Landscape Architecture

Posted June 29, 2020

From the Rooftops: Dana Tomlin

From the Rooftops is a virtual lecture series hosted by the Department of Landscape Architecture at the Weitzman School of Design.

Monday,  June 29, 2020
Dana Tomlin, Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture 
"Whether Mapping"

A Q&A with Dana Tomlin.

Images and maps must engage attention, and more importantly, compel behavior in order to be significant. We are receiving mixed messages from many directions on how to behave these days in regards to Covid-19, so data-driven maps seem more important than ever. What are your strategies for engaging the public’s attention with these maps, and what do you hope people take away from them?

D.T. My presentation’s title alludes to the prospect of using our mobile devices to consult maps that not only report on traffic or weather, but which also offer real-time guidance on things ranging from crime to COVID. Yet even as these capabilities become more commonplace and sophisticated, it’s clear that their essential role remains more descriptive than prescriptive. The one very notable exception is vehicular navigation: something now taken for granted and which I think represents a wave of the near future in terms of digital mapping. As for COVID, however, maps will always pale in comparison to painful word of mouth. So perhaps we should be thinking in terms of using the former to facilitate the latter. This might be done by augmenting official data with crowd-sourced accounts, for example, or even brokering one-to-one connections.

With the Covid Case Maps project, you have mapped cases at a zoomed-in level, looking at towns, and then zoomed out to a global scale. Have the results of any of these maps surprised you? Can you tell us about additional mapping projects in relation to Covid that you plan to work on?

D.T. Having now been at this for several months, we’ve been struck by the rates at which incidence has risen and fallen - and risen again - over space as well as time. It’s been a bumpier-than-expected ride and one that is still far from over. In anticipation, our team is currently working with other colleagues at Yale on projects characterizing opportunities and constraints relating to the use of telemedicine across the United States, monitoring the incidence of COVID among U.S. prison populations, tracking the financial effects of the pandemic across the globe, and noting its local effect on levels of debt across the City of New Haven.

How would you describe the experience of working remotely with the Covid Case Map? What are the biggest challenges / lessons learned?

D.T. Interaction with both critics and contributors has actually proven to be more efficient in this new world of all-remote communication. In particular, we have found that the most effective way to interact is by relying primarily on asynchronous devices like messaging and online data sharing, with synchronous face time regarded as the much more precious (in both the positive and negative senses of that term) alternative.

You mention a “playfully serious” spirit in regards to incorporating mapping tools and technology within academic programs. At what point did you truly start playing with data?

D.T. As an undergraduate student in Landscape Architecture in the mid-70s, one of my studio assignments was to “learn a computer programming language and do something interesting with it.”  In response (and as one who naively felt at the time that computing was antithetical to design), I was able to develop a program that purported to play tic-tac-toe. Before long, however, I discovered that - when cornered - my program would erase the moves of its opponent. I was hooked.

Lastly, does the Father of GIS have any words of wisdom for those of us starting out? 

D.T. I’ve accepted enough unwarranted accusations over the years that I suppose it’s only fair to accept some unwarranted credit as well.  In any event, what I would now offer is one piece of advice that has certainly been taken to heart by my actual son: Unless you are able to sustain yourself by pursuing your favorite hobby, you really should find a new hobby.