On Thursday at 10:30am, I will be talking about maps and art at the Annual Meeting of the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS). My abstract read:

Remapping Spatial Sensibilities
In a number of recent articles, scholars have drawn connections between cartography and the visual arts. These connections are usually confined to questions of aesthetics and representation, eschewing larger conceptual and historical connections. In this paper, I deploy Jacques Rancière’s concept of the “distribution of the sensible,” which he uses to describe how art changes what we are able to perceive. Using a number of maps as examples, I use this concept to trace a history of cartography concerned with changing understandings of space. This periodization, I argue, suggests a path forward for cartographic work concerned with developing new spatial cognizance, or using Rancière’s terms, re-distributing what is spatially sensible. This path, informed by art theory, opens up exciting new possibilities for cartographic work to exist as an independent knowledge-producing practice, intersect with theories in human geography, respond to the current moment, and produce new representations of space.

The conference schedule looks excellent and people keep telling me good things about past meetings, so I’m excited to be participating.



PredPol software used in Santa Cruz, CA

Recently, I’ve been writing about software used in surveillance and policing practices. One such practice, called predictive policing, uses software packages to analyze spatial crime data and predict where and when future crimes are likely to happen. Police departments can then use this information to decide where to deploy officers. This practice has received some mainstream press in recent years, with many pointing out its similarities with the Pre-crime division in the 2002 film Minority Report. Coincidently, the last three cities I’ve called home–Santa Cruz, Oakland, and Madison–have all used predictive policing software.

One popular package, PredPol, use principles from earthquake aftershock modeling software. Others are sometimes compared to analytic software used to create targeted ads through the analysis of customer shopping data. Of course, these software packages are proprietary, making it difficult to look under the hood to see how they really work. But their use of existing crime data should be a cause for alarm, especially in places with disparities in policing.

A news article from the Wisconsin State journal last year indicates that crime analysts in Madison are using predictive policing software, although the details are vague and there isn’t much documentation that I could dig up. But in a city with well-documented and profound racial disparities in policing, we can only guess that this will reinforce those practices.

As Ingrid Burrington writes in a Nation article:

All of these applications assume the credibility of the underlying crime data—and the policing methods that generate that data in the first place. As countless scandals over quotas in police departments demonstrate, that is a huge assumption.

She observes:

It’s easy to imagine how biased data could render the criminal-justice system even more of a black box for due process, replacing racist cops with racist algorithms.

The adoption of software solutions for policing, whether implicitly or explicitly, often contain the hope of bypassing the problem of structural racism in policing. But these software packages can only reinforce those racist assumptions if they rely on datasets constructed through policing practices. Madison Police Chief Koval rejects claims that his department is responsible for racial disparities in policing, deferring blame onto the larger community:

“On any given month, more than 98 percent of our calls for service are activated through the 9-1-1 Center,” he said in a statement. “Upon arrival, our officers are required by law to evaluate the behavior that is manifesting to see if it reaches legal thresholds required to ticket and/or arrest.”

But, as I argued in an earlier post, the practices of patrolling officers seem to reflect those same disparities (although, the role of community members in perpetuating racism should also be taken seriously). This can only lead to a situation where the algorithms merely reflect and hone actually existing ideas and spatial imaginaries about who commits crimes and where. And I don’t doubt that these systems will produce arrest statistics to back up their claims, but whose interests are they serving?

As Ellen Huet observes in Forbes:

Police departments pay around $10,000 to $150,000 a year to gain access to these red boxes, having heard that other departments that do so have seen double-digit drops in crime. It’s impossible to know if PredPol prevents crime, since crime rates fluctuate, or to know the details of the software’s black-box algorithm, but budget-strapped police chiefs don’t care. Santa Cruz saw burglaries drop by 11% and robberies by 27% in the first year of using the software. “I’m not really concerned about the formulas,” said Atlanta Police Chief George Turner, who implemented the software in July 2013. “That’s not my business. My business is to fight crime in my city.”

I think it’s time to be concerned.


Toward a geographical software studies

A series of sessions for the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers in San Francisco, March 29-April 2, 2016

Ryan Burns (Temple University)
Nick Lally (University of Wisconsin–Madison)

A growing body of recent geographic scholarship has focused its attention on software and algorithms. Some of these studies analyze geographic technologies —GIS and the geoweb, for example— as such, while others investigate a myriad of digital technologies that have become ubiquitous within the spaces of everyday life. These software/code objects interact with and modulate the world in complex ways, enact processes that connect humans and nonhumans, and become entangled with social, cultural, political, and economic systems. Moreover, software created to visualize data is used to produce knowledge about urban environments and everyday life, but obscure the processes and contexts which underlie its development. Engaging these topics, geographers have developed concepts like the “automatic production of space” (Thrift and French 2002), “software-sorted geographies” (Graham 2005), and “code/space” (Kitchin and Dodge 2011) to describe how software and space are co-constituted in the contemporary world. Productive research is building on these topics to explore new ways geographies are produced (Rose, Degen, and Melhuish 2014), governed (Amoore 2011), materialized, represented (Woodward et al. 2015), and lived through software (Kinsley 2014).

This session seeks to bring together a range of spatial thinkers who are producing new studies, theories, and methods for understanding and producing software. We welcome submissions that address all facets of software: the context of its production, its internal operational logics, the material work it does in the world, and its spatial distribution of social and political effects. Suggested themes could include:

• Radical, feminist, or postcolonial political theories of software, software production, and/or hacking. What are the liberatory potentials/limits of coding or software and its critiques?
• The political economy of software, code, attentional economies, and the audience as commodity.
• Methodological contributions for the study of software (deconstruction, ethnography, reading code, reverse-engineering, archival research, hacking, writing software, visual studies, understanding processes, online research, etc)
• Software and visual and affective epistemology.
• The materiality of software and the work it does in the world (the production of space, embodiment, urbanization, social sorting, securitization, infrastructure, etc).

Amoore, L. 2011. Data Derivatives: On the Emergence of a Security Risk Calculus for Our Times. Theory, Culture & Society 28 (6):24–43.

Graham, S. D. 2005. Software-sorted geographies. Progress in Human Geography 29 (5):562–580.

Kitchin, R., and M. Dodge. 2011. Code/space: software and everyday life. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Kinsley, S. 2014. The Matter of “Virtual” Geographies. Progress in Human Geography 38(3): 364-384.

Rose, G., M. Degen, and C. Melhuish. 2014. Networks, interfaces, and computer-generated images: learning from digital visualisations of urban redevelopment projects. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 32 (3):386–403.

Thrift, N., and S. French. 2002. The automatic production of space. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 27 (3):309–335.

Woodward, K., J. P. Jones, L. Vigdor, S. A. Marston, H. Hawkins, and D. P. Dixon. 2015. One Sinister Hurricane: Simondon and Collaborative Visualization. Annals of the Association of American Geographers :1–16.

Please submit a 250 word abstract to Nick (nlally [AT] wisc [DOT] edu) and Ryan (ryan.burns [AT] temple [DOT] edu) by October 9th, 2015.


Madison, WI is home to some of the worst racial disparities in policing, incarceration, education, poverty, and employment in the country (see the Race to Equity report or the Wisconsin State Journal summary). In the last year, paralleling the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, groups like the Young Gifted and Black Coalition (YBG) have organized to address these disparities through direct action, training, coalition building, and education. One of their demands is for the Dane County Jail to release 350 Black prisoners to reflect the demographics of the county, where Black people make up 6% of the county population and nearly 50% of the jail population.

In an open letter to the Madison Police Chief, YGB recognizes the role of policing practices in producing these disparities, citing reports that show Black people in the county are eight times more likely to be arrested than whites (this number is probably closer to eleven in the city of Madison). In response, they call for self-determination and an end to interactions with the police. In his patronizing response, Madison Police Chief Koval instead vows to increase police presence in neighborhoods of color, denying the role of policing practices in producing and/or upholding the city’s longstanding disparities. Similarly, Mayor Soglin has dismissed such critiques, saying racial bias in policing is “the wrong question to be asked,” instead deferring blame onto “the entire criminal justice system.”

With these divergent views on policing in mind, I began searching through police incident reports to see if they would reveal spatial or racial patterns of policing. I was particularly interested in revealing police patrol patterns to substantiate claims made by YGB and others that communities of color are over-policed. Patrol patterns are not made public by the city, but as others have observed, the presence of police in affluent Madison neighborhoods is minimal. To gather the data, I first keyword searched and then read police incident reports to determine incidents that happened while an officer was on patrol, not precipitated by a service call. I then searched court records to determine the race of those arrested (only cases that went to trial showed up on this search, which accounted for about 75% of incidents) and mapped the results. I found that arrests were clustered on the busy East Washington Avenue that traverses the isthmus, the bar and restaurant-filled State Street that connects campus with the Capitol building, and three communities in South Madison with high Black populations. I also found profound racial disparities in who was targeted and arrested in patrol stops, mirroring the findings in the Race to Equity report.


click to enlarge

Of course, there are limitations to this map. First, it is based on a limited amount of data, in large part because incident reports do not necessarily indicate when an officer was on patrol. Only through keyword searches and close readings was I able to build this database. Second, incidents only enter the city database if they are deemed to have “significant public interest.” The criteria for this categorization, as far as I am aware, is not made explicit by the city. Third, many incidents involved multiple people, which is not represented on this map. And last, I have not yet attempted to map the spatial distribution of the race of those involved, which may reveal other patterns. Despite these limitations, the map does reveal patterns that substantiate claims of uneven policing across the city.


The last year has found me fully immersed in the process of writing—a process that is constantly evolving as I experiment with new ways of thinking through words. I have been particularly interested in the ways that this blog might become part of that process. Beyond the more modest ambitions of opening a space to share work outside of academic paywall systems, encouraging me to develop a more regular writing practice, connecting with others in a more immediate way, and providing a place to assemble and test out ideas, I’m interested in the ways that blogging might push my thinking in new directions. Lauren Berlant, in reference to her blog Supervalent Thought, observes in an interview:

Supervalent Thought was an attempt for me to learn how to write, which is to say to learn better ways of mediating all the things I can bring to address a problem – in particular problems of seeing the subject constituted in non-sovereignty, in relationality, in the middle of the affective event. I think the practice of it has changed my writing a lot – one way I can tell this is that when I am writing I tend not to be blogging. I work on my entries, usually, for a long time. Because they really are thought by way of writing, and not just thought in writing, not just opinion.There was a little polemicism in the beginning, because I was writing during an intensively political season: but generally I see the blog entry as a staging area for feeling out the contours of a problem that was raised in an encounter. As for readers: I am really happy to be read, and occasionally the comment section induces interesting responses, but it’s also constrained, a little monologuish. I get lots of provocative email about entries, but I don’t write hoping to induce a response. I write hoping to move a problem somewhere, and in moving to open it up to different kinds of encounter with it, which changes its resonance and consequence and thereby its very structure.

Derek Gregory, who writes nearly everyday on his blog Geographical Imaginations, similarly reflects on his experience of blogging and its impact on his writing in a 2012 entry. In a more recent post, writing for a new book titled How We Write, blogging again is mentioned as an important part of his writing process.

And so begins this experiment in form, a public research notebook, really, which will contain and connect various issues in software, geography, politics, theory, visuality, and art, alongside the occasional bicycle.


For more discussions on academic blogging, see Sam Kinsley’s blog post “Being a Sharing Academic,” which links to a lot of good resources, including Anne Galloway’s dissertation chapter on blogging.