The Good and the Ugly of Mapping Apps

Screen Shot 2013-01-16 at 11.09.42 AMMapping software is changing the way we view and engage in the world. In fact, mapping software has become so prevalent and important, that beware the executive who screws one up, you’re likely to lose your job! Two recent uses of mapping software have clearly illustrated the wonderful civic possibilities, and the fatal flaws, of playing in this dynamic sandbox.

The good example is the spread of a mapping app for flu shots that was used by the City of Chicago and replicated in Boston. (There’s a great article about it at PDF, but it’s behind the pay wall. Here’s the link in case you can access it: The story is terrific. A developer in Chicago created the open-source app that was integrated into the City of Chicago’s website. The idea was picked up by Harlan Webber who organized a hackathon through the Code for America Brigade in Boston, and hurrah!, the app is now being used by the City of Boston. This is exactly the kind of process and model that those of us engaged in open source software development and scaling have always dreamed would happen. Agile, open, flat, helpful. Perfect.

Then, there’s the ugly side of this equation: the gun permit maps published by the Journal News. The open source argument is that gun permits are public information and mapping them, showing where gun owners live, is just using the data that are available. But, really, the question is: Why? What public use is it to know that the guy next door owns a gun. What did the paper hope would happen when these data were mapped? And that’s exactly the problem, there was no purpose other than to show that they could do it.

I call this the Dominique Wilkins effect. Here are some highlights of his dunks:

Dominique was the best dunker of his time, but not the best basketball player. He was a showman, a lot of flash and sizzle, not much steak, particularly if you think defense ought to be a part of the game. The Journal News mapped these data because they were available, and the mapping software was available, and they could – but not to provide a public service in any way. And that’s the danger of the power of mapping personal data in an open source world. I strongly urge anyone thinking of doing a project like this to ask themselves, “Why? What do we want people to be able to do as a result of this map?” And if the answer is, “Because we can,” than please don’t!



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Allison Fine

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