As a source for critique, I have chosen Habitat Map, a wiki-based mapping and social networking platform aimed at charting various measures of what the site terms “environmental quality of life”. These characteristics that fall under the category of “environmental quality of life” range widely, from the positive – things like parks, access to waterfronts, greenmarkets, businesses using sustainable practices, etc – to the negative – things like sewage treatment facilities, waste transfer stations, brownfields, point-source pollution, and so on.

As one can quickly see, the site is quite wide-ranging in it’s subject matter and in it’s content, reflecting both the complex nature of modern environmental awareness as well as the “wiki” nature of the site’s construction and growth. If users are interested in certain environmental aspects, then the site will reflect that. In some ways, the site has the potential not only to chart environmental hazards and assets, but also to chart the public interest in and engagement with, various types of environmental issues. Presumably, the site is capable of tracking the number of people who interact with a given set of markers, maps, and discussion topics presented on the site.

The site itself is relatively simple, straightforward, and cleanly designed. It’s main functions are to not only provide information to those seeking to learn about their own or nearby neighborhoods, but to go a step further and to encourage visitors to the site to become not just users but contributors. The goal is to encourage close observation of one’s own neighborhood, and to use to mapping system to communicate the results of those observations.

This is important in addressing environmental issues, because so much is unknown, incomplete, or in flux, when dealing with environmental conditions. Emerging problems are often first diagnosed by local residents; Habitat Map aids in this process by providing people with a tool to gather their knowledge and observations, thus allowing for action to be taken more quickly if need be.

The site is centered around creating and using maps, and both functions are equally easy to engage with. There are a group of featured maps that are posted on the front page for exploration, such as a map charting where the sewage from one’s toilet will travel in New York City; or “Creek Speak” an oral history/documentary project that interviewed local residents about the history of the area in relation to environmental hazards associated with industry around Newtown Creek.

Beyond perusing user-generated maps, one can also search the map and marker collection by keyword or address. BY searching within the “maps” tab, the results bring up maps created by user around certain themes, which have been delineated via the tags associated with the maps. Searching via the “markers” tab yields results drawn from the entire database of Habitat Map markers that have been created. this distinction is important because the former allows one to view what are intended to be either completed or still growing collections organized around a theme, such as “vapor intrusion in Greenpoint, Brooklyn”; or “Combined Sewage Overflows in New York City”. The latter search function, on the other hand, can give one a window into a wider phenomenon than the creator of a given map have been aware of. Searching “brownfields” in the “marker” tab will return results beyond New York City, showing that the “Brownfields in New York City” map is really only shows the tip of the iceberg in terms of potentially understanding how widespread brownfields really are.

A really nice addition to the search function is what Habitat Map dubs the “current search Tag Cloud”. This list appears below the search box, and gives a list of terms associated with your search, each term given a different size to correspond to its frequency of use. This feature is essential in both the world of environmental studies, in which many environmental factors are closely related to each other, though such relationships may not be common knowledge amongst Habitat Map users; and in the world of creating and using wikimaps. The potential downside of wikimapping is that the data added to the map lacks the rigorousness generally associated with maps; thus the potential for gaps or biases in knowledge looms large. The Tag Cloud feature remediates this somewhat, as it implicitly makes one aware of the potential limitations of a given search, pointing one toward related items that may be of use or interest.

The final important addition to this map is the “social networking” style that it adopts. Users are encouraged to create logins with profiles, and to use the “forum” feature to raise issues and engage each other in discussion. This has great potential for a site like Habitat Map because the aim of the site is to foster engagement with one’s local community and neighbors about the physical spaces that they live in. Also, as mentioned before, in the realm of environmental awareness and activism, having as full a set of information as possible is essential, whether that information comes from official sources or research bodies; or whether it comes from the observations and ideas of a person who lives down the street.

Beyond the discussion of issues via the forum section, Habitat Map allows users to engage directly with the site and with each other by letting them create their own maps and markers with ease. Creating an account and logging in takes only a minute, and one can begin inputting data, creating markers, and crafting maps right away. This allows for dialogue and information sharing to take place on a basic level, as the notion of a hierarchy of data is done away with: instead of relying on the map to provide the user with information, the user can inform the map and begin, along with other users, to create connections between neighborhoods and quality of life characteristics that may not have previously existed or been apparent. The site also makes exporting, sharing, and embedding of maps (along with the relevant data points) simple to carry out; while the coding of the actual site may not be open source, the entire project, in spirit at least, is certainly open to use and reuse.

There are some drawbacks and weaknesses to the open approach that Habitat Maps takes, at least in terms of how the maps and related data are to be regarded. The completeness and accuracy of any given piece of data must be questioned and verified by any users who intend to rely on Habitat map as a source for factual information or hard data. Fortunately, much of the hard-data-related material is well-sourced, with links to the relevant studies or surveys being cited. That said, there is also the issue of what happens when information changes, or the status of certain locations evolve over time. Will the admins be able to update sites as they are remediated? Or will this burden fall upon users? This is a major issue that the site will face as it expands in the future. Related to this is the fact that historical patterns cannot be depicted on the maps created; Habitat Map is intended to depict an ever-evolving present state of local environments and as such, is not equipped to show how areas have changed over time.

This final point brings me to potential applications for my own work and research. My own project is heavily reliant upon historical data in order to show patterns of growth, migration, industry, and consumption; without being able to incorporate this kind of information, my work would merely be a display of current infrastructure and usage rates. That is perfectly useful as such, but would not meet my interests in understanding how change occurs in technological urban environments. I think that, for Habitat Map in particular, and for environmental issues in general, this lack of historicity is not a severe drawback, since a major component of environmental advocacy is communicating a comprehensive understanding of present conditions and developing strategies to mitigate undesirable situations. One does not necessarily have to understand the environmental history of a given place to know how to work against present-day environmental hazards. However, I think that historical information of this sort could be very useful for a site like Habitat Map, in that patterns can begin to coalesce once historical information is brought into dialogue with the present status of given sites. For instance, if certain hazards are detected on a given site, and those toxins are linked to a certain type of building material or industrial process, it becomes easier to identify other potentially contaminated sites by simply searching the historical records for other sites that had that type of structure or industrial process occupying it. This would aid in systematically identifying locations to be tested for various toxins, which is an expensive and time-consuming process. Very often, environmental hazards are only detected because, for often arbitrary reasons, that location was tested; the hazards could very well exist outside of the test radius or on a different site, but this remains unknown.

Habitat Map does not seem to have the capacity to overlay entire maps in order to give a sense of what existed in places at a previous point in time. I attempted to combine maps from Habitat map with fire insurance maps from the New York Public Library (these kinds of maps tell you what kind of building existed on every lot in the city, what its primary function was, and what it was built out of) but I then ran into what must be a very common and frustrating problem for those working with maps: the two maps did not match up! The proportions of given blocks as well as shorelines did not translate accurately between the maps, and so it was very difficult to lay one on top of another and hope to achieve any kind of accuracy. This problem is illustrated in the implementation of the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps onto a google earth platform, developed by Yale University students. The maps do not overlay in the way that hypercities maps do; instead, one first sees the city broken into districts, with each district linking to a map that is viewed in a separate window. What I would eventually like to see developed is a system that can take both the present-day markers used by Habitat Map, combined with not only the historical maps, but also the data included in those maps; this way, history and the present could begin a dialogue in relation to environmental hazards, and new patterns can begin to emerge between past activities and their present-day legacies.