Lab Atlanta is a local educational nonprofit with the goal of developing civically engaged, design-minded leaders focused on building a vibrant, sustainable future for themselves and the City of Atlanta. During its initial five-semester pilot period, area high school students took part in a semester-long program in Midtown Atlanta that focused on urban issues — classes included Global Urban History, Global Urban Literature, Urban Sociology and other decidedly college level-sounding courses. “Students then used the knowledge gained in these city-focused courses to inform a myriad of fieldwork experiences in the city,” says Lance Owen, a former humanities faculty member at Lab Atlanta. As an instructor, Owen had an idea to create a mapping project in which his high school students would track their movements through the city, followed by interpretation and discussion about the relationship between their paths and Atlanta’s social and economic geography. He then met Ben Rydal Shapiro, a postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Tech, who was developing a similar project for his students. The two began collaborating on the set of maps below, which compares the movements of students at Lab Atlanta to those of Georgia Tech.

“Our goal was to empower students to produce these maps with their own personal data in ways that would allow them to learn about digital mapping, the local history of Atlanta and technology ethics,” Shapiro says.

Georgia Tech Student Movement

The map to the right shows Georgia Tech students’ weekly movement through Atlanta as orange lines placed over a racial dot map available through the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service’s Demographics Research Group. Each dot represents one person and is based on the 2010 U.S. Census. Students collected their data over the course of one week in March 2019.

Lab Atlanta Student Movement

This map uses the same base map but shows a week’s worth of Lab Atlanta students’ movement across the city. Notably, this diverse group of students moves more to the south and west sides of the city than the students from Georgia Tech and has more diversity in its travels. Students collected their data the last week of March 2019.

Building understanding: A Q&A with Shapiro and Owen

33N: How did both of you and your students become interested in creating these maps?

Ben Rydal Shapiro: This project started for two reasons. First, we wanted to give Lab Atlanta students unique and engaging opportunities to learn about Atlanta’s social and economic geography, as well as computing technologies that support digital mapping. Second, we wanted to provide computer science students at Georgia Tech and other universities with equally unique and engaging opportunities to consider the ethical issues of computing technology, particularly within the city of Atlanta.

Lance and I, along with others at Lab Atlanta, became excited about the possibilities to bring these goals together in novel ways. In particular, the two maps here were critical to supporting a day where Lab Atlanta and Georgia Tech students met and worked together to learn about one another, the history of Atlanta and ethical issues surrounding data and technology in Atlanta.

Lance Owen: Those collaborative days made it possible to see how mapping could generate a robust discussion between two different groups of students. For me, the project also helped achieve a simple goal I had: To help my tenth graders become more aware about their movements around Atlanta — something many students that age often aren’t thinking much about.

The project also plugged into my students’ budding interest in learning about the city’s racial and economic geography. Having shown them the now-famous Racial Dot Map in their Global Urban History course, I knew they were deeply curious about the city’s spatial characteristics, especially as they related to social groups. And what better way to engage with that geography than to have them map their own movements through it?

33N: How did you go about conducting the research?

LO: Ben and I used different approaches to having students collect, visualize and reflect on their data. My approach was definitely more old-fashioned. I had my students keep a journal in which they chronicled their daily movements. Once they had a week’s worth of data, I had them plug their movement into a Google Map and create paths. By contrast, Ben used newer technologies, including a great geo-tracking application called ViewRanger and a visualization tool he has developed called the “interaction geography slicer,” which teaches students how to collect and visualize data.

For all our students, the process of collecting and then visualizing their own personal data created learning experiences that shows the power of maps to tell stories about movement and place.

33N: What was the purpose of comparing Tech students’ movement to those of Lab Atlanta students?

BRS: One of the primary purposes is to highlight differences in how people can experience the same urban environment and to allow students to more deeply engage with the history and contemporary issues around technology and access in Atlanta. For all students involved, being able to see these differences through these visualizations and meet students from completely different backgrounds was an extremely powerful way to consider themselves in relation to other people and the city.

For Lab students, these experiences provided ways to understand the life of a university student. For Tech students, they provided ways to understand parts of the city they never visit and learn about the local history of Atlanta they have not experienced. The racial dot map and other base maps we used in the classroom were equally important to contextualize the movement of students: By studying their movement with the context of historical maps, traffic maps and Twitter maps, students were able to see and reflect on all sorts of issues relevant to being a Lab Atlanta or Georgia Tech student.

LO: My students could already tell their own paths were highly varied, given that they came from various schools around Atlanta (and thus from different neighborhoods and areas of the metro area). So it was not surprising that we had a good deal of geographic diversity in how students were moving around the city. Yet we also wanted to see how varied these paths were in comparison to another group: college students at Georgia Tech. Because many students at Tech live near campus and need few amenities that are distant from the Midtown area, it stood to reason that their paths would be less varied and more geographically focused. This is ironic given that they have more independence because of their age.

Making this comparison was great because it underscored the reality that our relationship to various institutions in the city (and in our example, educational ones), shapes our movements in profoundly different ways.

33N: What are some insights that you derived from this project?

LO: Like all of us, teenagers and young adults don’t tend to think about how repetitive and circumscribed their daily paths can be, and consequently how little of the city they come into contact with on a daily basis. Mapping their paths was an engaging way to underscore this reality. Yet it was also a great way to develop discussions about how their movements interfaced with various aspects of the city’s geography. When students their age begin to think deeply about how their movements and location relate to the city’s racial, economic and commercial geography, they begin to think more deeply about issues of access and resource allocation.

This newfound awareness can help them develop their understanding of cities as landscapes of resources. More importantly, it can help shape their awareness of how those resources are allocated.

33N: How can a project like this help us improve our understanding of the city and region?

BRS: This project reflects how important it is to support activities that allow university and high school students to create and share stories with data about Atlanta. These stories provide highly visible ways to show how differently people can experience our city and can provide richer ways to talk about critical issues in Atlanta particularly concerning the future technological and urban design of our city to support the needs of a diverse group of citizens.

LO: Like many of America’s large urban centers, Atlanta is a vast landscape characterized by social and ethnic variety. Unfortunately, that variety comes with a heavy dose of inequity. Projects like this one offer new ways to approach that reality and broaden our perspectives. By understanding our own paths around the city in relation to those of others, we can begin to think about how many different experiences of Atlanta there are. And when we begin to consider the paths of others in relation to the city’s social and economic geography, we can grasp just how varied — and unequal — the experience of Atlanta is.