort, coverage, and time between map updates.  None of these things, as far as this reporter can surmise, are being clearly delineated.  Instead there is a subconscious logic of completion, control, and power over space being played under the guise of humanitarian action.  But action toward what end?  Disasters have occurred (and this is the second main point), but where will the next disasters occur?  Could the anticipation of the next disaster area not actually result in a kind of spatial black boxing of that place as doomed, inextricably linked (on Google Search, for example) with negativity and death?  On the other side of the coin, if we are acting in a disinterested fashion and simply applying blanket coverage to the globe, then are map legends being properly defined in consultation with locals?  An original impetus of OSM was that locals were meant to map their backyards themselves, in mapping parties designed to be fun, interactive and meaningful locally.  Place and space could thus meld together meaningfully, with grounded cognitive and mental map views hybridising (in minds and on maps) with top down disembodied views in ways that often resulted in a very heterogenous looking tapestry of mapping efforts across the whole of OSM.

The HOSM efforts and missing maps will end up, instead, homogenising that same map forever, westernising it, colonising it, and in effect coopting the last vestiges of autonomy in its creation that remain(ed).

Saturday, May 16, 2015

ICTD 2015: Information and Communication Technologies for Development, Singapore, 2015

Halfway through the conference, with one day of open sessions and one day of single track now past, the conference (my first ICTD) has been very worthwhile, fun, and useful for thinking through new directions in theories and practices of ICT4D.

My session on GIS for Development was well-attended, and I met several new contacts, including a couple from the United States (DC, and Rochester, NY).  The American presence at this conference is especially striking, with a large number of presenters from Michigan, for example.

Just to talk about the fun parts for a moment, last night we watched some Chinese lion dancers before the Gala dinner, and then we saw an Indian dancer on a stage in the event itself.  The evening before an alumnus of Royal Holloway's ICT4D stream guided us through central Singapore to some wonderful street food and drinks.

With two days remaining, we have one more day of single track and another of open sessions.  These two kinds of session offer a really nice contrast to each other.  The papers are of high quality, and in the open session they gather some interesting questions, some often very challenging.

The open sessions tend to be more guided group discussions that are critical in a more distributed way, across a range of perspectives and experiences, depending on the audience gathered.

I've picked up some great books at the Springer and Routledge stands as well, titles I would not have come across except at a conference, and these will prove to be key academic references in the coming months of summer writing.

Spending the hours of 4-6 am sleepless, tweeting, and thinking about GIS for development, I'm now ready for the coming two days of exciting research in ICTD, with some wonderful colleagues, including Dorothea Kleine, Sammia Poveda, Vera Hoeschler, Endrit Kromidha, and Yinqin Zheng.