On Extratextual Scholarship: Dietmar Offenhuber’s Wegzeit

I want to more fully situate what I’ve begun to talk about in this space in terms of the potential for extratextual scholarship – that is, academic work that falls outside the prototypical medium of text. In what follows, I’ll review Dietmar Offenhuber’s Wegzeit: The Geometry of Relative Distance and tie it back into extratextual scholarship at the end of the post.

Wegzeit explores different metrics for the city that resist our conventional definitions of distance (such as the time involved or the miles traveled). The alternative approaches the project, representing Los Angeles, highlights involve what Offenhuber terms as video traces, path networks, area cells, velocity zones, rush hour slopes, and way descriptions. These measures, respectively, describe the city through panorama, tension, density, pace, asymmetry, and diction. Offenhuber identifies the visualization of the everyday and the subjective within the city as the project’s goal and offers claims toward emerging “cultural techniques” primarily through his proposed measures. The project advocates the use of these measures towards investigating the operations of subjectivity in urban environments.

Vectors, a multimedia online journal focused on teasing out the conventional text-based preoccupations of the academy, hosts the project. One of the most intriguing components of Vectors’ presentation of Wegzeit is a peer response forum wherein scholars comment on project. Vectors provides such a peer review section for each project it publishes.

Wegzeit contributes a great deal to the study of communications and media and extends much of what that line of research has already yielded. Like Offenhuber, critical communications scholars rely on theories of space and place that consider the everyday over the historical in addressing the role of media in urban environments. These theories include those of prominent scholars like Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau. Moreover, Offenhuber’s project addresses how people typically communicate their experience of place through fairly standard measurements like, as previously mentioned, the duration of time and miles travelled. Not coincidentally, both are also critical to capitalism and industrialization, with efficiency being the ultimate goal.

Wegzeit, however, also falls prey at times to these very formations, and the peer review section discusses this considerably. The peer reviewers converge around the universalizing nature of the project, as it does not critically engage with how identity dimensions like race, class and gender enter in to the subjective experience of the city. Additionally, criticism arises in this section over the “car-centric” nature of Offenhuber’s proposed alternative metrics, which excludes other means of travel in the city that likely come with different subjective experiences. Wegzeit does counter the standards of industrial efficiency and how they encroach on the everyday with the aims of organizing the everyday toward productive ends. But Offenhuber’s reliance on the car in some of his metrics and the position of the car in industrial history cannot be ignored.

Despite these criticisms, Wegzeit aligns with a great deal of other mapping projects that counter the ideals of efficiency inscribed into popular mapping platforms. Two particular projects that come to mind are It takes 154,000 breaths to evacuate Boston and UrbanGems, a site used to map the most scenic rather than the most efficient routes through select cities. But those are certainly not the only projects to investigate these ends. This broader theme signals the potential of the extratextual to launch critical engagement with typical modes of measurement in relation to space, particularly in everyday contexts.


Government Use of GPS: EPA Projects (Scale and GIS, Part 4)

Infrastructure is another intriguing dimension of such government agency interventions through GIS projects and platforms. To this end, the EPA’s Storm Water Management Model (SWMM) models rainfall effects in urban settings. EPA describes the platform operations thusly:

The runoff component of SWMM operates on a collection of subcatchment areas on which rain falls and runoff is generated. The routing portion of SWMM transports this runoff through a conveyance system of pipes, channels, storage/treatment devices, pumps, and regulators. SWMM tracks the quantity and quality of runoff generated within each subcatchment, and the flow rate, flow depth, and quality of water in each pipe and channel during a simulation period comprised of multiple time steps.

This treats routing and navigating within GIS in a different sense than what we are conventionally used to – as a matter of pipes and devices rather than a matter of transit – through infrastructure. In doing so, it reveals the politics of scaling infrastructure; choosing a different scale of analysis for such a system can yield staggeringly different findings.

As such these platforms are just as much about scaling the nonhuman as it is scaling the human. Within these platforms, questions arise of how closely one should broach the details of infrastructure, or even in the case of previously discussed GIS platforms, how to enlist actors like the weather and the allocation of resources to speak toward policy decisions. In the case of the latter, environmental justice emerges as a core issue in these human-nonhuman relations depicted through GIS platforms.

To this end, the EPA also offers EJSCREEN, a GIS platform rightfully aimed toward investigating issues of environmental justice. The EPA’s website heralds the platform for providing “‘EJ indexes,’ which can be used for highlighting places that may be candidates for further review, analysis, or outreach as the agency develops programs, policies and other activities.”

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In establishing a new metric for a critical social issue (much like other platforms I covered in my Orientations, Metrics and Opportunity post), EJSCREEN prioritizes the effects of human-nonhuman relations in areas deemed the most hazardous. As such, in some ways, it scales the issue of environmental justice itself, zoning in on areas most worthy of attention. Thus, in scaling the involved actors and contexts in relation to this issue, EJSCREEN seeks to construct a great deal of the discourse surrounding the issue as part of its management intervention.

Government Use of GIS: Damage, Justice, and Economics (Scale and GIS, Part 3)

At this point in the series, I want to draw attention to how government agencies utilize GIS platforms similar in manner to others I have already discussed. Such government agencies and their infrastructures, after all, were crucial to the formation of a public GPS system to begin with. I start with FEMA here given that, as I have found in my research, disaster relief – be it in locating manholes in local snowstorms or in establishing relief measures during less conventional catastrophes – was one of primary reasons such a system was formed.

To this end, FEMA’s current Hazus tool approximates potential disaster effects – again, producing a future. The agency describes Hazus as a methodology of models in meeting this function. It is at least in part intended for public use; on its website, FEMA encourages citizen use of Hazus to analyze the specifics effects of given hazards on different populations and regions. FEMA, however, also underscores a variety of other actors under the intended audience of Hazus, seen as it further describes the tool’s strengths:

Government planners, GIS specialists and emergency managers use Hazus to determine losses and the most beneficial mitigation approaches to take to minimize them. Hazus can be used in the assessment step in the mitigation planning process, which is the foundation for a community’s long-term strategy to reduce disaster losses and break the cycle of disaster damage, reconstruction and repeated damage. Being ready will aid in recovery after a natural disaster.

The platform, then, is also about configuring a variety of actors in the name of hazard preparation. That process is one which involves scaling relevant actors and the imagined possibilities of disaster in relation to available resources. Thus, as described in part within my previous posts, both actors and imaginaries are matters of scale when it comes to the neoliberal aims of government agency-run GIS platforms.  

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Additionally, I want to bring up the NOAA’s Digital Coasts tools. Like FEMA’s, NOAA’s infrastructure proved critical to the expansion of GPS possibilities. Additionally, these possibilities were often imagined in terms of economy and industry. While these two strains were for the most part separate, Digital Coasts shows a bridge between these two foundations for contemporary uses of GPS. It is a platform which seeks to not only provide datasets with information relevant to coastal communities but also to enable users to manage and present the data in productive ways.

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Management is particularly key to NOAA’s description of Digital Coasts. NOAA frames Digital Coasts as helping a variety of involved actors “manage the nation’s coastal and ocean resources to sustain vibrant coastal communities and economies.” Here, economy is being invoked and scaled. The ties between Foucault, management and neoliberalism I have addressed previously surface within the isolation of coastal economies for the purposes of monitoring against potentially unforeseen risk. Thus, practices of scaling are imbricated within such broader formations.

On Orientations, Metrics, and Opportunity (Scale and GIS, Part 2)

In GIS projects, designers can also cater to broader social inequities, rather than solely the production of futures in terms of resource management. The RPA Access to Jobs platform, for instance, is a project based off OpenStreetMap which scales accessibility to employment based on different modes of transportation to which one has access. It also offers the option of visualizing jobs by both one’s desired industry and level of education.

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This information, in turn, comes from an eclectic range of sources; the project cites the U.S. Census’ Origin-Destination Employment Statistics, NJTPA Regional Transportation Model, NYCDOT, NY Waterway, and Nassau Inter-County Express (among various other organizations) for its material. With this, locations can be rescaled in relation to the desired information. The information, too, gets rescaled not just based on the filtering but also through comparing those different orientations with increased time spent on the platform.

Facet Decision Systems’ Opportunity Mapping further shows these distinctions at work. These opportunity maps use measures like “SAT score average, travel-time to work, and housing prices.” For the maps, the developers convert the results of such measures into Z scores so that they can be compared against each other and used toward forging aggregate scores. The filtering on this platform, then, becomes critical toward establishing a metric of opportunity out of scaling such measures into Z scores.

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The platform, then, entails an explicit use of location-aware platforms to investigate the dimensions of meaning-making in stratified contexts and in direct relation to orientation – or perhaps, put another way, meaning-marking. To do so, it rescales information in direct relation to location for comparative purposes, constructing a metric of opportunity within that process.

When thinking about these platforms together, it seems that the ordering logic of GIS more broadly inspires the formulation of specific methods and metrics for abstract issues. They enlist different kinds of actors and data sets and the particular ways these platforms scale these issues, as well as the ways they scale metrics for those issues, is incredibly meaningful and worth analysis.

The Production of Futures: Scenario Planning Platforms (Scale and GIS, Part 1)

While scenario planning is a large facet of GIS work, I want to take the opportunity to discuss some of the platforms that are out there in an attempt to illuminate the range of tools available and the kinds of work they perform. To start, UrbanFootprint is a tool through which one can access “land use, policy, and resource planning tools” from different sectors. Its website describes this data as “powerful,” leading to a “detailed data ‘canvas’ . . . of the built environment” that can serve important policy considerations.

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Particularly, within the following claim on the tool’s website, it is clear how platform designers can treat GPS technologies as agents of policy enabling precision and imagination: “We believe that facts matter – that clear, defensible analysis about the impacts of policy choices enables better, more sustainable decisions. Our RapidFire and UrbanFootprint tools are established and evolving platforms built on this belief.” As is the case with various geospatial platforms, the designers frame objectivity as being built in to the platform. It is as if the designers are saying, “If we have more objective platforms that are publicly accessible, our policies will be better.”

Toward this end, Calthorpe Analytics also describes RapidFire as a tool of evaluation, positing scenarios at different scales to get at the efficacy of standing policy against the unanticipated. To the designers, this tool addresses a need to “quickly inform state, regional, and local agencies and policy makers in evaluating land use, energy, water, transport, and infrastructure investment policies” in such circumstances. Not only does this framing confirm the importance of accounting for different scales (the local, the regional, and the national) within such planning measures, but also the need to reimagine infrastructure in terms of the hyperlocal and transport. All this makes the notion of urban planning – a discipline working with the Cartesian to imagine possibilities and futures – quite Foucauldian. Accordingly, through it, discourse becomes productive anew within a system of ordering.

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Envision Tomorrow is another GIS toolkit built toward anticipation – specifically, for “anticipating future social, economic, physical, and environmental conditions and making decisions about a community’s policy options, community services and other infrastructure investments.” What intrigues me the most from the website description, however, is its articulated drive toward “producing futures.” So much of what GIS planning is about is the production of futures as they relate to policy – anticipating a scale so that actors, actions and terrains may be scaled accordingly. This toolkit’s invocation toward “producing futures,” then, becomes quite telling of the nature of the aforementioned disciplinary knowledge entailed.

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Much of this, of course, extends beyond the practitioners of the discipline itself, as these practices of scaling also get articulated toward the broader citizenry. Consider CommunityViz as an example. CommunityViz is software built out as an ArcGIS extension that “provides an advanced-yet-accessible framework for planners and citizens to learn and make choices about the future of the places they love.” While the software is still about the production of futures in accordance with different scales (the description hints at this in citing that urban planning is ultimately about “the future of cities and regions, large and small”), it also promotes a collaborative framework toward this production, leaving the door open for lay publics and community leaders to claim a stake in such processes alongside GIS planners.

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At this juncture, scholars like Wendy Hui Kyong Chun would point out how neoliberal such an idea can be. The faith espoused in objectivity within the design of several of these platforms implies that the accessibility of more and better information across a range of involved actors would prompt better decision making. Scaling, then, becomes critical here given that the view a scale affords (be it, by way of analogy, the god’s eye view of positivism or the situated knowledge of an STS or ethnographic perspective) becomes a knowledge claim in and of itself, one that, in these cases, emerges in the designers’ framing of each platform.