Mapping the Missing Middle: Subjective Geography & Variable Scale

by Kurt

So you are visiting San Diego, but where should you stay? No, not: which hotel … but which neighborhood? And which other neighborhoods do you want to visit on your trip? At one extreme, we have global, national, regional and city maps that show us a static picture of bland geographical basics. At the other end of the spectrum, we have local neighborhood, street and block maps featuring confusing pointillist specifics.¬†What do these have in common?

dots on a map

Neither of these scales gives us a way to find our way by feel through a city or area – to identify places to visit or live based on subjective factors relevant to living, working and playing. From large-scale maps we can make inferences about available transportation and broad features of the landscape, but get no sense of a neighborhood. From small-scale apps we can learn hyper-local information, and slowly build up a map of where, for instances, we might find different densities of certain business types.

middle scale neighborhood mapping

At the missing interstitial scales of zoom, something is, well, missing. Manual attempts exist that fill those gaps, including neighborhood overview maps and descriptions – a limited, though at least dynamic version, can be found on sites like WikiTravel (or WikiVoyage). Other attempts at more subjective mapping tend to have dots – sometimes dots within dots (aggregation into meta-dots at larger scales), but dots all the way down, all the same. See: WalkScore, Walkonomics, CrimeMapping and many others. These dots, while information-rich, ultimately become pointed overlays cluttering the scene and obscuring the base map itself.

dots all the way down

A solution to bridge this gap should incorporate that rich complexity and dynamic subjectivity of existing subjective maps (see; FourSquare and Yelp!), but with the broad view and organizing data of traditional large-scale maps. It should be as informative as current hybrid intermediate options, or more, but operate with scalar versatility. Its break points should evolve organically out of the needs of its users.

subjective san diego neighborhoods

The missing map needs to be the best of both worlds – comprehensive and useful at a glance, like large static maps, but also suggestive and evolving, like small dynamic maps. Imagine something that users contribute to not just at the single-business scale, but at all scales – something that can be zoomed and retain relevance and usefulness. Now ask yourself: why does this not already exist?