Public-ing Observation: A Map Critique of Atlanta’s Map Room Work

Jason Brown

Participants – Observers – Cartographers … Ethnographers? Atlanta Map Room

The Eyes of the Beholders

How does participant observation carry over to the work of community knowledge-banking? How does a map function across urban ethnographic space as a tool, as an intermediary, and as a product? These are the questions that arise from a brief examination of a map from Atlanta’s Map Room, a product of citizens, data, and everyday materials all at once. The project demands meta-ethnographic analysis: we are watching people watching a city.

Atlanta’s iteration of the MapRoom was fueled by project leader and local professor Yanni Loukissas’ curiosities about how the public encounters, uses, and expresses civic data. The project’s tangible, common-looking praxis begs further folk situating. 

Can the communally-made cartographic product be seen as a form of field notes inscribed directly on Atlanta’s urban space? Or, is it better held within the discursive space as a process-product, as an artifact pointing to the glory of the inquiring process? Is their map an observation process, an observed place, or an observable product? Or is it all three, in a singular discourse? 

One map from the Atlanta experience. Atlanta Map Room

The  Mapped Product // Artifact

As a community artist and organizer who has facilitated community map-making myself, I am curious about bringing these cartographic manifestations into the light of critique both as a way to legitimize their usage as knowledge sources and to improve upon a practice that appears to be growing in popularity, particularly around communitarian urban and place investigators (or instigators). 

This particular map, the project’s first iteration, in 2018, was created by a collection of local students.Key elements of the work make it immediately recognizable as a map, even if an informal one. Although I was unable to find dimensions, the map appears to be 3-4 feet high and 10-15 feet wide, based on images with participants. In person, this map would have a presence. However its everyday materiality – white craft paper, colorful markers, and black-and-white printed images – suggest this presence would be more inviting than intimidating. 


Although “amateur,” the map doesn’t suffer from illegibility. It contains hand-written – but clear – information about title and legend, as well as time and purpose. Here we learn this map displays property values (2010-2017), in addition to land use patterns. The visual hierarchy promotes the black and white images street views pasted on the center of the map. More broadly, the map’s space is dominated by property lines and values, with additional notation bulked up around these central images. These occur along a curvilinear notation – the “BeltLine Trail”, as the map’s title informs us.


As someone unfamiliar with Atlanta, I would not have known this was of Atlanta, Georgia, if it were not for the project description I had read elsewhere. Because of this, the map reads more immediately as an “insider” document, one that can be understood primarily by its makers and perhaps a slightly wider community of locals. The basemap does seem to feature street names, and forms that resemble highways and rail lines, which would give locals even better visual grounding.

Yet, what it lacks in clarity, it possesses in invitation. This accessibility comes from the noticeable fact that this map was a collective endeavor itself. The cartographers, by their own varied hands, accentuate the map’s bottom edge with (at least) 19 visible names – not the seal of a King, or an “expert” with the AIA accreditation, as we’d likely find on more “official” maps. This map began as an “ours,” and continues to present with an open hand. Accreditation alone does not make for a folk, but personal signatures give the folk a presence, voice, and authority. 


As a newbie to Atlanta, I must rely on its legend and visual hierarchy to ascertain the cartographers’ message. Red, blue, and green arrows give me some general sense of capital flow.  And, because red arrows instruct that property values are increasing near the BeltLine, I become both more visually and economically interested in what is illustrated there. It is unfortunate that the pictures at the center of the map cannot be fully seen from this documentation image – a limit of this map as an artifact, obscured from its process.

Where-ing, Who-ing the City’s Image

The socially situated notation of Atlanta’s Map Room Map reminds me that this is pointedly and intentionally a process-oriented product. That is, the gathering of people, the exchanging of data, the personal expression, and the voicing of local stories are the meat of this meal. The paper map itself is ephemera. However, observational mapping has always been this – a research process. But, in this form, has it also become a public research practice?

The Map Room’s technical setup. Atlanta Map Room

Organizer Yanni Loukissas notes, “The Map Room is best understood as a hybrid map-making tool, with both digital and traditional components. Yet, accessibility is the priority. And people, not machines, are in control.” As a digital data-translation tool, the projection apparatus (seen above) embellishes the human cartographer’s embodied understandings of the field with the measured linear form of previously mapped space. This machination establishes the basemap,  while the social contract of the Map Room establishes the participants’ license to style and content creatively. 

Boston Compilation map from Lynch’s interviewees. Lynch, Image of the City, page 146.

This imaging practice is not dissimilar to early urbanist Kevin Lynch’s investigations during the 1950s with residents in Boston, Los Angeles, and Jersey City, which facilitated map-making through guided interviews. Lynch’s inquiry was situated in an American urbanism just beginning to contend with large-scale city and neighborhood planning and the heterogeneous morphological form created as America balanced architectural experimentalism with service necessity. His questions prodded local participants how the city was captured as a memorable, sensorial “imaged” space. As an early radical reckoning with the People from a Power position (a la contemporary Jane Jacobs), these gathered observations have inspired generations of participatory planning enthusiasts and activists. 

In comparison, the Map Room’s space asks the public how a designed city (now situated within more than a century of urban planning) contributes to personal and data-captured notions of livability. While Lynch’s team had participants draw solely from an individually imaged consciousness of their city, the Map Room’s cartographers’ pursuits were facilitated by the projection of digitized data – the work of other (Other?) minds. 

As Lynch studied a new urbanity’s sensorial forms, Loukissas now studies in an age where Big Data intangibly informs city-making. As a counterbalance, it is clear that Loukissas encouraged participants to nevertheless invent from personal expression. Thus, the participant-made map evolves from a “pure” notion of personalized observation sought by Lynch’s lab to a collective intelligence captured in the Map Room’s shared making-space – with a touch of digital omniscience.

The New Ethnographers

The Map Room’s encouraged creativity is an act of re-data-ing maps, and finding out how people choose to do it; quantitative becomes qualitative. The human cartographer is present with the data, and their agency allows them to wield, embellish, or minimize it creatively. As social investigators, seeing the mediation of Atlanta’s image of the city facilitated by digital data and projection technology we might come to inquire, whose knowledge is really making it onto the maps? (As Shannon is certainly keen on inquiring…) But, another inquiry here becomes: who is the ethnographer? Who is the observer? And what does it mean to gather (and represent) knowledge together?

Through Atlanta’s and St. Louis’ Map Rooms, we are encouraged to consider a new collective ethnography of space. In a world of submersive and subjective surveillance, we are charged to collectively observe, map, and make the cities before us – with the help of and sometimes in spite of the data being thrown at us. While leaders like Yanni Loukissas may take academic delights in getting to observe a folk-ed up version of mapping as an ethnographic practice, the true delight here is that a community might use cartography itself as critically collective ethnography to chart, encounter, and enact the peopled city spread before their marker-grasped hands re-imaging their needed city into reality. 

References +

Lynch, Kevin. The Image of the City. Harvard University Press. 1960.

Mattern, Shannon. “Mapping’s Intelligent Agents.” Places Journal.

St. Louis Map Room // The Original “Map Room” Project

Atlanta Map Room // Yanni Loukissas’ Portfolio Site

“The Atlanta Map Room: Documenting the Connections and Disjunctions between Civic Data and Lived Experiences in the City.” in Atlanta Studies

Atlanta Map Room Video

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