Archive for November 10th, 2015

Mapping Fever

Odyssey home page

My mom came the United States from Vietnam in 1989. She resettled in San Diego, California, where she worked three jobs on Adams Avenue. During her two-hour bus ride to and from work, my mom studied and memorized her U.S. naturalization guide. It included segments from the Constitution, history and meaning of the flag, and a map of the fifty states and their capitals. To keep me quiet during our commute, she recited and quizzed me on my U.S. state capitals. I remember looking at the map and absorbing where each state fell on the page. I closed my eyes and, for example, saw California’s lazy recline, Louisiana’s boot, Maine the shape of an oven mitt. The map helped me remember not only the states’ locations, but their capitals as well. I didn’t know it then, but maps would be a very important part of my historical training.

Of course we know maps guide us from one place to another. They help us visualize events and feelings. Military strategists plot violent operations on a map. In many public school classrooms, students press pins into states or international countries where they or their families are from or have visited over the years. These places of origin and vacation, as well as battlefields, summon associated emotions and stories about this, that, or the other. Sometimes we walk into a room and map where everything is. We map what’s missing or determine our course through the space, and in that sense, maps also function as catalogues, records, and indexes for the disappeared.

To understood the visible and invisible histories of Greenwich Village, I consulted the Odyssey mapping platform. Odyssey is an open-source tool that “allows [us] to combine maps, narratives, and other multimedia into a beautiful story.” Designed by CartoDB, Odyssey users create “projects” on their webpage. The projects contain “chapters” featuring found or user-created maps that can move across space, time, and themes. In each chapter, users upload their project’s content into what Odyssey calls a “Sandbox.” The Sandbox can include text, images, videos, music, and hyperlinks. Users can make as many chapters as they want. They can make the Sandbox as simple or as sophisticated as they want. Each Sandbox comes with a “markdown.” The markdown contains the necessary information for publication: title, author, presentation option, etc. Each Odyssey map can be viewed in slides, scrolling, or torque form. Users choose the form that best fits their project. Advanced users can incorporate Javascript or other HTML codes to amplify their project. When finished, users can publish their projects directly to their webpages or use the Odyssey iframe code to embed their project elsewhere.

Odyssey publish function

I first used Odyssey in Professor Jack Tchen’s “Chinatown & The American Imagination” undergraduate seminar during Fall 2014. Jack divided the class into five groups. Each group researched a specific block in NYC Chinatown. They created walking tours and in-depth biographies of the block’s known and subaltern histories. To demonstrate changes over time or document fascinating artifacts, each student group created an Odyssey map for their final. The Odyssey map made their subversive walking tours available online and, in fact, simulated the walking tour by taking the viewer on a visual journey. We’re currently culling all the student group maps and publishing them on a course site so interested teachers can implement Odyssey in their classrooms.

The results were quite spectacular. Though some students were hesitant at first, they found Odyssey incredibly easy to use. That, of course, is one of its merits. Odyssey’s clear instructions and visual guides make building projects smooth and troubleshooting streamline. Because it’s still in development, some functions remain rather shaky. For instance, it’s unclear how we can edit or expand Odyssey maps after we publish them. It’s unclear if there are ways other than copying and saving the raw code to another location in order to work on a project in multiple sittings. It’s also unclear if projects can be worked on simultaneously by multiple people on separate devices.


Above is an Odyssey example our students made. They examined the history of Chinatown’s Chatham Square. Landmarks, sounds, phantom highways, and political figures make their way into this project. A student even made her own video recording of a poem she wrote inspired by conversations she witnessed in the Square. The group overall really took advantage of the platform and inspired me to do the same on my project about queer Asian American life in Greenwich Village during the turn of the century. The importance of maps is that they present information in another way. While historians and researchers turn quickly to timelines and similar interactive features, maps aren’t widely regarded tools for visualizing, processing, and communication meaning of information. I argue maps can do the work we rely on timelines for. Imagine mapping events across time in the spaces they took place. Imagine showing human movement across space, in addition to time. It certainly takes historical scholarship out of the familiar realm of “past dates” and situates human events firmly within places, informing how we see and interact with them. I, in fact, cannot walk through Chatham Square without seeing, smelling, or hearing what the student group saw, smelled, and heard. My hope is in using Odyssey is to present sights, smells, sounds, and sensory details to people unfamiliar with Greenwich Village’s queer Asian American past and to trouble the ways that past continues to live in the present.

Finally, the nice thing about Odyssey is that its developers welcome suggestions to aid their building the platform. Please feel encouraged to use Odyssey in mapping your next project and send some feedback their way!

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