Social entrepreneur Di-Ann Eisnor says that when she was 12, she would hang out with some friends in the housing projects in her native Taunton, Mass. -- at the time, a distressed, post-industrial city that had yet to reinvent itself. "I spent so much time there that at a certain moment, I'm leaving school one day and I get jumped by a group of girls who found that it was not such a great thing for an outsider to be coming into their neighborhood," says Eisnor, now 37. Two black eyes and a concussion later, Eisnor says, "I realized I had crossed a border that wasn't on any map."
The experience would shape her later work; today, Eisnor is one of a few Web pioneers working to create social maps -- citizen-generated maps comprised of crowdsourced stories, videos and histories about places around the world. "Imagine 100 million city guides filtered by infinite perspectives," says Eisnor, CEO of Platial, Inc., the social mapping startup she founded to be a guide of “who and what is nearby” and be shared digitally. On a Platial map of Portland, OR, the company’s headquarters, for example, people have posted stories and pictures of local landmarks that only the locals would know about, from a sunken barge to a decrepit manor house -- and even the location of a local sweatshop.
In these stories about place, Eisnor says, is power. "Places have meaning; identifying what exists in the hyperlocal is to create an ability to celebrate it, or to change it," says Eisnor, who calls herself a neogeographer. "On regular printed maps, what really exists can disappear or be completely overlooked and remain hidden. Platial is all about citizen-generated maps that can reflect, in real-time, what a place means to its users. Neo-geography can be dynamic and the basis for social action."
In that vein, Eisnor is just getting started. She is now leading a small but growing group of neogeographers internationally in efforts to redefine the way maps are drawn. Maps used to be printed, then adapted to the Web as an information resource. But now, she says, because maps can be accessed on the fly with mobile technology, maps can be redrawn to spawn social action.
“The merging of crowdsourced information and access to real-time data from new developments in mobile communication can actually impact decisions and actions, such as when and where to purchase a product; when and where and with whom to barter; when and where to locate the most effective routes for emergency response; when and where to build new roads or public facilities, and when and where to buy a home or change a route or itinerary based on real-time circumstances,” she says. “In this realm, time is inextricably linked to location, which removes historic obstacles to actionable or live mapping.”
Besides her work at Platial, Eisnor is serving as community neogeographer for Waze, an Israeli startup that launched in the U.S. this past summer. The company focuses on location-aware, real-time and mobile traffic-routing; Eisnor is helping the startup hone its strategy and technology.
But Eisnor says the toughest challenges facing neogeographers lie ahead. During a recent speech at TEDx-Silicon Valley, Eisnor warned that the world's borders are about to be redrawn on a massive scale, chiefly by waning access to natural resources like water and food, and that rising tensions between nations about ownership of these resources have the potential to breed regional conflict on a massive scale. It’s time, she said, to start looking at the world differently and classify people not so much by which country they live in but by their common needs and potential. A cartographer's map of the world underground water reserves, for example, shows there are 273 cross-border aquifers, meaning that as clean, fresh water becomes a more precious resource in the years ahead, governments on both sides of existing borders will have to agree how this water will be used, mined, and how to prevent it from being polluted.
“If we create new kinds of digital maps that help us to map how humans interact, chiefly over the issues that divide them or bring them together, then we can create dynamic maps that can help us resolve some of these differences,” Eisnor says. And if everyone has the ability to post their stories and small perspectives on these maps in real time, then maps become statements and solutions, shared knowledge, and new dialogues – not simply a set of permanent, cold lines that depersonalize and divide us.
"As Churchill said, we shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us,” Eisnor told the TEDxSV crowd. “But with social mapping, we can create our maps and thereafter they shape us. The cool thing now is that with social mapping, we can put map-making tools in the hands of millions and be continuously reshaping how we look at the world, based on what is happening in a place."