The Ground Truth

When I first began mapping rooftop farms, one of my first questions was whether they would be visible from a satellite image. Lo and behold, right there on the trapezoid roof below are the neatly planted rows of the Brooklyn Grange located at 37-18 Northern Blvd in LIC, Queens. From this height, the produce looks more like mold than kale, but I still gasped when it came into view.

My attempt to zoom in as much as possible to see a recognizable vegetable warped me into Google Street View and I was left with the drab facade of the Standard Motor Products building. Walking down Northern Blvd, you would never know that one of the world’s largest rooftop farms was less than a block away – a block directly up.

Headlines and conversation around rooftop farming often asks one to “look up”. However, a walking tour of rooftop farms would be quite boring without scaling the wall or an elevator ride. As my project progresses, the tension between these two views has been just asking for a cartographic argument. Somehow the project has found it’s way into the gutter (with the mapping of gutterspaces) and then high up above where it is more accurate to “look down”. At both extremes, the scale of real estate and the contours of space take on mere shapes. Then, there is navigating everything in between.

In The Atlantic’s article, How Google Builds Its Maps-and What It Means for the Future of Everything, the senior product manager for Google Maps, Manik Gupta says, “Increasingly as we go about our lives, we are trying to bridge that gap between what we see in the real world and [the online world] and Maps really plays that part.” The article is a first glimpse into the “Ground Truth, the secretive program to build the world’s best accurate maps”.

OpenStreetMap, a globally crowd-sourced map, which I’ve come to know dearly through our beloved URT is Google’s main competitor. Both maps are dependent on what the Atlantic article calls a “recombination of human intelligence.”

Humans are coding every bit of the logic of the road onto a representation of the world so that computers can simply duplicate (infinitely, instantly) the judgments that a person already made.

It is a race for accuracy. It is a stratifying of ground truths, fake terrain that you will eventually have to excavate when you find you have something to look for. Either the subjective truth of crowd sourced data or the programmed augmented reality of algorithmic human logic, navigating through all this accuracy can be mind-numbing, indulgent, and addictive without the right (urban research) tools.

I honestly think we’re seeing a more profound change, for map-making, than the switch from manuscript to print in the Renaissance,” University of London cartographic historian Jerry Brotton told the Sydney Morning Herald. “That was huge. But this is bigger.

1 Comment

  • Another beautiful post, Christine! I’m so impressed that, even during this end-of-semester rush, you’re still able to step back and reconnect your work (I imagine you’re in the midst of the less-than-thrilling “data entry” stage of map development!) to larger theoretical issues — that you’re able to critically reflect on the larger epistemological project you’re involved in here. If only we had one more class at the end of the semester, we all could benefit from this kind of reflection; thanks for modeling it for us!