With his maps, ge­og­ra­pher David Gar­cia helps make the Philip­pines a safer place


A car­tog­ra­pher draws the Philip­pines’ pre­car­i­ous points

Ge­og­ra­pher, car­tog­ra­pher, and urban plan­ner David Gar­cia says there is one quote by dis­tin­guished ge­og­ra­pher David Har­vey that re­mains in­grained in his con­scious­ness through the years: “Ge­og­ra­phy is too im­por­tant to be left to ge­og­ra­phers.” This, per­haps, is the driv­ing force be­hind Map­maker, a project that Gar­cia started af­ter Typhoon Yolanda hit the Philip­pines in 2013.

Pri­mar­ily a Face­book page where maps of the coun­try are made ac­ces­si­ble to any­one in­ter­ested, Map­maker doesn’t just sim­ply show peo­ple how to get around. In­stead, the maps on the page chart the routes of cy­clones and earth­quakes in the Philip­pines. All the maps fea­tured on Map­maker were care­fully de­signed by Gar­cia, who is tak­ing his masters on geospa­tial anal­y­sis at the Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don.

Ac­cord­ing to the ge­og­ra­pher, al­though it was the dev­as­tat­ing af­ter­math of Typhoon Haiyan that ul­ti­mately pushed him to es­tab­lish Map­maker, he has al­ways had the de­sire to have an ac­ces­si­ble plat­form for as­sess­ing haz­ards in the coun­try. Af­ter vol­un­teer­ing in map­ping and plan­ning projects with the lo­cal gov­ern­ment of Guian, Sa­mar and the United Na­tions, he con­tin­ued cre­at­ing maps that would be use­ful to Filipinos.

Now, Map­maker has be­come an on­line com­mu­nity that con­tin­ues to grow. Through the page, Gar­cia has suc­cess­fully piqued in­ter­est in ma­te­ri­als that would aid the coun­try when dis­as­ters and nat­u­ral calami­ties strike. With his cre­ations, Gar­cia has also suc­cess­fully shared the im­por­tance of dis­as­ter man­age­ment and pre­pared­ness.

But what is ad­mirable is how Gar­cia has turned map­mak­ing not only into a tool for up­hold­ing an ad­vo­cacy, but his per­sonal art as well. Maps on Map­maker, un­like the tra­di­tional, straight­for­ward ones we are used to, fea­ture Gar­cia’s dis­tinct aes­thetic. Some even look like pop art prints. Th­ese days, Gar­cia can be found ex­per­i­ment­ing on dif­fer­ent types of maps—the most re­cent one chart­ing the en­tire Philip­pine ar­chi­pel­ago’s road net­works.

To know more about uti­liz­ing maps and how im­por­tant map­mak­ing is in a calamity-prone coun­try like ours, we sat down with Gar­cia.

What is car­tog­ra­phy and why is it im­por­tant?

For a long time, car­tog­ra­phy was called the sci­ence and art of mak­ing maps and charts. But there’s a nice, al­ter­na­tive view of what car­tog­ra­phy is: It’s re­ally about mak­ing an ar­gu­ment. This def­i­ni­tion was pro­posed by De­nis Wood. When you look at a map of a coun­try, the maker tries to con­vince you that all the is­lands you see on the map are part of the na­tional ter­ri­tory. When you study a map of geo­haz­ards, the maker is try­ing to per­suade you to think of the haz­ards that might af­fect you—and pos­si­bly act on them. When you dig up the ti­tle of your real es­tate prop­erty, the map there was made to prove to you that it is your land. When you use Google Maps to ask for di­rec­tions, the re­sults that the in­ter­face re­turns is try­ing to con­vince you to take a par­tic­u­lar route. When you think of car­tog­ra­phy as some­thing in that way, then its im­por­tance be­comes clearer: It helps prove a point. When a map helps in com­mu­ni­cat­ing a claim, the reader can ex­plore more ideas, think about is­sues, and take ac­tion.

What’s the idea be­hind Map­maker?

Here was the prob­lem I was try­ing to ad­dress: In the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, ge­og­ra­phy looks like a tra­di­tional and frozen field. On the other hand, “geospa­tial anal­y­sis” and urban plan­ning sounded com­pli­cated and eli­tist. My col­leagues and I un­der­stood each other so well. But that meant that we were merely preach­ing to one another, the con­verted. In con­trast, I wanted a plat­form on spa­tial mat­ters that peo­ple, in gen­eral, can re­late to.

The core idea was to cre­ate a chan­nel where I can

“There are no com­pletely safe places in the Philip­pines. There are only places of vary­ing risks and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, and the peo­ple’s ca­pac­ity to pre­pare and adapt.”

help cit­i­zens think about them­selves and so­ci­ety in a spa­tial way. Through maps, I’d like to pro­mote both ba­sic ideas on open­ness and im­por­tant ge­o­graph­i­cal is­sues. For ex­am­ple, in the “100 Largest Is­lands” map, I did not put in the pro­vin­cial bound­aries. I wanted to com­mu­ni­cate that there are many things that we have in com­mon and that ge­og­ra­phy shouldn’t be a rea­son for us to be di­vided. About the map on his­tor­i­cal cy­clones and earth­quakes, I wanted to show that there are no com­pletely safe places in the Philip­pines. It was also about per­suad­ing peo­ple to rally around is­sues such as dis­as­ters and cli­mate change.

Ge­og­ra­phy shouldn’t just be about cap­i­tals, bound­aries, or names of fa­mous places. That view on “what is where” or “where is what” is very lim­it­ing. By show­ing ge­o­graph­i­cal pat­terns in Map­maker, I’d like peo­ple to ask the why and how be­hind the what and the where.

We no­ticed that the maps you make are more ap­proach­able in terms of de­sign. How im­por­tant is the de­sign of a map?

In gen­eral, the de­sign of a map is the only thing that bridges the ideas of the map­maker with the au­di­ence. It’s com­pa­ra­ble with the rea­sons why writ­ers must forge clear and com­pelling sen­tences. I re­mem­ber what Mar­shall McLuhan claimed: “The medium is the mes­sage.”

The maps that I make look sim­ple, but they take long hours to think about, test, and build. There’s a lot of search­ing, data clean­ing, and it­er­at­ing. There are a lot of feel­ings, af­fect, and emo­tions too, due to per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence. I usu­ally make maps on geo­haz­ards and risks be­cause of the suf­fer­ing I en­coun­tered in places hit by dis­as­ter and con­flict. I mo­ti­vate my­self with such ex­pe­ri­ence and turn bad ex­pe­ri­ences into use­ful maps.

Study­ing the Philip­pine ar­chi­pel­ago and its is­lands, what are the com­mon mis­takes you see in the maps avail­able?

My knowl­edge about Philip­pine ge­og­ra­phy has lim­its, but here are three gen­eral ob­ser­va­tions I have on the ques­tion. They’re about qual­ity, us­abil­ity, and open­ness.

First, I think that there is a gen­eral lack of qual­ity in maps that are avail­able. That lack of qual­ity means that some places are miss­ing or that there are er­rors. For ex­am­ple, dur­ing the Haiyan re­sponse in Ta­cloban, we found out that even the San Juanico Bridge— the largest and long­est bridge in the re­gion—is not in of­fi­cial maps. Sev­eral places’ names were also in­cor­rect. On the side of the com­mer­cial map providers, a lot of houses in vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties are “in­vis­i­ble” be­cause the providers can’t make profit with such data—as op­posed to data in ma­jor cities. How can we plan if the in­fra­struc­ture is miss­ing and com­mu­ni­ties are in­vis­i­ble on the map?

Sec­ond, I think that such is­sues on data qual­ity af­fect the us­abil­ity of the maps. Let’s say we are in a com­mu­nity meet­ing to dis­cuss dis­as­ter pre­pared­ness or urban health is­sues. If the res­i­dents don’t even see their homes on the map, then it will be dif­fi­cult for them to bet­ter un­der­stand and make de­ci­sions based on the data. Fur­ther­more, the lack of us­abil­ity erodes the trust in the geo­graphic in­for­ma­tion.

Fi­nally, there will still be is­sues even if the data is ac­cu­rate and com­plete. Gen­er­ally, there is a sig­nif­i­cant amount of data that ex­ists in the data­bases of the gov­ern­ment. The ma­jor hin­drance is that the geo­graphic data is nei­ther free, open, nor ac­ces­si­ble. Dur­ing the Haiyan re­sponse, there were times when we had to wait for months for our re­quests to be ac­com­mo­dated by the na­tional gov­ern­ment. There were times when we had quick ac­cess to the data, but we had to do a sig­nif­i­cant amount of un­nec­es­sary re­pro­cess­ing be­cause they were in closed for­mats— like in PDFs—which is not good for anal­y­sis. The goal was to make print maps, the most ac­ces­si­ble for­mat for far-flung com­mu­ni­ties with no in­ter­net.

What have you learned about the Philip­pines through car­tog­ra­phy?

There are no com­pletely safe places in the Philip­pines. There are only places of vary­ing risks and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, and the peo­ple’s ca­pac­ity to pre­pare and adapt.

What are your goals for Map­maker?

To keep mak­ing maps that peo­ple find use­ful and en­joy the process. I’d like Map­maker to be an in­vi­ta­tion for peo­ple to treat ge­og­ra­phy as part of their way of life.

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