Mapping is about boundaries and scale, watching the recent BBC series about the history of the map you could see how — once the powerful were commissioning — that the placing of boundaries and the scale of each territory (often exaggerated) were the focus.

And boundaries were one of the things that open data advocates were most pleased that the Ordinance Survey released for use recently. At at Andrew McKenzie’s Mapitude event in Birmingham the attendees worked on a Ward Comparison site that plotted the boundaries of Walsall Council wards automatically on Google Maps:

Ward Mapper | St. Matthew's Ward

Good work, and as Michael Grimes says: “surprising as it may sound, this hasn’t really been done before. Prior to 1 April 2010, UK ward boundary data were simply not available for public use; groups of fools like us could not have spent our free time building this tool for the public good.”

But he also has another really good point that anything like this would be improved by “users choosing boundaries based on their own understanding of geography (administrative boundaries for religious groups or sports organisations, for example) as well as the official civic ones”.

I’m quite obsessed with the idea of defining areas in a meaningful way, have done a fair amount of work with organisations that use internal or official descriptions or designations and then expect the public to grasp what it means to them. People don’t know, or usually care, which NHS PCT they live in and people don’t know where ward or constituency boundaries — it just doesn’t fit in with how people’s lives work.

The problem is that even defined administrative boundaries are confusing — do we mean New York city or New York state?  The ‘West Midlands’ one is a classic where different boundaries of different bodies cause confusion; Governmentally the region is Stoke down to Worcester, the  BBC’s West Midlands also has Gloucestershire in it, where as everyone thinks the West Midlands is just Birmingham and the Black Country — the West Midlands county.

I think most mapping online is using either administrative boundaries or postcode level (where people know which bit they’re in, but not too much about where one might end or begin).

I think that most people grasp:

  • County
  • Town/City (or ‘council level’) &
  • Postcode

as methods or locating where they live but will have a hazy idea of where each starts/ends. For other areas all my be even more hazy.

I had an idea ages ago for a sort of scraper of the social web that helped define “conversational” (here I mean natural language) boundaries rather than administrative ones (for example, where I live the definition of  Moseley stretches well into King’s Heath, Balsall Heath and even Billesley — all neighbouring areas —in conciousness). You could sort of do it with mentions of places vs geolocation on Twitter  — although there’s maybe not quite enough data there yet.

Flickr tried something similar with geolocated photos that also had location information added in the tags, it resulted in boundaries that were quite different (I can’t find the link right now, anyone?). I think we need to pay more attention to these ‘real’ boundaries.