An Interview With Bill Rankin

by by Simone Landon

Bill Rankin is the founder and key contributor to, an online archive of uncommon maps. He is a doctoral candidate in the History of Science and Architecture at Harvard. In his spare time, he takes public records (like demographic census data) and uses them to make maps. The ‘About’ page for Radical Cartography is simply a Jean Baudrillard quote, but, happily, Rankin is personable and more than willing to explain his project to the Independent.

I: Tell me where we are and what we’re doing.

Bill Rankin: We’re in Central Square [Cambridge, MA]. You said to meet some place cartographically interesting. There are a lot of different grids coming together here. People who study the way people understand cities, find that when different grids are colliding, everyone gets disoriented. No matter how well they know the city, moving from one grid area to another is always confusing. It’s really interesting in terms of how we understand space and how maps should be laid on the world.

I: So was it just poor planning that that’s how these grids came together?

BR: In this case, there was a path in the 17th century that went from one small town to another small town; that was the main drag. And then, as Cambridge was developed, mostly in the late 19th early 20th centuries, various developers would just put in grids to fill in the triangles between these big cow paths. So I don’t think it’s poor planning exactly. They were just working with a historical set of paths.

I: And Cambridge never had a time where they had something like a great fire and had to start over?

BR: No, nothing like that. There are more disconnected neighborhoods. That’s also where you get those grid shifts. That’s also where you get big infrastructural projects. MIT used to be all salt marsh. You had a neighborhood that was self-contained, and a salt marsh, and another neighborhood, and when [the salt marsh] was filled in, the neighborhoods were connected and there’s this weird disjunction that still makes the neighborhoods actually quite distinct, and tough to navigate through them. There’s big infrastructure, big industry, some grid shift. Even though now Boston looks like it’s all sort of filled in and continuous, you still have this sort of sense of these neighborhoods that don’t quite align and people still don’t move between them very easily. So it’s still quite fragmented, even though it’s been sort of stitched together over time.

I: Is that fragmentation just geographic, or are there social implications?

BR: It’s just as much social as geographic, for sure.

I: Do you think the geography of it helps to contribute to that? If, say, Boston were arranged on a straight grid pattern, would there be more residential integration?
BR: I don’t know. Some of the most segregated cities are the ones with the most rigid grids, like Chicago or Detroit—radical transformation across a street or train tracks or something like that. One side it’s all African-American, the other side it’s all Hispanic/Latino. You don’t really have that as much in Boston. You definitely have neighborhoods that are segregated, homogenous. But the boundaries aren’t—there’s no stark one side of the street is one thing and the other side the other. And I don’t think that a different street pattern would necessarily lead to different patterns of segregation. [Segregation] is often determined by mortgage policies and where highway planners put highways—they put them through neighborhoods that can’t organize to prevent it. I think what you would see [with a different street pattern] is a lot more people interacting with each other. The way that New York is just as segregated as any city, but in Manhattan you’re always encountering people. On the subway, people are working together, that kind of thing. And I think in Boston, I talk to a lot of people at Harvard who just say “oh it’s just super white, there’s no interaction,” when in fact there’s lots and lots of people who aren’t white, but if you only take the red line, from Harvard down to downtown or something like that, you’re never going to interact with anyone who’s different than you. So I think the street pattern could change that.
The other cartographically interesting thing about Central Square is that it’s actually pretty diverse. There’s a longstanding black community here, there’s a longstanding white community. There’s some more recent immigrants, South Asian, Middle Eastern. It’s often really tough to show that kind of diversity on a map—a demographic map—because most demographic maps shade solid colors. Each neighborhood has a certain color that’s percent black or percent white, so the question is, how do you show neighborhoods that are really diverse without just having them be shaded ‘no majority’ or something like that? Or if you were going to shade the Central Square area it might actually be 65 percent white or something like that, so you actually have no sense of who the other 35 percent are, or the fact that it feels actually quite diverse to walk around.
I think that’s pretty interesting, the way that maps tend to make us think about neighborhoods in a homogenous way. Either they focus on majorities and those kind of things instead of trying to focus on diversity and how things come together.

I: So where are you from?

BR: Just north of Chicago, about ten minutes from Northwestern, a couple towns north of Evanston. Sort of similar issues there: what do diverse neighborhoods look like, how do we understand them cartographically? Dichotomies between city and suburb start not to make sense in places like Evanston.
I went to school in Houston. I had never been to Texas before—I thought it was all desert and cowboys. That’s not true. And it’s a totally different kind of city. Was there for 45 years, then bounced around a little bit and ended up here eight years ago.

I: What are you working on? What’s your dissertation?

BR: My dissertation is basically a history of mapping sciences in the 20th century, looking at a few big international projects to try to track how changes in mapping technology reinforced or echoed changes in political geography, ideas of territory, and sovereignty. A GPS is a different kind of political system than a paper map, not just a different kind of geographic knowledge. So I’m looking at the transition from paper mapping to electronic systems, looking at the evolution of international mapping across World War Two, when the United States Military got really involved and had a huge impact on how mapping was done. So it’s a historical project. It’s not related to the maps that I make, but I’m looking at sort of similar issues in terms of how maps construct reality, what are the political implications of representing space in different ways, that kind of thing.

I: Is your dissertation focusing on the United States?

BR: It’s focusing a lot on the things that the United States Military was involved in. It’s starting from a lot of international scientific collaborations that then get folded into US Military operations. So the stuff I’m looking at from the 1890s is in French and German but by the 1950s it’s all in English.

I: How did you get into mapping?

BR: I was doing these maps of my own, the ones that are on the web now, for a long time, starting from when I took a history of cartography course in college. The teacher said you could either respond to the books with a written essay or you could make some visual responses.

I: What did you make?

BR: We read a book about projections and how different kinds of projections distort the earth in different ways. I took maybe 25 projections of South America and overlaid them on top of each other. It’s on my website. There’s a fuzzy South America that we recognize in all of them, even though none of them is accurate or the real one.

I: What’s accurate and what’s inaccurate and is it even possible to achieve accuracy?

BR: Well I think it means different things. Certainly, in the narrow sense of projections, they’re all accurate because they’re all mathematically rigorous, right? So if you take a sphere and project it in a certain way, that’s accurate because you’ve accurately projected it in that way. It’s just a question of what properties you want to preserve when you project it. Do you want the areas to be the same, so that the area of Greenland is the same proportionally as the area of Africa as it is on a globe? Or do you want to preserve the shapes of little bays and rivers and stuff, so that the shape of the coast of Greenland is the same as the shape on a globe? Then you can have compromises between those two. There’s map projections that sort of try to look right for a world map. There’s some that try to preserve area. There’s some that try to preserve shape.

I: When you say “look right,” what do you think people find “right”?

BR: I think that some of it is just not having anything too squishy in the poles or something like that. But some of it is that, for more than a hundred years, when people looked at world maps, they looked at the Mercator map—which is a map that is great for navigating. It’s used on Google maps because when you zoom in, it’s undistorted. Not so great for a world map.
So there’s lots of good reasons to have this, but it was used for wall maps and shower curtains, and textbooks, everywhere for a long, long time. I think people got used to it, that’s what the world looks like. And so now when you make a world map, it looks more right if the poles are a little bit bigger than they ought to be, if Greenland’s a bit distorted relative to Africa and that kind of thing. When people are thinking about what “looks right,” they’re keeping in mind all the maps they’ve seen their entire life. If it looks really funky, it doesn’t look right. People are always surprised to find out how small Greenland is, even though it has always been that size.

I: My old roommate had an upside down world map.

BR: It’s funny. I’ve seen a few South-up maps. There are South-up Mercator maps that maintain all the distortions of the Mercator—it just flips it upside down. That sort of drives home the point of what are you trying to unsettle? I don’t think that accuracy is the way to think about maps. Rather, what is the message of the map? So what is the map distorting, because it has got to distort something. What’s in the center of the map—something’s got to be in the center. Is it going to show political boundaries, is it going to show topographical features, is it going to show demographic information? It has got to choose to show something. Is it going to distort areas, is it going to distort shapes? Is it going to show simple lines that are easy to understand, like here’s where trade goes, or is it going to show complex motions that are perhaps less easy to get your head around?
It’s less about ‘is it accurate or not’ but rather what’s the message of the map. And then the question is, is this message generally moving us in the right direction?

I: What’s the right direction?

BR: It’s whatever it is you want to do. If you think Europe is the best place in the world, then make it big and put in the center of the map, right?
I made a map of the Hispanic/Latino population in the United States. And so it was a map of the United States and I shaded based on percent Hispanic/Latino. And you have to figure out what the colors are going to mean. Is each color going to be a twenty percent step? I decided that wasn’t the most interesting or helpful. So I did zero percent to five percent, to show where there was almost no Hispanic population. Five to 50 percent, and then 50 to 80 percent because I wanted to know where there was a majority. I posted it to Wikipedia. Some people were sure that I was a right-wing fearmonger showing the invasion of the Mexicans, because I had a very low threshold (zero percent to five percent). It showed much more of the southwest as having a lot of Hispanic population. But at the same time, it was also used as the featured map on the Hispanic portal because it showed that, in fact, the Hispanic population is part of the United States and not just a minority along the border but all throughout the southwest with a significant presence in every city. That’s one instance where the message of the map can be seen more than one way. At the same time, I think it’s possible to analyze the decisions I made. The message was in fact that there are Hispanic people all throughout the southwest and in all suburban and metropolitan areas. But then the question [becomes] is that about showing an invasion or showing a presence?

I: Your website is called Radical Cartography. Are you trying to convey a certain message?

BR: There’s at least two things people mean by radical cartography. One is maps of radical things. So you have a certain radical political agenda, let’s say you want to stop the CIA from doing bad things, which would be great. You make maps showing what the CIA is doing and raising awareness about this as a way to try to organize people, educate them, whatever it would be. You’re using maps as part of an organizing or activist campaign.
The other way to mean radical cartography—which is the way I mean it—is more that the way we’re making the maps themselves is sort of radical; we’re not deferring to the government or to large corporations to make these maps. We’re making them ourselves. We have the tools, we have the data. We can download census data and make our own demographic maps. We can get data from the Bureau of Land Management to show grazing rights in the southwest, when in fact all of the government maps show these wilderness areas as empty, they’re not. They’re all filled with sheep and cattle and stuff. So there’s ways to use data from the government or from private companies to make different kinds of maps. When I make maps of race, I don’t use the solid colors showing each neighborhood as homogenous. I use little dots. So each dot is twenty people and so that’s how you can see in Chicago these very stark boundaries. You have all these little blue dots representing African Americans on one side of the road and all these little orange dots representing Hispanics on the other side. And then you can see areas where those are really blurring together where you have blue and orange dots together. And maybe some pink dots and green dots. And that’s challenging a certain way of thinking about neighborhoods. What’s radical is the way the map is drawn. It’s a radical away of approaching what is a very non-radical idea, that is, a neighborhood. What are neighborhood boundaries? That might not necessarily align with a radical politics, but encourages you to think differently about neighborhoods, neighborhood change, transitions, public planning those kinds of things. Because the map itself has radicalized the conventions of cartography. So that’s what I mean. That we’re starting from scratch in terms of who’s making the map, what are the messages of maps, and being more deliberate about what maps are saying.