Guerrilla Cartography

Darin Jensen

A map of color-related Mongolian lake names by Susan Powell from Guerrilla Cartography's upcoming publication Water:  An Atlas

A cartographer sat at their desk poring over the map they had been working on, remembering that paying attention to the details of representation is key to making a map come to life. As they worked, daydreaming of the places on the map—what the color of the sky might be, and if the people looked like them at all, they wondered whether this curve of the river was a rushing current across rocks and boulders or a placid meander of calm, sun-baked shallows. Like literature, maps may be fiction or non-fiction, and most are something in between.

At Guerrilla Cartography, we believe in letting a story emerge from data, and illustrating the story through the art of cartographic design. Guerrilla Cartography does not take direction, or seek approval, or dictate what narrative to create. Guerrilla Cartography does hope to inform, inspire, and even entertain.

As maps are a narrative device for storytelling, so too is the atlas, in long form. The story that unfolds in an atlas narrative is contrived by the atlas publishers and editors that create it. Well-meaning and earnest as they may be, we read only the stories the narrators decided we should read. Guerrilla Cartography is an atlas publisher without an agenda beyond our mission “to widely promote the cartographic arts and facilitate an expansion of the art, methods, and thematic scope of cartography, through collaborative projects…”

By crowdsourcing cartography without defining the atlas narrative, Guerrilla Cartography allows an organic thematic story to emerge. We are disrupting atlas creation by allowing the crowd to decide what is important to represent about food, or water, or whatever we turn our attention toward next.

Beginning in 2012 with a very simple call for maps that relate to food (“in its myriad contexts and conditions and at many scales of research and geography”), we accepted almost every map that came our way. (Those not accepted had cartographic design or data issues that could not be surmounted.) Operating with an editorial board with diverse expertise, we worked with the researchers, cartographers, and designers to make the maps publication-ready. With an abiding appreciation for the individual aesthetic, the maps we published spanned a wide range of proficiency and sophistication—from amateur to savant—and all had interesting content.

With the maps gathered, we focused on the atlas narrative. We hung all the maps on a large wall and stood around discussing how they were alike and how they were different, rearranging them as we talked. Soon enough the maps showed us the story they were telling and the collection became an atlas.

Compiling an atlas is not as simple as gathering maps and organizing them into a narrative. More designers stepped up and volunteered their talents to design the cover, front and back content, and chapter breaks. Then they worked to put the whole thing into a layout for publishing both paper and ebook versions. To publish is not such a complicated matter—just an expensive one. All that is required to publish any book is a unique identifier for the publication, such as an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), and money to print it.

By freeing the atlas narrative from the editorial oversight of a publishing house, we also locked ourselves out of their bank accounts and printing and transportation networks. So, of course, we went back to the crowd. And the crowd stepped up, pledging more than $29,000 over a three-week campaign on a crowdfunding platform. By printing in Oakland at a considerable premium compared to overseas printing, we supported a local business and minimized the atlas’s ecological footprint. Transportation from printing press to storage in my garage was a five mile drive in a rented truck. Less than seven months after the initial call for maps, Food: An Atlas was a bound volume of 172 pages.

The success of our experiment in guerrilla cartography and disruptive publishing may be measured in the number of volumes we sold (all 1,600 of the initial printing), or in the press coverage we received for our initiative (articles by Wired, Gizmodo, NPR, The Atlantic, Grist, and more), or by the size of the networks created (2,500+ Facebook followers and almost 2,000 on our email list). But the real measure of the experiment’s success is in the excitement and willingness of the crowd to come back and do it again.

"The Meandering + Managed Mississippi River" by Christina Catanese and Jessica Norriss, from the upcoming Water:  An Atlas

In 2014 we launched a new atlas theme: water, and began accepting maps, data, and volunteer cartographers for Water: An Atlas. We also incorporated Guerrilla Cartography as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization so that we could expand our mission beyond atlas publishing to include “hosting theme-based community workshops and symposiums, and mounting public exhibitions.” Nonprofit status mitigates the crowdfunding tax issues as well as allows us to apply for grants, such as the one we received from Furthermore Grants in Publishing, a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund.

We would have liked to publish Water as quickly as we published Food but the complications of incorporating and a tragedy in my own family waylaid the process. But the very capable Board of Directors kept the project alive and moving forward. Water: An Atlas is in final layout and headed to the printer as I write this article.

Fra Mauro's world map. Photo credit: Public Domain

As a crowdsourcing platform for geographic data, Guerrilla Cartography is nothing new. Almost six hundred years ago the most geodetically accurate map of the world was created from crowdsourced data in the cartography workshop of Fra Mauro, a monk living in a monastery in the lagoon of Venice. A collaborative work by Mauro and his staff, the map combined what was already known about Earth’s geodesy with what visiting merchant navigators and world explorers (the crowd) told Mauro of where they’d been and what they’d seen.

Because cartographers have the privilege of legitimizing data by the act of making the map, they have always been collages of information pulled from different sources to create an understanding of place. I’ve called cartography the great plagiarists’ art; we cartographers have always drawn data from other maps. Not so long ago we literally did often draw maps by tracing other maps. After all, why would one endeavor to gather primary data by surveying a place whose morphology is already well-known and accepted when one could reach to the crowd of information to get it?

Even crowdsourcing fully-fledged cartography is not new. There certainly are atlases that are compilations of different cartographers’ work, curated to support the predetermined narrative thread of the atlas. What Guerrilla Cartography is doing that is new is releasing the stranglehold by publishing companies on what we can read in atlases. We continue to face the challenges of telling a truly global story on our theme because a global reach of our “Call for Maps” has been difficult to obtain. With each atlas the crowd has grown and we endeavor to always reach farther to give voice to the talents of many who would not have any other platform for a wide distribution of their work and ideas. We are celebrating the individual aesthetic of map designers. Guerrilla Cartography is disrupting the atlas.

Fall 2017 Volume 10 Issue 1

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