Invisible Landscapes: When Digital Tools Fail to Document
An online search away from any computer are eye-level views of many of the world’s cities. This technology is powerful – allowing people to have an in-depth look at the cities they might one day visit, live in, or work in. It’s a useful tool for understanding buildings on a more comprehensive level than photographs. This technology is, of course, Google Street View – which recently turned fifteen years old.
For design students around the world, it can function as a secondary site visit, supplementing information gathered in person. However – despite its availability across 83 countries – in the grand scheme of things this coverage is hugely limited. Many places have little to no coverage. In Africa, only 13 countries have been mapped by Google Street View. Almost all of Central America has yet to be mapped. Much of Asia and the Middle East is similarly unavailable on Google Street View. It’s a reflection on how digital technologies that can help us make sense of the built environment, can end up reiterating the unequal systems of power the world runs on.
In 2018, Zimbabwe’s capital city of Harare was unavailable on Google Street View. A Zimbabwean Silicon Valley Product Manager – Tawanda Kanhema – decided to change that, volunteering to carry Google’s Street View recording gear to map Harare, and what would later become 2,000 miles of his home country. It’s a sad reflection of digital inaccessibility. Kanhema, for instance, had to finance the mapping project on his own, and Google does not compensate contributors for Street View content they upload.
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As a component of Google Maps, Google Street View naturally replicates how Google Maps works – where the driver is commercial profitability drawn out from advertising revenue. This revenue allows Google Maps to be free, but the flip side of that is that in effect it achieves a near monopoly, where not all cities are seen as equally worthy of documentation. Although Tawanda Kanhema set out to map Harare after trying to show a friend his childhood home, there are the many design professionals and enthusiasts interested in either researching or making a spatial intervention in Harare that were also unable to obtain useful photographic mapping data of the city .
Historically, far before the realm of today’s digital technologies, mapping has functioned as a method of control. This control seeped out into how unmapped spaces were viewed, as European colonial powers termed unmapped land as terra nullius and sought to, through mapping, further their imperial commercial interests.
In a “post-colonial” twenty-first-century, neo-colonialism means that some of these unmapped cities are greatly reliant on a tourism industry that seeks to attract travelers mainly from the countries of the Global North. Countries and cities which are unmapped on Google Street View are in effect hindered from marketing themselves properly. Some unmapped locations photographed by volunteers may also end up documented in poor quality, as, for instance, few volunteers would have access to the equipment used by Tawanda Kanhema.
A large component of Google’s resources regarding Street View are instead mainly spent on updating views of the countries of the Global North – even the remote trails of Yosemite National Park in the United States. Those resources are not extended to the cities of the Global South.
Apart from cities not being featured on Google Street View, there’s also the situation where only a city’s “sanitized” face is shown. Residents of a working-class suburb in Buenos Aires – Avellaneda – have made complaints over the years over the waste that lines the bank of a local creek, in an area prone to flooding.
Informal settlements dot Avellaneda’s landscape across the creek, their residents left vulnerable to noxious gases that cause vomiting. A Google Maps Street View tour of Avellaneda, however, omits this, only showing the more formal roads lined with apartment blocks. This form of urban cartography essentially ignores those who live in examples of less “formal” architecture, exacerbating what can only be termed as an urban digital divide where places not visible on platforms such as Google Street View are in turn then forgotten by governments and political powers.
A global pandemic has put digital tools back at the forefront of our daily conversations, but as we continue to heavily rely on digital tools to make sense of the urban environment around us, it is more important than ever to critically engage with how these tools function .
Mapping has always been biased – it’s far from a neutral endeavor. But as some mapping services become the universal, go-to platforms for the everyday person, there’s the danger of perpetuating a broken system, where entire settlements and landscapes are left ignored by digital mapping tools, and they are rendered invisible by urbanists and policymakers .
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Democratization of Design. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our ArchDaily topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.