Week 11: Impossible Representations

Screenshot from  Esri's Satellite Map

Screenshot from Esri's Satellite Map

D’Ignazio’s 2015 article, "What Would Feminist Data Visualization Look Like?", gets right to the heart at why maps are so darn impossible. Her design proposals for “more responsible representation” in data visualization ask us to consider how to make known the uncertainties, the missing, as well as the flawed methods and tools employed in their construction. She calls for a display of the motivations and decision-making process, as well. Finally, she asks how representations might allow for interrogation—in the context of this class: how can we make make maps that are fluid and capable of presenting “alternative views and realities?” 

She describes interactive data visualizations as “currently limited to selecting some filters, sliding some sliders, and viewing how the picture shifts and changes from one stable image to another as a result.” Again considering this class, how can we imagine maps to be more interactive than providing similar cosmetic choices (perhaps a better word to use is, reactive). I’ve enjoyed considering interactivity during my studies at ITP, and for me it it goes beyond pressing a button to light a LED or walking back and forth in front of a responsive projection of myself. Interactivity is a medium of expression, and its meaning arrives out of connecting and engaging with others. So then how can we imagine maps to be interactive? (Wait, does my Waze app count? Maybe. I would call it more useful than meaningful or expressive, though.)

Speaking of challenging the representation of data, this first reading was a useful primer for the next: part of an introduction to Kurgan’s book, Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology, and Politics, in which she illuminates some historical motivations and work behind the production of satellite imagery, noting that they are “come to us as already interpreted images, and in a way that obscures the data that as built them.” Though we’re now used to seemingly seamless high-resolution imagery of our Google Earth globe, it’s really a collage of heavily rendered composite photographs from a variety sources and rendering methods. Renderings that are as much scientific as they are artistic. There is always a distortion in any representation, and certainly in any image (ah, the impossibility of photographs). The question is how to somehow deliver the metadata and decisions with the imagery to help viewers understand their own interpretations in the context of those distortions. 

For my final project, I’m interested in working more with satellite imagery, but in what capacity I’m currently unsure. Curious, I found a map of the satellites orbiting the planet. There are A LOT, nearly 17,000 with more on the way. I also wondered about the breakdown between the artistic and scientific processing of satellite imagery. I read the mentioned Charlie Loyd article, “Processing Landsat 8 Using Open-Source Tools, which describes many decisions for processing satellite imagery (brightness, contrast, adjusting midtones and individual color channels, and sharpening), similar to developing digital photos in Photoshop or Lightroom and not objective. (What exactly are the scientific aspects of this type of processing anyway?) Making my own map tiles seems ambitious to tackle, but it's fun to consider covering the world in imagery of my own design. A conversation with a classmate sparked ideas about collecting and comparing imagery from different periods in time over the Rio Grande (ooh, representations of nation state borders). Finally, a random but connected thought: so how long until we get to see live global satellite video? What happens (has it already?) when you can’t commune with nature alone because of the eyeballs above? You can already watch a livestream from the International Space Station here (and screenshots from 4/13/18 at 1:30am below). I'm looking forward to considering all of this further!