Wouldn’t it be interesting if our GPS units gave us basic social data about the spaces we pass through, along with advice about where to find the closest fuel stop? This would function as a sort of “social reality meter” that would render more visible the social realities and human inequalities we traverse as we travel.
Such a device is entirely possible. It would require a spatially coded social data base, including characteristics such as infant mortality, high school completion, poverty, crime, single-parent families, home ownership, property values, and as many other characteristics as we might be interested in. These features would be attached to a geographical location (a census tract, for example, with a boundary file), and the map would dynamically display several selected variables as we travel through the region.
This kind of GIS mapping is commonplace on the desktop. (See ZipSkinny, for example.) But putting it into a mobile device — a GPS unit in the car or a GPS-equipped cell phone — would be a way of greatly extending our perception of the social landscape around us.
Here’s a possible snapshot of violent crime data as we drive across Chicago:
Or a drive through Washington D.C. showing the patterns of unemployment in the metropolitan area:
Or this drive through Cleveland observing the distribution of poverty across the city (measured by eligibility for food stamps):
The idea is “location-based social awareness” using the same technologies that cell phones and GPS devices currently use to keep track of local points of interest or “locations of your friends right now”; but providing the user with enormously greater ability to “sense” the social landscape around him or her. Socially conscious iPhone programmers — how about it!