The Beershed of America and Other Fascinating Food Visualizations

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Maps of the global almond trade, farmers' market accessibility, European food specialties, and more

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Strips from five of the seventy-plus maps in Food: An Atlas.

What do you see when you map the world through food?

According to Food: An Atlas, a crowd-sourced, crowd-funded, "guerrilla cartography" project led by UC Berkeley professor Darin Jensen, you see the distribution patterns of the global almond trade but also the lost agrarian landscapes of Los Angeles, the geography of taco trucks of East Oakland and the United States beershed, as well as the rise of foodbanks in the UK, and much more besides.

Over the past five months, Jensen has pulled together more than seventy maps, more than one hundred volunteers, and now more than three hundred supporters in order to assemble this kaleidoscopic introduction to both the cartographic context of food and the stories maps can tell.

With only six days remaining to support the publication of the Atlasthrough Kickstarter, and more than $6000 left to raise, I spoke to Jensen to find out how the Atlas came about, what it includes, and why it matters. You can read our conversation below, and reserve your advance copy to support the project here.

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Strip from a map of Urban Agriculture Projects in San Francisco, from Food: An Atlas.

I first came across your work a year and a half ago, when I wrote about a map that showed both gang territories and cupcake bakeries in the Mission district of San Francisco. It was created by a student of yours as part of a class assignment that also showed historic and future waterways, sounds, and specialty dog services. How does this new project relate to that earlier exercise in hyper-local cartography?

Darin Jensen: Mission Possible: A Neighborhood Atlas was a project of experiential learning. Each of my students chose their own subject matter and mapped it at the neighbourhood scale, and then I worked with them to put all the maps together into an atlas.

What that project did was make me realise that I could get people organised around making an atlas. I've always been interested in making atlases but, as a cartographer and as a university lecturer, I don't have time to make twenty or forty or one hundred maps, all on one subject. Even if I did, by the time I finished it, all the data would be starting to get stale and old.

That's why I call this atlas "a project of guerrilla cartography and publishing." I wanted to make atlases; they take too long to make, so this is an experiment in doing it faster. We can get the cartography done through crowd-sourcing, and now we're working on getting the publishing done that way too. It doesn't have to take two or three years to put out a book or an atlas.

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America's Beershed (or where US breweries source their ingredients), as mapped in Food: An Atlas.

Who have you worked with to crowd-source the content, and how long has the project taken?

Jensen: I wrote the call for maps in June of this year. There's an organisation called NACIS (the North American Cartographic Information Society), and they have a list of university cartography and GIS labs in North America, so I sent it to that list. I also found a list of food policy networks and professionals in the United States. I ended up sending the call to about 250 email addresses and from there it's gotten around on blogs and social media. I didn't want it to go to just anybody, because I wanted submissions from people who either had a background in cartographic and GIS analysis or were involved in food studies and food policy.

We've now got a hundred people working on the atlas, between the cartographers, the researchers, the editorial panel, and so on. I crowd-sourced vetting the maps as well -- I brought in a professor of education, a professor of GIS, a journalist, a data visualisation expert, and an author to help look at the maps, to analyse them, and to edit them. Right now, we're in the second round of editing and I'm starting to get a flood of maps coming back. Some people have adjusted their cartographic analysis and some needed a little graphic help.

This project has ended up really being about creating this community. I'm dealing with people everyday from all over the world that I've never met, and we're all working together.

And it was one thing to get the maps and vet them, but then I needed a graphic designer to do a cover and the inside matter. I had to have a production person who would contact all these cartographers and get the details for the notes and attributions in the back of the atlas. We want this to be good, scholarly work, so, for each map, we're making sure we know where the data comes from, what projection they're using, and so on. Then I had to find a guy who liked our project enough to make a video for the Kickstarter campaign. All of these people have done all of this work and they're not getting any financial benefit. The only money we've spent is $100 that I used to buy paper to print proofs.

This all started in June, as I said, and we plan on sending it to the printer on November 15.

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Farmers' Market Accessibility, as mapped in Food: An Atlas.

How many submissions did you receive in the end, and who did they come from?

Jensen: For the first deadline, we got about eighty maps, and a few more than sixty were viable. There were some that were just not going to work because of the subject matter or because the cartography was so bad that we could tell that there was no hope. But we're inching up towards seventy plus again because, as part of the Kickstarter campaign, we invite people to send us formatted maps, and we've had a number of really interesting ones come in.

I think we're going to have about seventy maps, in the end. And that doesn't include the kids' section, which is going to be fantastic. There's a group in the UK called the Geography Collective and they just came out this summer with Mission: Explore Food. It's all about the geography of food for kids. So we invited them to put together a six or seven-page section of excerpts from their book, which will be really fun.

Most of the maps came from individuals affiliated with universities. A quick scan of email addresses reveals the University of Texas, the University of Delaware, the University of Kentucky, Sheffield University, Dundee, Salem State, Rutgers, Johns Hopkins, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, Columbia, NYU... Then there are a few maps from organisations like Green Map System, Ecotrust, and iconoclasistas, as well as maps from independent scholars like Sandor Katz and Bill Rankin.

I believe most of the maps were produced for the atlas because we mostly received map proposals, rather than actual maps, with the first round.

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The Global Almond Trade, as mapped in Food: An Atlas.

Did you have in mind, editorially, an ideal selection of maps, or did you go into this thinking the content would be dictated purely by what came in and what was good enough?

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Nicola Twilley is author of the blog Edible Geography, co-founder of the Foodprint Project, and director of Studio-X NYC, an urban futures network run by Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning.

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