Image Credit: David Toccafondi
Image credit: Girmay Misgna


When our friend Stewart Varner from the Price Lab for Digital Humanities asked us if we might consider hosting a map room activity, we jumped at the opportunity! The idea came about as the Price Lab and the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities were planning a full-day conference on Community Mapping and Civic Data that would feature a keynote from Shannon Mattern, who had written about a Map Room in Places Journal and elsewhere. The group talked with Jer Thorp and read up on the work creating the St Louis Map Room

From the moment the idea came up, our whole group was excited about the idea of doing a map room in Penn Libraries. We could imagine so many kinds of map rooms, and so many potential groups and communities who might want to engage with place-making and data in this way. But we also knew we didn’t have the space or resources to do the full project in the way they did it in St. Louis. We wanted to explore how we could use the inspiration of the map room as it was done elsewhere to build something that would be a little more flexible for our group. We decided we would use the day to plan for and test a mobile map room as a method that we plan to re-deploy over time around Philadelphia, across disciplines, and in a variety of contexts and locations. Since the first use, documented in this post, we have used it a few more times, and we have plans for a few more. But this post is mostly focused on that initial attempt.


Our mobile map room is much smaller than the 10′ x 10′ canvas that folks in St. Louis used. Which is why we’re often just calling it a “map table”. We used this first opportunity to just experiment with what can be done with this. We used tables we had in the library, and then Al Matthews, our wonderful colleagues in Library Technology Services, set up the following:

“We used a Short Throw 1080P DLP Projector – 3000 Lumens – mounted on a portable trussing system designed for easy set-up and high stability. The trussing set includes two black steel tripods that each extend up to 9 ft. in height and two 5 ft. truss I-beams that fit together to create a 10 ft. trussing span. The system weighs only 45 lbs for easy transport and carrying capacity of 200 lbs evenly distributed weight. “

Prompt, Basemap, and Method

The first use was just a time for learning about the method — what kinds of things come up when you ask people to draw on a simple paper basemap of an area, and then look at data overlaid? In the uses of the map table since then, the prompt, the basemap, and the data have all been selected to draw out particular issues or questions. We continue to learn about the pros and cons of various basemaps, about what kinds of things are easier and more difficult at different scales, and about what kinds of data can support conversations most richly.

First prompt

Grab a marker and use these questions as a rough guide to map your experience on the reference map

  • Where is your community?
  • Frequently traveled drive/train/bus route and interesting observations along the way.
  • Neighborhoods you would like to live in, interesting neighborhoods and buildings with unique architecture, favorite restaurants, shopping areas etc.
  • Landmarks (present, past, future) in your community or landmarks you are familiar with(favorite park/path/bus, bike, walk, and water trail/scenic route).
  • Industrial sites/ current and abandoned/ hazardous sites.
  • What words tell your experience/observation/story?

You can be as creative, artistic, and imaginative as you wish. Sketches can be detailed or rough. Don’t worry! What really matters is the idea and the emergent story.

You may also make up your own legend as you mark features on the map.

Note: We used the side of the paper for people to add their own legends. That part ended up being very fun.


Because we didn’t start with a particular narrative or prompt in mind, Girmaye Migna, our Mapping and Spatial Data Librarians just found a big collection of data that we could layer onto the map. He had identified a few interesting patterns in the layers of data, like the way that brownfields and toxic release sites are generally more concentrated in low income parts of the city. But he found data that would be interesting from a huge range of perspectives. And he talked with a bunch of different people about the data to see what kinds of things we might call attention to.

Civic and GIS Data Layers We Used

  • Monument Lab Data (I had done a presentation earlier in the day about our Monument Lab exhibition in 2017)
  • Brownfields (abandoned industrial or commercial sites due to contamination)
  • Superfund sites (Contaminated sites identified by EPA for cleanup)
  • Toxic Release locations
  • Existing Trails
  • Local parks
  • Occupied Household units, 2016 by census tract
  • Vacant Household units, 2016 by census tract
  • Median Household Income, 2016 by census tract
  • Median Household Income, 2012 by block group
  • Occupied Housing units: Built 1939 or Earlier
  • Occupied Housing Units: Built 2014 or Later
  • Strava Global Heatmap of walking activity
  • Strava Global Heatmap of biking activity
  • Strava Global Heatmap of water activity
  • Philadelphia Redlining
  • Major Rivers
  • Streets (Major and Detailed)

On the day

Image credit: David Toccafondi
Image by David Toccafondi
Exploring what we see in the data

What comes next: Map Table as a Service

Video by Paul Farber

This semester, we have had 3 uses of the Map Table by classes so far. In each case, we’ve opted to set up several tables with basemaps, rather than just one. Not all of the tables are located directly under the projector but they all have matching basemaps (another benefit of having them small enough to be printed on the poster printer is that we can create a number of basemaps relatively simply). Then, after we look at the drawn map and the data together, we can just tape another basemap to the table all lined up and it works quite well.

For one class, it was large enough that we ended up moving to a larger space. The base maps were taped to the walls, and we moved them to the spot in front of the projector to show the data. Penn Today featured an article about the class with some great pictures, and here are some more.

Look for more posts about the Map Table as we continue learning about how this method can be used!

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