Minh’s Notes

Human-readable chicken scratch

Minh Nguyễn
December 31st, 2022


Another map for another history

My steady diet of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? on PBS during the ’90s prepared me well a hobby and career in mapmaking. The show taught me, an utter non–football fan, how to scream at the TV set as the seconds flew by while the contestant fumbled an easy opportunity to land a marker on the Central African Republic. Looking back, it isn’t surprising that my clever hack to procrastinate on studying for finals turned into something much more obsessive. In a couple months, I’ll be wrapping up a whirlwind four years on the board of OpenStreetMap’s U.S. chapter, three of them as president. I’m term-limited, which I guess is another way of saying that I procrastinated on seeking higher office.

One of the highlights of my year was keynoting at WikiConference North America + Mapping USA, the first-ever online conference organized jointly by the OpenStreetMap and Wikimedia communities in the U.S. and beyond. I used my keynote address to encourage the OSM community to think beyond OSM and consider the other open geography projects that could complement it, just as the Wikimedia community branched out from its breakout hit, Wikipedia, many years ago and has so much to show for it. I don’t want OSM to be a one-hit wonder. We insiders know the work to build a world map never ends, but the project’s relevance to the real world is not a given and not a constant.

This year I started contributing to OpenHistoricalMap, an OSM spinoff that’s mapping the whole world throughout history. For the time being, it’s very blank, just a cut above a cool technical demonstration, but it holds a lot of promise. Historical mapping has long been the domain of academics studying certain sites or themes in great detail. But there’s also a “lowercase” history that ordinary folks need to tell, about their own communities, about the sacred, the profane, and the mundane.

Back in 2015, when I finally got around to mapping San José, years after moving here from Cincinnati, one edit turned into hundreds because I couldn’t round a corner without seeing something else that needed fixing. So it is with OHM. It’s amazing how much historical knowledge you hold in your head until an opportunity arises and you open the floodgates. The school that was replaced by a church. The church that was replaced by a school. The favorite ice cream parlor. The building whose name never made sense until I came across a news clipping about its original tenant. The restaurant that was teetering before the pandemic did it in.

I’ve detailed my birthplace, my hometown, and ever increasing bits of my surroundings. This effort will never hold the same commercial appeal as OSM, but it is a unique outlet for anyone with a sense of nostalgia. There are enough of us nostalgic people around to build an incomparable resource for genealogists, journalists, and students.

I could never watch Where in the World’s spinoff, Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? Same thief, same Chief, but you can’t just replace geography with history, swap out Rockapella for people in jumpsuits dancing around a metal detector, shelve the round-trip tickets to far-off lands in favor of a static copy of the Encyclopædia Britannica, and expect a kid to like it. There’s another side to history – it’s about time we put it on the map.


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