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The Global Studies and Geography Department Celebrates Geography Awareness Week 2018 with a Lecture by Leah Meisterlin

For the conclusion to our two-part Geography Awareness Week lecture series, the Global Studies & Geography Department hosted Professor Leah Meisterlin on Thursday, November 15, 2018. Meisterlin is an Urbanist, GIS Methodologist, and Assistant Professor in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University, whose research is currently focused on digital technologies and the restructuring of urban spaces. Her lecture, “Digital Cartographies of Everyday Life” concentrated on the importance of thinking critically about the data presented on a map instead of taking what you see at face value.

She started her lecture with a brief historical look at GIS using John Snow’s cholera map and a fire risk map of the 9th Ward in Manhattan. Because the functions of these maps differed from each other, Meisterlin claimed that this impacted how the data was presented and what additional conclusions can be drawn. Snow aimed to persuade decision-makers about the cause of cholera and the necessity to rectify the situation by using a visual depiction, clearly indicating that cholera was a waterborne disease. Today, historical maps like this one allow researchers to “visit a city that no longer exists” through the details on the map. The 9th Ward map, in contrast, is concerned with informing rather than persuading, illustrating where the risk of fire was greatest in this space. Both then and now, looking at this map allows the viewer to think critically and draw conclusions about the factors behind increased fire risks by mapping a social environment through the use of a physical environment. More specifically, this map showed that tenement overcrowding was a major risk factor for fires, which was most common in immigrant or low-income neighborhoods.

Both of these maps emphasize the importance of “pulling apart” a map to find the variances in certain places’ lived experiences, and to determine if these differences should be addressed and changed or celebrated. In addition to the importance of being a diligent consumer of maps, she also emphasized the importance of ethics in creating maps. She remains skeptical of participatory mapping because while it holds the promise of empowerment for the contributor of data, it does not always live up to this potential, and at times crosses ethical boundaries. She states, however, that “time will tell” as GIS continues to evolve.

Next, Meisterlin presented her own research on the commuter patterns in San Diego County, California. Her study concerns urban space-time through data regarding daily commutes, and aims to show how constraints of space and time differently impact one’s “reasonable” city radius for activities outside of work. Using a variety of maps and graphs, Meisterlin showed that one’s opportunity area is greatly impacted by the distance and the time spent on their commute, creating varying boundaries of reasonability. The 24-hour day is a constraint to the commuter who has to travel a far distance because it leaves less time for activities outside of work, but it does give this person a wider range of activity area because they travel a greater distance. Meanwhile, the short distance is a constraint for the commuter who has a short drive to work because they are exposed to less of the city on their way, but they have more time to potentially broaden their radius of reasonability for outside activities. She concluded, therefore, that while these two categories of commuters end up have a relatively comparable radius, women as a whole have longer commutes and less time for activities outside of work, and therefore have a smaller reasonable boundary. Meisterlin stated that she is interested in going further in depth with this research by, for example, studying the effects of race and gender on the pattern of commute distances and time.

Overall, Meisterlin’s lecture left students with the message that how you map matters just as much as what you map, and one must critically analyze and ethically create when it comes to cartography. To learn more about Meisterlin and her research, visit her website.

The talk was co-sponsored by the Hofstra Cultural Center.

Visit our Flickr page for additional photos from the event.