On the political economy of the GeoJSON format

This essay is written in response to a colleague who, for the sake of anonymity, I will simply refer to as Dr. X (or perhaps, as @wallacetim dubs him, Professor Glasses). During the first ever #mapTimeLEX—an event inspired by @alyssapwright, and here in Lexington, largely an ode to @lyzidiamond and @mappingmashups—Dr. X graciously posed the question that the rest of us were too afraid to ask:

“What is the political economy of the GeoJSON format?”

For those of us struggling to get our heads around the complex technical landscape of the contemporary web mapping workflow, the Professor’s question may initially appear at best misplaced. At worst, the injection of such critique into Web Cartography is an unnecessary ivory tower distraction from mastering such fundamentals as the asynchronous JavaScript callback or ensuring spatial data are all encoded with the correct coordinate reference system … much less making a beautiful map and telling a story with it.

However, having spent years spinning yarn among social theorists and human geographers myself, I’ll accept the question with an open mind and consider what this question means and how such critique can be of value for map making. Openness, I dare remind us, is a highly celebrated ethic within the web community and a pillar of web mapping’s current incarnation. So thank you for the question, Professor Glasses.

GeoJSON is a now widely embraced open interchange format for encoding geographic data (points, lines, polygons) and used within such hawt mapping libraries as Mapbox.js, Leaflet, CartoDB, Data Driven Documents (D3), and pooch.js (my personal favorite). There’s nothing particularly special about GeoJSON that demarcates it from the JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) from which it was derived, other than certain key values encode a standardized way of referencing the geographic simple features as specified by the Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) and International Organization for Standardization (ISO). In short, GeoJSON is a convenient way to store your spatial data and load it into a web map. But how then can we critically engage it?

For thinkers like Dr. X, critique exists in two forms. One form is more of the interventionist variety. We can trace this mode back to at least the writings of Karl Marx who famously stated that philosophers have “only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” This mandate informed much of 20th century social thought, and even managed to inspire a revolution or two (</cough!>).

Fundamentally, the interventionist version of critique aims to expose how human labor is exploited through a system (or “structure”) largely engineered by the powerful to serve their own interests. Certainly maps and cartography are not immune from these social and material arrangements. As many have pointed out, maps are very effective tools for control and domination (see Wood’s 1992 The Power of Maps, Pickle’s 2004 A History of Spaces: Cartographic Reason, Mapping, and the Geo-coded World, or Monmonier’s 2006 From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame). Maps are particularly compelling forms of human communication because they often appear to users as factually accurate and objectively true. We believe what maps tell us without reflecting on who made them or why. To the contrary, and as a great cartographer and former Cartography Professor at UW-Madison was fond of saying,

“Maps are propositions of the way we want to see the world.”

The question, then, of who stands to benefit from maps and the various technologies used to assemble them is never too far from the interventionist critique.

It’s important to note the issue isn’t really with GeoJSON per se. Rather, as Ate Poorthuis importantly brought to my attention, Professor Glasses is using the interchange format as a pars pro toto for a wider critique of the ideological and material relations that constitute web mapping today. In other words, we need not allow the example of the GeoJSON format to become a red herring that distracts us from a more important question of power and mapping broadly construed.

Still—as Scott Gilbertson argued recently with regard to the corporate backing of Markdown syntax—sometimes one specific piece in a larger socio-technical puzzle can help illuminate where the lines that divide and form various coalitions are drawn. This discussion harkens back to Langdon Winner’s 1980 question, “Do artifacts have politics?” Neither a nuclear power plant nor a data interchange format exist in a vacuum devoid of human interests. Germane to this discussion is Gilberton’s statement that,

“Exploitation of the user is a dominant business model on today’s Web.”

GeoJSON may then enable this business model and further new forms of exploitation as they emerge alongside the shifting terrain of the geoweb.

One effective mode of Marxist-inspired, interventionist critique is to follow the money. If Mapbox’s CEO Eric Gunderson is as shrewd a businessman as he is effective at gobbling up the most talented of chicly dressed httpsters— and evidence suggests that he is—then perhaps it’s worth raising the question of who stands to benefit from such “open source” tools as their OpenStreetMap in-browser map editor, iD. One (true) answer is that we all benefit from better geospatial data, and I’m not arguing otherwise. Rather, it’s worth pointing out that for a company uniquely poised to gain the most from such a tool, they’ve effectively enabled an army of unpaid labor to update and improve that geospatial data. Open source doesn’t necessarily mean free, remember.

As Agnieszka Leszczynski has written, the shrinking and “rolling back” of the modern State enables a “rolling out” of market-based regimes of geographic information governance. In other words, where the USGS, State’s Cartographer Offices, and other public institutions maintained and provided our data throughout the 20th century, today that role is shifting to the geoweb (and the users and consumers of the map). Taylor Shelton and Mark Graham have furthered this line of critique by asking how mapping practices—yes, enabled by such a useful format—constitute broader shifts toward “data-based” ways of living in the world that presume such objective, value-neutral data are necessarily optimizing our lives.

However, as John Czaplewski duly acknowledges, today the interchange format and related web technologies also have the capacity to democratize formerly insular practices. While users are churning out valuable data to be harnessed by corporate entities to make money (and presumably kill puppies), we’re at the same time disclosing issues of income inequality and environmental justice. John notes that,

“One can argue whether or not open standards really do democratize mapping, and whether or not that is good or bad. But either way, it gives companies (like Mapbox) and individuals the ability to directly confront very large and wealthy interests, and perhaps even disrupt them and their ability to hoard capital.”

Critique then need not be negative or forever seeking to expose the working of hegemony. I’ll argue that moving beyond the merely technical process of mapping can actually empower us to reclaim our relationships with the landscapes and people we map. The Fractracker Alliance is but one example seeking to harness citizen science data to better understand the environmental impact of our current energy geographies. Herein may lie an important point of contact between the practice of map making and the more cerebrial critique imposed upon us by the intellegensia. While capitalism may constrain and exploit us in problematic ways, there is little room to operate outside of it. Establishing ownership over it’s various modes—of which GeoJSON is one small but key element—is then perhaps more important than becrying that the game is rigged (we all already know this, right?). So then let’s make maps, critically.

Professor Glasses reminds us of a second form of critique, one more of the armchair variety and largely inspired by the writings of the venerable Michel Foucault. We call this variety wanky post-structuralist (with all due respect of course). Rather than applying critique for the sake of exposing the relations of power, this mode takes a further step back to pose the question,

“What are the conditions under which truth and power are made intelligible and possible in the production of a map?”

This is when the sound of blinking eyelids across a room of eager cartography students may approximate a gaggle at liftoff. While we have taken a step back to ask a critical question, we are perhaps painstakingly several steps further away from effectively rendering those SVG elements to symbolize geographic phenomena within the user’s web browser. What are these conditions of truth that allow GeoJSON to become such a useful and non-problematic data format in the world of web mapping today?

The answer to this question will no doubt benefit from a more rigorous historiography of the GeoJSON itself, something beyond the scope of this essay (I suspect a similar exercise in the ESRI Shapefile). I invite someone to dig into the empirical evidence that led to this—the story no doubt involves the surprising ascendance of JavaScript itself as the lingua franca of web programming today—and draw some connections to the larger social arrangements and entities that use it to produce truth. More importantly, I believe the onus is really on Professor Glasses to provide tangible examples of how asking such a question vis-a-vis map production informs how the map is made and what work it does. So, back to you Professor Glasses?

To conclude, bridging some of the more applicable conceptual knowledge of GIScience and Cartography (e.g., applying appropriate forms of cartographic symbology for a given model of geographic phenomena) with the technical implementation using databases, tile servers, JavaScript libraries, and emerging web standards is a daunting task. There are certainly important questions that can be asked to relate the art and science of map making to a wider set of problems more commonly taken up by the social sciences. As a cartographer largely focused on practical elements of workflow and fullstack development, I appreciate thinkers who would pose such a ridiculous question as, “What is the political economy of the GeoJSON format?”

Special thanks to Ate Porthuis (@atepoorthuis), Taylor Shelton (@kyjts), and the very talented John Czaplewski (@johnjcz) for their contributions to this writing. Andy Woodruff (@awoodruff) offered very little.