Redrawing boundaries — real and imagined — with digital artist Jer Thorp at the St. Louis Map Room | St. Louis Public Radio

Redrawing boundaries — real and imagined — with digital artist Jer Thorp at the St. Louis Map Room

Feb 14, 2017

Take any given day of the week: What route do you take to work? How do you get to the grocery store? What secret, traffic-free pathways do you take to get to school?

Do you remember how you decided which way to go? What to avoid? Have you thought about what subtle factors influenced those decisions?

These questions are all foundational to a new collaboration between the New York-based Office of Creative Research, St. Louis-based Center of Creative Arts (COCA) and the St. Louis Public Schools called the St. Louis Map Room.

Noted digital artist and designer Jer Thorp is the lead designer of the project. You may know him from his work with the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. His data algorithm made it possible for the names of those who died in the attacks to be placed “meaningfully adjacent” to people who had connections in life.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Thorp spoke with Brent Jones, St. Louis Public Radio’s data visual specialist, about his work with the St. Louis Map Room and how he seeks to “make data more human.”

Thorp said the 9/11 Memorial was his first foray into making data — an often esoteric field of study — meaningful in a human sense, not solely for its aesthetic beauty.

“I don’t know if there is a more human project than that, than the memorial,” Thorp said. “It is a real foundation of what we are as humans to want to remember those we’ve lost. It changed my thinking … this was the first inklings of an idea that data and humans are deeply connected.”

His project with the memorial brought data into the public eye in a moving way. That’s part of the impetus behind the St. Louis Map Room, which Thorp has been working on in earnest for the past two years.

How the St. Louis Map Room will work

On March 3, the St. Louis Map Room will open in the auditorium/gym of the shuttered Stevens Middle School, near Vandeventer on Whittier. It will stay free and open to the public through April 9, 2017

The essential premise of the project is this: community members will be invited to come into the room to make really large maps (10 x 10 ft.) with the help of drawing robots. These maps will hopefully reflect the creators’ “lived experience” of the city — where they live, where they go to school, what they do each day. After the map is made, people can project various publicly-available data sets onto the canvas to reveal the context of the area you can’t see with the naked eye, or data that has changed over time.

“For example, you might be able to ask ‘what did this neighborhood look like in 1916?’ and we can show you an aerial of the neighborhood taken from the balloon,” Thorp said. “You might ask, ‘how did that neighborhood change from 1916 to now?’ We can show you how population changed, how income levels changed, how vacancy and real estate patterns changed.”

Click through the slideshow above for a look at mock-ups of the project site.

All in all there will be 30 data sets you can project upon the maps. There are some funny ones, too, like a map of every tree in the city or all the underground rivers.

“You can understand the context of this place you live through the lens of data,” Thorp said. “Again, you do it not alone, but with a group.”

Community groups and school groups will be invited to come make 50 maps. Once they are made, other passerby can come take a map made by one of the groups and apply data sets to the canvases.

Jer Thorp is the lead designer on the St. Louis Map Room project.
Credit Courtesy COCA

Thorp gave an example of a map made by a group of 13-year-olds who show how they walk to school each day. After the map is made, a normal person or even, say, a city planner could walk by that map and overlay traffic pattern data sets to the map. You might find that kids walk to school each day near really busy roads. Thorp hopes those realizations will prompt conversations about how St. Louis could be changed for the better.

Thorp, who is Canadian, didn’t know much about St. Louis when he started the project aside from aerial shots of the city he saw while watching hockey games. He said he’s been surprised to learn about the divided geography of the city, particularly about the Delmar Divide.

It is an easy thing to say that any city is defined by maps that are drawn but this one, much more than others, is defined by boundaries, some of them real and some of them not real,” Thorp said.

Related: How do the routes we take every day contribute to oppression? A conversation with Tabari Coleman

Thorp hopes that people will use the Map Room to negotiate some of those real boundaries (like rivers and highways) and imagined boundaries (like the St. Louis City/St. Louis County divide).

“I hope enough people get into this space and talk about issues and those conversations lead to real change in the city,” Thorp said. “I hope we open the flood gates in the city about people talking about this not only in our space but over their dinner table and in their schools and in their offices.”

What will the Map Room give St. Louis?

Thorp said he also hopes to expose people to the different experiences of those who live in places in the city you may never go. He said that, normally, when a person finds a map they only zoom in to find where they live and what directly impacts them.

"You can understand the context of this place you live through the lens of data."- Jer Thorp

“That tends to be the limit of our engagement with civic data: go find yourself on that map and then you’re done,” Thorp said.  “What this allows you to do is to climb into the shoes of hundreds of others of St. Louis citizens and see them on the map, their lives on the map, their experience on the map …you can get many, many, many ways of experiencing this data. You might look at a neighborhood you never looked at before.”

When the project closes, the city will be left with 50 of the created maps that Thorp hopes will enter the official archive of the city as a document of this point in time in St. Louis’ history.

On a broader scale, the platform of the project will be available open-source to any city that should choose to replicate it. That means the software, hardware, curriculum development and letters of recruitment will be shared freely with other cities. You could eventually see a Flint Map Room or a Mexico City Map Room, Thorp said.

Want to participate in the St. Louis Map Room? You can contact TWatkins@cocastl.org.

Related Event

What: The St. Louis Map Room

Where: Stevens Middle School, 1033 Whittier St, St. Louis, MO. 63113

When: March 3 – April 9, 2017

More information.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.