Guerrilla Cartography: Global Peer Review

I joined Guerrilla Cartography because, well, the name. But turns out it’s also an incredible team of academic spatial nerds with an eye for radically opening both mapmaking and academic access.Inspired by the work of his student cartographers, UC Berkeley instructor Darin Jensen created Guerrilla Cartography to produce Food: An Atlas. He started from the traditional academic publishing model (put out a call, review submissions, make selections, send comments, receive edits, publish). But Darin wasn’t content just to circulate another call among academics – he wanted to tell cartographic stories that weren’t being told.

Though companies like Stamen, MapBox, and others are making beautiful maps easier to produce, the actual work of analyzing and mapping big datasets (the GIS part) is still largely time and resource intensive, and still dominated by products like ESRI ArcMap. As a result, you have people that can make beautiful maps, and people that gather difficult-to-collect-but-important data, and those are rarely the same people.

Darin was inspired to connect people with good cartographic skills with people who had good data-driven stories to tell, so he and his team assembled two separate calls, and painstakingly played matchmaker between cartographers and researchers. The result, Food: An Atlas, sold thousands of copies and picked up good press. Darin founded Guerrilla Cartography for round two, and send out a recruitment email to some lists. This is where I join in.

For Water: An Atlas, we wanted to do more than open participation at the submission level. We wanted to challenge the notion that when an academic journal orchestrates a “peer review,” that there’s any logistical justification for that to mean “the people who thought of it” or “some well known people.” A true jury of peers for a global call needs to be equally as global. We wanted to remove the ivory tower from the editorial process entirely.

This coincided with my arrival as our tech team. I built a simple WordPress site to post our call for maps, some press links, and board bios. WordPress allows both pages and posts. I saved the posts, which include comments and tags, for what we called our Global Peer Review.

After our call for maps, we received hundreds of offers for cartography and data, and coordinated teams that produced over 40 map submissions. I created a separate post for each map, and included a handful of tags, any description offered by the creators, and a list of suggested questions for feedback. I enabled the Disqus comment system to facilitate the peer review. We explained the process to our authors, set a deadline, turned off anonymous comments,and invited our networks to participate.

And participate they did! We received over 300 comments within the three week period on our 40+ maps. The quantity was great, but the quality! The quality! Zero discouraging remarks. Some were neutral in tone, but the vast majority were positive and supportive. Internet strangers gave thoughtful and helpful feedback!

Example Comments

Our board was prepared to , and in many cases did, engage discussions to ask follow up questions or give attention to quieter pieces, but overall, the discussion was led by a truly global peer network. And the results were fantastic. We opened the global peer review after an initial round with just Guerrilla Cartography board members. Anecdotally, authors better implemented the feedback they received from the Disqus discussions than from us. The commenters also caught more typos and make more creative suggestions. The global peer review produced better submission drafts than our traditional peer review.

It wasn’t a perfect process, I admit, and a lot of it was due to the implementation (read: me).

  • I was in Peru for Digital Democracy during the review deadline, and something funky happened that I was unable to fix quickly. The moral? Don’t rely on a single tech person.
  • WordPress automatically sorts posts by either publication date or name. People always saw the same posts first, scrolled a while, and left. The posts up top had many, many more comments than the ones at the end. I tried manually shuffling the publication dates to daylight the quieter posts, but this inadvertently changed some date-based permalinks, which led to other issues. This could be better triaged with a name-based permalink structure, or a post-display plugin that shuffles display order.
  • It takes a lot of bandwidth to browse high resolution images. I incorrectly assumed WordPress would scale display images down, so people on slower connections were undoubtedly discouraged from participating. (Ironically, I was in Peru working to fix this exact issue with Digital Democracy’s tools.)
  • Then there’s the most obvious way in which this “global peer review” wasn’t truly global – language! Unlike Food: An Atlas, all the Water: An Atlas submissions were in English. We easily could have installed a plugin for translation, and should have recruited more non-English-speaking cartographers and researchers.

Overall, it was a satisfying adaption of a system I use all the time (WordPress) to do something radically different. I recommend the WordPress/Disqus combo, and look forward to seeing Water: An Atlas on Kickstarter soon!