New Projections: The Big View of Mapping Now - Frank Romo
New Projections: It’s said that a master architect would always give the advice to his students, that when they were done with the mock ups and the drawings to go ahead and take a step back, and see how a building fits on that block. Take a few more steps back and see how it visualizes with the neighborhood, and then try and pull back even farther and see how it nestles into the city.
On today we get to speak with Frank Romo, an educator, GIS specialist, map maker… fascinating character, and a guy who very much gets this idea of pulling back and seeing how your work impacts it’s surroundings. You might almost call him a meta-mapper in a way.
The interesting thing is, he has his eyes on getting you, the listener, involved in his maps as well. What follows is a portion of a conversation with Frank Romo.
New Projections: We came across and started posting a project of yours a few months back, which was the Black Lives Matter online map. Again this is kind of the unknowable(?) event happening in 2020. It feels huge here, it feels huge for us, but the map that you provided gave so much reassurance that, “Oh, we’re not an anomaly.” Because all of a sudden Ogallala, Nebraska, Pecos, Texas, all the way through New England in the west coast, all of them were experiencing the same thing. How did you come up with an idea, and how did you begin to think of how to visualize this?
Frank Romo: Well, I think it starts from, if I may, it starts from my background as a community organizer and activist. I’ve been a long-time organizer and activist, grew up in Los Angeles, California, and while I was living there I did a lot of work in local community fights for civil rights and better access to healthy food, and fight against environmental toxins in the neighborhood, things like that. So, I have a background in organizing and a lot of my research actually is focused on this idea of race and policing and the intersection of those. I did a master's thesis at the University of Michigan that focused on race and policing and urban space. So I’m very familiar with the topic, something that’s very close to my heart as well.
So when things started to occur after May 25, 2020, after the George Floyd incident, there was just something that clicked in my mind where, again because I’m familiar with the data, because I follow these kind of movements, because I know people who are actively engaged in the movement, I’ve worked with community organizations in the movement, there was just something this time around that felt very different. And, you know, I’ve watched this happen, unfortunately, over and over again in my home city of Los Angeles, across the nation over the past few years. And this time it was just, something felt different.
Almost immediately you saw the major cities pop up, right? And you see these, kind of see this wave, right? LA, Chicago, New York, DC, cities with large populations, people of color. But also with folks who probably have had, where you have some difficult community and police relations, you know. So you would expect those cities to pop off the map and voice their opinion and speak out and protest and demonstrate. But then, you know, the next day came and the next day came, and as you mentioned, there were protests that appeared in places like Nebraska and South Dakota and smaller cities here in Michigan. And so when you started to see that I was like, “Hm, something might be going on a little different.”
And, you know, you get into day three and day four, and all of a sudden it wasn’t slowing down, it was ramping up! And, you know, a lot of it culminated that first weekend, within that first 7-10 days there was just so many and I just said, “Hey this is happening!” I can feel, just from my experience as an organizer and being in the movement I was like, “This is different something different is happening here.”
So I got to my analyst and I was like, “Let’s go track these down.” And we had used some Twitter information, we used some scraping of websites, and we used any information that was available to us to kind of get all of these pieces, right? Because we wanted to get the latitude and longitude, we wanted to get local news source. Because again, we could find information on LA, Chicago, New York. But, you know, smaller cities…
New Projections: Yeah but my favorite(?) was, how affects Nova Scotia or St. John’s in Newfoundland, they too. I think we’re having protests now.
Frank Romo: Right absolutely. And so, you know, it started like, and that’s where we ended up leading up to is going worldwide because we saw some of these popping up in small cities across the US. So we did, you know, our due diligence. We pulled information from social media, we pulled information from local news sources. And then, as far as the mapping interface goes, one of the things that was really implemented at the very beginning was the crowdsourcing piece. Because, we realized, we just didn’t have the bandwidth to map all of these and verify all of these. And me, as a map maker I’m very diligent, so I wasn’t going to put something on a map where we didn’t have a source, where we didn’t have something that was very clear about where we got out our information from because I don’t want to mislead folks.
So, we found all the 100, 200, 400, as it expanded, all these locations. And then we went to each little city and then we said, “Okay, let’s find a local newspaper.” Because again, the local news media has better understanding of the context in which this is happening, and can provide us, better feedback than maybe, if it was in 2-3 cities surrounding the major capital then, you know the capital, or let’s say here in Michigan: Lansing. There was protests there and in Detroit, and in some of the major cities. But, what about the smaller cities and how do we find out what’s actually going on there? And again the context there is very different because in some cases these were a lot of allies speaking up in some of these cities which are, they are predominantly not people of color and predominantly folks who maybe have not participated in this kind of action or movement before. That’s where, I think, we saw the real like “whoa” or the “aha” moment where it was like, “Whoa, there are thousands and thousands of people who are standing in solidarity with this movement.”
And, you know, as it progressed, I started to stay up til like two or three in the morning to kind of watch how things were going and sure enough there were stuff going on in Australia, and in Berlin, and in all these different continents! And I was like, “Wow this is really happening.” So that’s kind of how we got started with the project.
New Projections: And it harkens back for me, too. Well, I suppose the beautiful thing is, this is something that’s indicative of our age and is… can apply a different texture of understanding to things that had never existed before. You know, in the past it was one of those things where, like in the late 60s - early 70s there might have been turmoil and bombings and fire and this, that, and the other. But, Walter Cronkite is not going to report that to you, that happened in Saskatoon. He’s not going to mention what happened in rural Idaho. But all of a sudden, when you have a layer of understanding that expands, it’s the old cliche of, sometimes, capacity of a greater number ends up becoming something totally different, once you reach kind of a critical mass of an amount, it takes on a whole different quality of impact. But also, it kind of takes on a whole different historical significance which, in the past we never had the tools to collect and display the information all in one place, which is a huge difference.
Frank Romo: Right. I agree 100% I think you’re absolutely right about that critical mass and I think that’s kind of what I felt kind of in my bones or in my thought process like, “Whoa, this is going toward a peak of a critical mass” and that’s when I knew that we needed to start documenting.
And to your point, in the past we didn’t have some of these technologies so you would get the reports of Chicago, New York, LA but, you know, Sioux Falls, South Dakota or wherever else, you might not be able to know that even happened. And, you know, if you’re not in tune with it or know somebody who live there, and now, it’s different. And so one of the things we wanted to do was also provide the opportunity to crowdsource information because, as I said, we didn’t have, really, the bandwidth to keep up as it was happening. And so, on the map we allowed folks to click on a point.
It’s either two ways: we allowed folks to kind of click on a point that didn’t have the validation. For instance, that didn’t have a news source, didn’t have information. For instance, we had a hunch, we had a lead, that there was a protest or demonstration there, but there was no valid source. So we had a point there and allowed folks to click on a point, then it redirected them to a survey, and they were able to give us information. “Hey do you have a image? Hey do you have a source?” And then we gathered information that way.
And then the other option was: “Hey, click on this button, and add a point to the map.” And we allowed folks to add a point to the map. And in doing that, it was the same idea. “Do you have a image? Do you have a date? Do you have a source?” And in that way we were able to kind of double up. We had our analyst working internally to spot check and verify. While at the same time we were trying to collect data from folks who were actually out there.
And I think, to your point about this critical mass and this technology, one of the things that really felt was that the technology really allowed people to feel more engaged. Because, when somebody goes...when somebody looks at the map, the first thing they do is look at their home or their city or someplace that they are familiar with, right? It’s a part of orienting themselves, but it’s also a part of, “Hey, this is what I’m interested in.” So I think…
New Projections: “This is my experience”
Frank Romo: Absolutely, so like, putting the points on a map, or allowing folks to put their own points on a map, it allows them to be empowered about participating in that demonstration or showing their support for that movement, because like, some folks might not be out there on the streets but they might be documenting it and might want to help document it. So just like with every other movement, everybody has their own role.
And so, for me, I felt that my role was to try to bring folks together, show them the visualization, and try to engage people in whatever way they could. So if they wanted to submit photos, if they wanted to submit new points on the map, they could do so. And so the goal was that everybody could look back and say, “Hey look, I added that point to the map!” Or, “Hey, I was at that protest in, you know, Birmingham, Alabama. I was at that that protest.”
There’s a sense of pride, there’s a sense of also this historic moment like, “Hey I was there.” And I think that brings a lot of folks together in solidarity.
New Projections: To the, for me it’s still that whole thing of breadth. I mean, it’s true that quantity makes a different quality. But, the thing for me is, it always gets down to, well, it’s easy enough to go, “Oh, you know those cities. Cities, you know, are just rebellious, you know. Their just always problems in cities.” Well this contradicts that. It contradicts the fact that this is just some small, urban problem that people complain about. This starts to stretch it out and it almost…it’s rolling it open to a level, I think, that’s uncomfortable but that’s never perceived in the past. And that’s, too, it comes down to legitimizing people’s experience in the urban setting.
Another project that you guys produced related to Detroit. Is there, as one who still has family in the Detroit area, I am very sensitive when Detroit slander happens. And I have to say, it’s a lot more complicated, and people’s lives are a lot more complicated. We always seek to kind of boil things down and make it simple in black and white. But the texture and quality of life, how the kind of warp and woof of things intertwine, is a lot more complex.
You did a murals project in Detroit and it always hits me, when you think of, especially young people, that this becomes the iconography that imprints itself. It’s what you see on the bus, this is what you see going to work, this is what you see when you’re coming home from school. And these all become points in your life that are geographical reference points.
And, can you talk a bit about how you came up with this idea? Because this gives you, if you want to get into the skin and deep into Detroit and understand, look at its art, look at the aesthetic that it kind of wraps itself in. How did this get going?
Frank Romo: Absolutely, I appreciate you bringing up that. I mean everything you said is absolutely right. I think these images of the city and of people’s daily life, it becomes a part of who they are, right? If you ask somebody to draw a mental map of their neighborhood or their route to work, they’d probably put that mural on the map. “It’s somewhere here and it looks something like this.” One of the things that I always do with my students, I have them draw a mental map of their neighborhood to see like how they envision themselves in the urban space, etc.
So I think that’s absolutely right. You see these things everyday. It tells a lot about the artist, it tells a lot about the people, it tells a lot about the heart of the city. And me, coming from Los Angeles, it’s very similar. I think folks get taken aback when I say this, I say it a lot, but Detroit reminds me a lot of Los Angeles. It’s sprawling, it’s very car-centric, you have these murals everywhere. There’s a lot of commonalities there. And so being from Los Angeles, I saw a lot of murals, and also even in my community, in Mexican-American community, murals are very much a point of pride, and a point of showing your ethnic background, showing your heritage, showing your history. You see that here in the same, in Detroit as well. Where you have folks who are showing their history, showing the history of the city, showing the victories through people who are, who have been part of the civil rights movement, who have fought for justice. And, you know, they are points of empowerment.
And one of the reasons why I did the project in Detroit, the Murals in Detroit project, was because, murals in themselves have a transient kind of property. Because they are on buildings that may not, whoever the artist may be, it is highly, it is often unlikely that they own the building which they are painting on. And what that entails is that, if somebody sells the building, if someone decides to paint it, or something happens to the building, if it gets demolished, all of a sudden that art is gone. And now that mural that you’ve seen everyday going to work for the past five years is gone, when you go to work, and how does that make like a community member feel? I know for me, I’m like “man I really loved that mural, I’m sad that it’s gone.”
New Projections: Yeah, which starts getting us back to that whole thing of cities and those kind of layers of change that happened. As you kind of addressed, building to building. But as we’ve been seeing, you know, repeopling, gentrification, however you would like to term it. You end up with these kind of washes of people groups, that kind of come into a city and wash out. Some that endure and impact and others that kind of…
I guess that’s the thing with the murals map, was all of a sudden, for me, as an old head, when I saw images of Mr. Malcom or if I saw images of Dr. King, there was something deep down that really felt grounded to me. It really made me feel stable at home. Or the one that really caught me was somebody had done a mural that included Aretha and then her dad C.L. Franklin, the late, great minister. And there was something that was like, that’s the deep roots. I understand, with younger heads when it come to do like, a cool geometric pattern with contrasting colors. But for us, I guess for older people like myself, it’s the thing of seeing Jesus, next to Harriet Tubman, next to Dr. King, and so on and so forth. And that was, to me, was the thing of a storytelling that you would never get, you know, just by walking the streets. And maybe as neighborhoods change, you know, the people that were rooted in that understanding, maybe that leaves too.
It seems like you’ve made something that’s really, it’s about art but it’s also about time and people moving. It’s about all those changes. Which, I guess, just say LA - if you want an instance of a city constantly changing itself.
Frank Romo: Absolutely, I think you’re absolutely right. You know, the project tries to, you know we want it to be fun, we want it to be exciting, and we let folks take pictures and they can hashtag it Murals in Detroit and we can add it to the map. You can see though, this is kind of where that crowdsourcing idea comes from, like, even in the protest map it bleeds through. And again with the protests, with the murals, with the artwork, with regards to the Black Lives Matter movement, we added that to the protest map afterwards because it all kind of blends together, right? There’s this history. I’m an urban planner but I consider myself to be a geographer. And there’s this history of space, right? The action, the fight, the struggle, the overcoming of certain things that happen in these spaces, need to be recognized.
And the murals the maps, what we try to do is try to acknowledge that and commit it to collective memory because, as you said, with regard to the murals, if there is this change in population and all of a sudden somebody wants to take a mural down. And one of the ones I was really sad that came down was really famous boxer, Joe Louis, there was a real nice mural of him and it’s no longer there, it’s a new painting but it’s for like an advertisement. And I was really sad to see it go. And I’m not from Detroit but I know who Joe Louis is, and I know that he was a great impact on this city, and to see that go I was like, “Aw man.” But, you know, what made me happy was we catalogued it and I have that image forever now on the site. And it’s great to be able to say, “Hey, we still have, you know, this history is still here.” Because you never know what that kind of image of somebody who has overcome, of somebody who is a champion, of someone who has succeeded, you never know what those kind of visual cues, how they can inspire somebody, or how they can change somebody’s life.
New Projections: Or how they can hamper someone. We’ve had discussions about, especially, and listeners don’t take this wrong. I think in some older countries especially, there is a batch of iconography of old titans of industry. Of people that had, were ridiculously wealthy and made some beneficial donation. And they become the people that indeed… those statues start to turn into sort of a weight. I can’t see myself as a titan of industry, I would love to build a library for someone. But at the same time, it feels like, there needs to be some form of process of, can we diminish some of the past things that don’t fit the present model? They don’t fit the present circumstance. And be able to move on, still utilizing - were not trying to edit history - but can we have something that’s progressing in the direction of, beneficial for everybody, but also, specific to us?
I always love that, when authors, or filmmakers will make the comment that they’re so stunned that they’ll realize that, it’s when I started getting really detailed in unveiling stuff about my own self, that’s when people start to understand me. It wasn’t by generalizing that you were able to reach an audience but it was by being super specific that you could make connections with other people. And so, I guess that’s a piece of what I get out of the mural project was: it’s so specific that you start to feel the people behind it. And not in that kind of, just neutral, “We should do something on this wall” type way, but it starts to convey life. I guess, what you’ve really done, is, you’ve kind of pointed to, is you’ve started to make maps this like meta-tool. You’ve started to use it almost as, I don’t know, it’s beyond television, it’s beyond anything, because it’s getting into the specifics of people, but then giving us something transcendent at the same time. How do you do that, exactly? Because it’s pretty impressive.
Frank Romo: I appreciate that, I mean it might be the kindest compliment I ever had so I appreciate that. I’ll say this one last thing regarding the murals is that, you’re absolutely right, murals in themselves, how they have come about and things like that, they are exactly what you’re talking about, they are of the people, right? They are from the experience, the lives, the background, things that the people value in that community are what go up on the mural. And so, it’s not just about, “Hey this is a beautiful image of Dr. King. Hey this is a beautiful image of Aretha Franklin. Hey this is a beautiful image.” It’s about a sense of pride and it’s about a sense of, “Yeah those are our people and that’s what we stand for and those are the values that we like to uphold.” And I think that, in that same way, you know, mapping is a visual representation in any other way, like you said in another medium, as in TV or websites or anything like that, mapping is a medium that a lot of people are familiar with but don’t really grapple with the nuances of maps.
I think maps are so ubiquitous now that everybody has a phone in their pocket, we have Google maps, we have all these different softwares. Maps have, over the past 20 years, have become so integrated in the average person’s life. But, I think people fail to recognize that because, they just pull up maps, you know, they pull up Google maps and they’re good to go, you know? I remember when we had to have the gps in the vehicle and I remember before that when we had the large map book in the vehicle and we had, you know, that was the way we navigated. But maps have become so much more prominent in people’s lives that I think, there’s this moment where you as a map maker have to kind of like, as you said, transcend that and say, “Hey this is just your everyday map” like how can I get to you in a different way? How can I get to you on an emotional level? How can I get to you on a personal level? To your point, the more personal and specific you are, the more people care about it, the more people are moved by it. And I think that comes from me, kind of as an organizer, a community organizer, as someone who has worked to bring communities together, to fight for justice, to have that sense of pride, right? I think it’s all aimed toward the same goal, which is: trying to create this collective consciousness that somebody can be proud of or, in other terms, where there is an issue, this collective consciousness is like, “Hey we have to do something about this.”
So I think, my maps, I really try to use them as organizing tools, as a way for folks to get into the discussion. Because, a lot of the discussions that, you know, the Murals in Detroit project is great, but a lot of the discussions that we are trying to have, about the Murals in Detroit project lead to, well what about gentrification and what about the prices and what about the, you know? And we start to get into conversations that are uncomfortable for folks.
When I look at my work about the Black Lives Matter movement and people who have been killed by police and some of the research, the work I do about that, it’s a very difficult topic for people to get into. So, you know, in some way the map is a nice, pretty, easy visual thing for folks to see and get their attention, and then once you have people’s attention you say, “Okay, let’s talk about what’s really going on here.” And now as we start to have that conversation, the map becomes a tool, like a organizing tool to kind of get folks on the same page and see the data, and then be able to have those deeper conversations to hopefully make change.
New Projections: Again it’s getting back to, if you can tap into the individual, oh my gosh, all of a sudden there’s this tapping into the collective at the same time. That, it’s like you were saying, that, if you can get them, all of a sudden you have to wrestle with your little cellular role in this giant organism. Which is amazing!
Too, it reminds me of a author, Brian McCulloch pointed out something that was so fascinating to me. It was, here we are in the internet age, the whole premise for it was gonna be, “It’s decentralized, you can be anywhere, you know, distance won’t mean anything anymore.” Just the opposite, the internet thrives on cartography, depends on it, from delivery, to how they’re doing you demographics when they scrape your data. All of it, all of this stuff is still, there this kind of simplistic approach to the modern technology of like, “Oh it just, you know, we just exchange packets and things just whip around through the ether.” But it gets back to, “Oh no, we have to have a common foundation of understanding” and one of the things you can’t get past is geography. It is reality, and it’s something that is fused through everything.
So yeah, it gets me to this point of saying like maps, again, are always going to be essential. It’s just an innate thing.
Frank Romo: Absolutely, I mean, maps have always been essential in war, in times of prosperity, you know, through the centuries maps have been there to, you know, whether they were hand drawn and not that they’re digitized, whatever. But maps have always been a tool, and you know, you look at certain countries, and you look at, especially through wartime I think they’re a great example of how countries in the past have used maps for propaganda. I think that’s a very common too and you know, in kind of a similar way, not necessarily with those connotations, but in today’s world maps are a medium to communicate information.
And now one of the things that we get into nowadays, as you’ve seen probably, with the recent election and things like that, without even going into any political jargon or anything like that, at the end of the day, on election night we’re all looking at a map and we have five different versions of it from five different stations and you’re asking yourself: “Who’s map is correct?”
New Projections: And a lot matters
Frank Romo: Yeah absolutely, and so many things are so dependent upon where somebody draws the line, how many people are enumerated. I mean, that’s how redlining started, in communities of color. And banks and city governments were saying, “We’re not gonna lend and we’re not gonna invest in this area.” And the difference of someone drawing a line on this street or that street could mean the difference between how much access you have to education, how much access you have to upward mobility, how much access you have to healthy food. And it’s amazing how important maps are in changing people’s lives. And so I think the one thing that I really try to do with my work is harness the power of the map, because maps, just like any other tool, can be used for good or for bad, you know they can be used for good and be efficient and be factual or they can be misleading and they can lie to you.
I think for me I really want to try to harness the power of the map so that folks can feel empowered, so folks can feel like they are seen, right? Because, again when someone sees themself on a map they’re like, “Hey that’s our city! Hey there we are! That’s right I remember I was there!” And there’s feeling of empowerment, this feeling of being seen. And I think that there’s a lot of power behind it. Especially in the age where more people are making maps, it’s really important that we’re doing it intentionally and not just throwing something up that’s just kind of wonky or kind of, “Yeah I just kind of threw this together just to throw it out there.” Because, in today’s age, it’ll still get a lot of rotation and likes and etc, etc. But there is a responsibility of the map maker to also be an educator in that regard and help people become more map literate and help people be able to critique maps better and say “hey that doesn’t look right, something doesn’t look right.” Because if we just allow folks to ingest data, without being critical, then we’re going down a bad path and it doesn’t matter, whether that’s with literature, whether that’s with education or anything else. But we need folks to learn how to be critical of the maps especially since there are so many of them on similar topic.
New Projections: Yes and amen to Frank Romo. Our thanks to him and our apologies for this - almost criminally - edited down version of a discussion with him. We hope to air more in the future, too.
Please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll catch you in the next time. Thanks!