Say “I Love You” With Mapping

A new app turns hand-drawn pictures into guided walks

Excerpted from a recent paper by Daniela K. Rosner, Hidekazu Saegusa, Jeremy Friedland, and Allison Chambliss to be presented at the Conference for Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI’15)


In the 1967 artwork A Line Made by Walking, a field of grass presents residues of a path that artist Richard Long tracked up and down by foot. Through walking, Long reshaped the environment to describe a trajectory of movement. The blades of grass bent underneath his feet to reflect the sunlight from above and produce a visible trace. In the decades since, we have seen the emergence of a different kind of path: mapping algorithms that prefigure walking routes based on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data. Unlike the trails that came before them, GIS routes rely on algorithms to characterize and codify the physical landscape. They also share an important presupposition: walking is a destination-oriented, precise, and planned activity. Whether embodied by GIS routing or fitness tracking systems, these computational traces often issue from a corpus of knowledge whose authorization and production remain hidden from the people using them.

Drawing on studies of social mapping and algorithmic life, we developed a complement to this technology for walking called Trace. Trace is a mobile application that transforms hand-drawn digital sketches into walking paths to share with others — thus introducing a unique form of digital communication: walking by drawing. Rather than aim for efficiency or competition, Trace relies on communication between the creators and recipients of walking paths. This week, for example, you might send sketch a flower for your sweetheart, or a heart, or….a ring? The app will superimpose the image over a local street map and turn its lines into a route for a meandering and unexpected walk.

During field trials with sixteen people across Boston, Chicago and Seattle, Trace evoked surprising contrasts: On the one hand, people used Trace to extend their everyday interactions. They slowed down walking routines to encounter new features of their environment. Through the design of the routes and the accompanying annotations, they also turned walking paths into personal messages: engaging enigmatic riddles, love notes, and ruminations. On the other hand, people encountered Trace as deeply disruptive to familiar routines. Trace prompted people to explore areas they did not want to travel, sometimes revealing discriminatory behavior. Trace also obligated people to use scarce spare time and walk redundant paths — ultimately intensifying desires for efficiency and control. To reconcile these disconnects between people’s perceptions and practices, the people we studied began to interrogate the procedural logics behind GIS-routing and see their neighborhoods through an algorithmic lens.

We use the development of Trace to examine how GIS algorithms might be done differently in the context of walking and navigation. How is GIS-supported travel achieved in practice? What do GIS algorithms translate, displace or change? What alternatives might be possible? This work has ramifications not only for urban mapping design but also for understanding the forms of autonomy and engagement GIS systems make possible. First, it extends the spectrum of mobile navigation research to consider design for non-destination-oriented walking. In doing so, it raises the possibility of devising forms of travel independent of GIS-enabled precision and specification. Second, it operationalizes guided walking as a form of drawing to examine the social, political and communicative character of digital transport. Lastly, we contribute a study of algorithms through walking to a growing body of HCI research on algorithmic living that analyze the role of digital rules and infrastructures and their seemingly immutable form.

Our choice to study walking rather than driving or other forms of travel comes from a suspicion that the relation between walking and creative engagement can reveal important opportunities for improvisation in algorithmic life in ways that engage overlooked avenues of design inquiry around issues of autonomy and machine intelligence. It is by intervening in and breaking with GIS-routing practice that we invite new recognition of the responsibilities and contingencies that often challenge navigation activities that are more typically examined.


Maps, Routes, and Walks

While maps have historically enabled precise and efficient movement through the world, they have equally become mechanisms for classifying and reducing it, often “reflect[ing] the maker’s priorities more than those of the culture(s) they depict,” maintains Rebecca Solnit, a San Francisco-based activist [p.13]. While Stamen Design’s Crimespotting maps, visualizing crimes in San Francisco and Oakland, aim for civic transparency, those same maps may also deter people from visiting lower income neighborhoods, reinforcing social stigmas. In their attempts to use visual representation to segregate and repress certain populations, mapping exclusions reveal power hierarchies, urban tensions and discrimination, concurrently making such practices contestable. In Infinite City, Solnit positions maps as invitations to alter, add, plan and otherwise manipulate “in ways that texts and pictures are not.” A map provides entrance to a physical landscape, enacting concrete connections to the world. Solnit draws attention to the power dynamics mapping processes often conceal. Dividing North America into various ‘local tribes,’ for example, offered colonial Spaniards a comprehensible picture of Bay Area Native American territories for museum curation [25:8]. The practices and politics of mapping continue to pervade not only civic life but also the many GIS systems that inhabit it.

This recognition of cartography as a political project resonates with an ongoing attention to psychogeographical mapping of the 1950s. French Situationalist theorist Guy Debord’s theory of “drifting” (or dérive) emphasized a “playful-constructive behavior” emerging from the abandonment of familiar routines and an awareness of “the attractions of the terrain.” Decades later, a rich array of location-based media has drawn on this tradition to comment on the influence of mobile sensing on urbanization, spatial encounters, and processes of de-familiarization. The Broken City Lab’s Drift project, for example, presents a mobile application that users based on randomly assembled directions. Mark Shepard’s Tactical Sound Garden Toolkit similarly uses smartphones to enable people to “drift though virtual sound gardens” as they navigate urban spaces. Christian Nold’s bio and emotion maps use wearable devices tracking galvanic skin response to offer opportunities for refection on people’s relationships with geographic locations and sensing technology. Chris Speed’s Walking through Time mobile app allows people to view historical maps while moving through Edinburgh.

Revealing new cartographic features, several artists and cultural critics have explored the relation between mapping and human traces. British poet Iain Sinclair imagined “templates of meaning” encoded into baroque architect Nicholas Hawksmoor’s London churches, connecting the location of the churches on a map to produce an image of the Eye of Horus, an Egyptian symbol of protection. More recently, artist Jeremy Wood has pioneered a growing movement of “GPS Drawing” that explores the use of GIS to create large-scale illustrations (see Nike+, MapMyWalk, Strava, and so on). Tracing paths of travel (foot, bike, car or plane) with Global Positioning Systems (GPS), the images range in diversity from marriage proposals to Internet memes. In “Surface Patterns: Walking Tours,” Jen Southern reproduces audio tour walks without a map to reimagine such imagery as decorative prints.

The juxtaposition of drawings with cartography underlies an orientation toward mapping as primarily emotional, cultural and symbolic. Geographer Denise Cosgrove has written of the “imaginative processes of discovering and denoting our place within the world, and of ordering the worlds we experience though spatial representations: graphically, pictorially, even narratively and performatively.” The practices and politics of mapping continue to pervade not only civic life but also the many GPS-savvy citizens that inhabit it.

However, travel has only recently relied on mapping and GIS. Citing Long’s walk described above, anthropologist Tim Ingold recalls the practice of wayfaring, a process of retracing a path someone has travelled before. As an act of cultural reproduction, wayfaring for Ingold highlights links between walking and storytelling, wherein the line of a path or tale unfolds through space and time. Like a story one has heard before, the line has a way forward but no particular end and may ebb and flow. Walking and telling both rest on itineraries: markers that guide as opposed to specify trajectories. Contemporary examples include marches and protests such as the Million Man March in the United States. Such walks enact the values and beliefs of their members through claims to public space. Participants construe walking as social and political action.

This view of human engagement as both material and semiotic has surfaced in recent conversations on algorithmic life budding from within cultural studies and science and technology studies. Historian of science Lorraine Daston, for example, describes the spread of “algorithmic rules” to many disciplines through “rules of rationality [that] replaced the self-critical judgments of reasons.” Media scholar Tarleton Gillespie shows how algorithms become categories of fact or truth, asking whether they can ever be ‘wrong.’ Likewise, sociologist Scott Lash proposes examining algorithms through their “compressed or hidden” rules to become “pathways through which capitalist power works.” However, these assertions may tell us little about the critical work algorithms do as our practices change. According to science and technology studies scholar Malte Ziewitz, “such theorizing often ends up further mystifying the phenomena it seeks to clarify.” Inspired by Harold Garfinkel’s “demonstrative experiments,” Ziewitz describes an ethnomethodological exploration of mapping he conducted in his Oxford ‘classroom’ wherein he asked students to explore the city guided by algorithms rather than maps.

Our Trace project and the concept of drawing-by-walking emerged from our early engagements with these areas of theory, art practice and research. Firstly, we take up questions around improvisation and accountability in the domain of GIS technology. Secondly, we use concerns of locative media artists to reimagine the potential of GIS to shape and contest new algorithmic relations. And lastly, we draw together methodological tactics of Ziewitz’s algorithmic walk with Wood’s GPS drawing to develop drawing-by-walking as a mode of design inquiry. In drawing and walking the algorithm, we reimagine the material trace.


The Trace Design Process

Our design team sought to investigate and further define this concept of walking-by-drawing through interviews examining the form and location of GIS-technology in people’s walking routines. We recruited avid walkers from public online postings, including a part-time dog walker and a photographer. Based on insights we gathered from early interviews and social studies of mapping, we developed the following design guidelines for Trace.

Travel over Transport: Non-destination-oriented Routing. Our design team built Trace to explore how GIS-supported travel could emphasize travel over transport.

Improvisation: Highlighting Emergent Engagements. We designed Trace to stress emergent engagements over planned activity.

Disorientation: Embracing the Unknown through Wandering. We designed Trace to expose and engage the safety concerns that come with disorientation through wandering.

Motivation through Surprise. The notion of using an unexpected endpoint as inspiration for walking led us to design Trace to reveal the full path upon its completion.

As we continue to work with Trace, we look to the role GIS algorithms play in shaping our moral visions around claims to public space. Walking is an act of public and civic engagement, and we have a responsibility to continually probe and modify how GIS algorithms accommodate and account for those who use and rely on them. For example, how do GIS algorithms embody assumptions about walking speed? How do they account for safety, inaccessibility or geographical constraints? Through design and intervention we examine opportunities for making these assumptions contestable. How they become part of people’s lived experiences of public space raises important questions of pace, expressivity and autonomy for mapping technology today and in the decades to come.


On Valentine’s Day, instead of a box of chocolates or a dozen roses, why not share your affection by sharing a walk?

Share a shape with someone you love and tell us how it went.

Lulu drew a Trace for her partner Pablo, who she met at a French cultural center a few months earlier. She first thought to draw a heart but wanted something more unique. She tried the outline of France, but found it too difficult. Soon she found herself drawing an outline of the United States, the country that brought them together. We can draw something, and draw someone else in.

Download Trace here.