The Most Impactful Mapping Technology: Crayons?


Crayons and paper can’t possibly be as important as GPS-enabled smartphones and open data layers when it comes to mapping cities. Or can they? One group in India is out to prove that they just might be. And don’t let the medium deceive you. These low tech tools are driving conversations to the highest levels of government.

Reilly Brennan’s Future of Transportation newsletter tipped me off to a CityLab piece from earlier this year about how kids in India are sparking urban planning changes by mapping slums. The project pairs youth teams and adults who first spend weeks walking through neighborhoods to log streets, homes, and other details. From there, imagination takes over as the kids work together to fill in what they think is missing. In drawing what they want and need, these young mappers are both imaginative and practical — including things like more trash cans and child-sized toilets.

But this is not just play. One 12-year old girl knew that the route to her evening classes was dangerous because it was too dark, so she drew a map showing what needed to be improved. The program organizers took it to local government officials who are now adding lights to the street.

By coming to the table with a surrogate development proposal—the map—children demonstrate analytical capabilities. In turn, government officials have to take them more seriously.

To tie this story back to work here at home, this month I finally stopped talking and started a new project. Right now, I’m spending a lot of time meeting with teens in Detroit and Baltimore to understand their experiences of safety and transportation issues getting around the city. Some of the stories are heartbreaking: a gas station shooting and neighbors yelling racist slurs. Some are heartwarming: like finding the fun of riding a bike or walking to school with friends.

The roots of these problems run deep, and many are already working on these issues. Yet we still have a long way to go. New tools inspired by the latest technologies combined with old standards like crayons, paper, pens have the potential to spark new results. With that information, our kids too can participate in the transportation conversations taking place here in the US, just like they are in India.

Photo credit: Rick Payette

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