What’s it like creating maps about the conflict zones and regions that are recovering from a natural disaster?
The work I support occurs in challenging environments. It is essential for my team to gain a better up-front understanding of the rapidly changing context of this environment. This highlights an important element of my job that we call “ground truthing.” My team will sit down with the locals, and we try to map out their lived experiences, observations, and perspectives. The resulting maps harness the essential local knowledge that can be used to inform OTI activities.
We start by putting a large paper or digital map in front of a person — sometimes we use OpenStreetMap or Google Maps, or printouts of reference maps we’ve made depending on the area, and ask the participant to walk through their understanding of the area. Then we map this initial layer of information, check if it’s correct, and build on the basics there through further conversations to fill the map with detailed, accurate information. It’s a very iterative process, and getting the precision is difficult, but you end up with a really useful map!
What challenges do you encounter when mapping regions like the Middle East and Eastern Europe?
It’s often hard to find accurate data about ongoing conflicts like the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The situation changes hourly, and the data is outdated almost immediately. There are also areas where a lot of official information is outdated because the local government hasn’t done a recent census, or the population has unexpectedly fluctuated due to natural disasters, critical resource insecurities, or conflicts arising in neighboring countries. For example, it can be hard to accurately calculate the number of people needing aid after a hurricane or an earthquake if we only have public records from eight years ago.
Your first book, Buffalo in 50 Maps, tells stories about your hometown through dozens of different perspectives. How did you come up with that idea, and what is it like creating maps for a non-professional audience?
I’m so happy I got a chance to write this book because it allows me to talk about maps to people outside of the cartography world! One of my favorite side projects is a column called ‘Fun with Maps’ that I wrote for The Awl. With this project I could share information about the coolest toxic sites across America, review historic maps of the moon, and discuss peculiar U.S. borders.
In addition to that, being from Buffalo is a big part of who I am. When my friend encouraged me to contact the Belt Publishing team, which was looking for an author/mapper for their book about Buffalo, I jumped at the chance. I am excited to work on that book and tell stories that make my hometown so special.
The book is broken down into several sections, and each one is devoted to a different aspect of Buffalo's history. Even today, Buffalo ranks as one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., and I really wanted to show how its layout affected the different communities within the city. For example, I decided to include a map that shows how the introduction of the Kensington Expressway in 1971 effectively broke apart certain neighborhoods in a way that has enabled continuing segregation of the city. This project illustrates one of my favorite parts of cartography: developing hyper-local maps that can connect the dots between the history, demographics, and geography of a region.
One of Victoria’s favorite maps from the book shows the age of housing in the city. The data comes from a tax assessment database that the city government has on their open data portal. Buffalo had a massive housing construction boom in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and the steep drop off in population over the second half of the century means that a lot of beautiful old houses haven't been redeveloped. That also means that a lot of them have fallen into disrepair, resulting in vacancy, and in many cases, demolition.