One little dot

Maps truly are everywhere – but I didn’t expect to see one in the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. The entire experience of her story and actually being in the building is very moving, but it was a map that stopped me dead in my tracks. It was a map of Amsterdam, with its unmistakable ring of canals. and perfectly ordered little black dots throughout the city, with some areas blackened by the number of dots within an area.

Each dot represented 10 Jewish people living in Amsterdam in 1941.

This map, Verspreiding van de Joden Over de Gemeente, 1941 (translates to Distribution of Jews across the Municipality), was created by the Amsterdam Council for the Nazi commander during the occupation. The map was to be used to create Jewish ghettos in the city. (These ghettos were never created.) There are different theories of how the data was collected, but it was not uncommon at the time to have to specify religious affiliation when conducting municipal business, and as we know, many Jews were required to “self identify”.

This map struck me on two levels – 1) as an American, to see any one religion or ethnic group singled out in such specific detail horrifies me to my core (Yes, take note current American administration, it’s not ok to do this. ) and 2) to see how “easy” it would be for the Nazis to pinpoint their searches was striking. I am naïve to think this kind of information didn’t exist. It had to exist, but you don’t think about this within the context surrounding Anne Frank’s story. I studied it for a while, of course picking out the street where we are staying – there is one dot.

Click the map to enlarge.

The map demonstrated something I learned about the current mapping of data when speaking with the authors of “London: the Information Capital.” Although each dot represented 10 people, and no actual addresses are on the map, it reveals how the visualization of data can reveal too much information about individuals. Considering Anne’s family had four people in it, one dot could easily represent one to three families. When you look at the areas with fewer dots, you might only need to knock on 5 or 6 doors before you find who you are looking for. Modern data representations should be more generalized, thus protecting the individual’s information. Unfortunately, protection of individuals was not the purpose of the map in 1941.

In front of the map, I literally stopped to think about how many current maps of this nature must exist right now, but are not available for public view. Is there a map of where Muslims are concentrated in Jersey City? Or where various refugees are settled Dayton? I shutter to think…. So much data is “out there.” If it exists, it can be put in mapping software and Voila!

Then, as today, Amsterdam was a very tolerant place. Throughout the city’s history, immigrants were welcomed from all over the world, mainly to work in the country’s booming shipping industries. But they were welcome, nonetheless, and still are today. History shows religion didn’t, and doesn’t today, matter in Amsterdam. I would like to think the Amsterdamers who created this map did not intend for their meticulous dots to bring serious harm to anyone.

As they say, we must learn from our past. I don’t want to sound paranoid, but think twice about what information you put out there about yourself. Think twice when it comes to our rights as digital citizens. If you are an information designer or data hunter/gatherer know your work will be around forever.



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