Learning How to Design as Allies Not Community Members.

Designing a map is essentially a process of abstraction, and this shouldn’t be treated as a trivial process.

The selection of information is inherently political, and as such can have unintended consequences for those whom you hope to serve. Consider as an example a digital map that seeks to visualize the presence of amenities. This could lead to a heightening of contrast between affluent and deprived areas, and through driving demand, affect property values. The same risk carries over to any project that seeks to highlight the negative characteristics of an area. For example a tool that mapped infrastructure deficiency could be used as a valuable advocacy tool to lobby for greater investment, but this could equally backfire as area rankings suppress appetites for property investment.

There are also important questions as to who is able to use a map. Imagine a tool which did allow people to lobby for improved infrastructure in their area. The positive impact of this could be skewed heavily towards people who have a level of technological literacy, and time, to advocate, again potentially exacerbating existing inequities.

Finally, when in a process of designing for a community for whom you are not a member (as we are in designing for the community of people with limited mobility), we have to take great care not to make assumptions as to their challenges. To do so incorrectly and on their behalf risks patronizing those whom you seek to help.

This is why we have chosen core values to guide our design process: openness, accessibility and inclusivity. We have also taken steps to ensure that we are accountable to the limited mobility community: we are using previously gathered user feedback on needs, and we have planned meetings with representatives of Seattle’s limited mobility community to get feedback on our map specification.

It’s very easy to get caught up in a data science project, get excited about the process and forget about the impact that the tool can have on others. This prioritization of process over people leads to an over-reliance on technology to solve essential human problems, and it is incredibly important to us to ensure that we do not fall into this trap.