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GPS Art

Photo: GPSArt.
A new fad: using the mapping function on your phone to create art.

At the New York Times, Claire Fahy has a report on a hobby generating the kind of puzzled glances that Pokémon enthusiasts wandering through traffic used to elicit.

“In 1665,” she begins, “Johannes Vermeer dabbed the last drop of paint onto a canvas in his Dutch studio, completing his masterpiece ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring.’

“On an April day 357 years later, Janine Strong slowed her bike to stop, paused her fitness app, and watched as the snaking line of her cycling route drew the shape of Vermeer’s masterpiece over the streets of Brooklyn.

“Ms. Strong creates what has come to be known as ‘GPS art’ — a practice that uses the Global Positioning System mapping capabilities of modern phone apps like Strava to create digital drawings using an athlete’s route across the landscape.

“Instead of biking on a straight path or in circles around a park, Ms. Strong plans her rides in the shapes of birthday cakes, stars, birds, lions — and the occasional Vermeer.

“The hobby has grown with the widespread availability of satellite tracking for use by ordinary people, in fitness apps like Nike Run Club or MapMyRide. It is particularly popular on Strava and often referred to as ‘Strava art.’

“Strava art has existed since that app’s release in 2009, but it experienced a surge in use during the pandemic. According to Michael Joseph, a senior communications manager at the company, more than three billion activities have been uploaded to Strava since the beginning of 2020.

“To complete her digital vision of ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring,’ Ms. Strong biked almost 50 miles around southern Brooklyn, carefully checking Strava to make sure each turn, circle, and straightaway was achieving the iconic earring and head covering of Vermeer’s original.

‘I always have a big smile on my face when it works out and I upload it and it’s done,’ she said. ‘It’s a very satisfying feeling.’ …

“In 2003, the New York Times Magazine ‘Year in Ideas‘ issue told of how Jeremy Wood and Hugh Pryor used Garmin GPS devices that looked like walkie-talkies to trace routes resembling butterflies and fish on walks through the English countryside.

” ‘It’s not just walking; you’ve got to be looking at this device,’ Mr. Pryor said in a recent interview. ‘People always wonder what you’re doing.’

“Mr. Wood said he got the idea for GPS art while he was using a GPS tracker on a flight and the plane flew in a holding pattern above Heathrow Airport. He was captivated by the pattern appearing on his Garmin.

“ ‘It formed this most beautiful oval shape, and it was better than I could draw by hand,’ Mr. Wood said. ‘That’s when I made a connection: You could use one’s movements to make marks in space.’

“Mr. Pryor, a classmate of Mr. Wood’s, had to develop software to get the GPS points off the Garmin and onto a computer, turning the data into drawings. In the years since, technology has advanced enough to create visual maps in real time using a phone or smart watch. …

“The practice has spread from the fields of Oxfordshire in England to the sand dunes of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil. Gustavo Lyra has run around Rio Grande in the image of John Lennon’s face and spent almost nine hours running a route for his daughter’s fifth birthday. It was an image of Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. …

“Gene Lu, who lives in New Jersey, started creating GPS art when he became a fan of the Game of Thrones TV series in 2013. He ran the shape of the family crests from the program. …

“Lenny Maughan, who refers to himself as a ‘human Etch A Sketch,’ also started out making map art tied to pop culture. Leonard Nimoy — Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek — had just died in 2015, and Mr. Maughan decided to pay him tribute. … ‘I thought, OK, I’m going to do the Vulcan salute.’

“The art form even has its own Guinness World Records categories. The Guardian profiled a couple who completed a 4,500-mile bike ride across Europe (while blogging the journey) that resulted in a 600-mile-wide GPS drawing of a bicycle — the largest such drawing on record, according to the Guardian. …

“For Mr. Lu, the unexpected is part of the beauty.

“ ‘The crazy thing is that you sort of don’t know where the map takes you; you just go with it,’ Mr. Lu said. ‘I always end up with what I’m looking for.’ “

More at the Times, here.

Photo: Daniel Rayneau-Kirkhope/Arianna Casiraghi.
The virtual bicycle drawn by Daniel Rayneau-Kirkhope and Arianna Casiraghi is 600 miles across and covers seven countries. See the article at the Guardian.

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Photo: Tim McDonnell /for NPR 
Samuel-Richard Bogobley holds a GPS-enabled tablet to capture the location of one corner of an underwater clam “farm.” Collecting data is the first step in protecting indigenous livelihoods.

I love reading about how people around the world come up with constructive ways to use technology. This story is about clam farmers in Africa enlisting GPS data as a first step in protecting indigenous rights.

Writes Tim McDonnell at National Public Radio, “Samuel-Richard Bogobley is wearing a bright orange life vest and leaning precariously over the edge of a fishing canoe on the Volta River estuary, a gorgeous wildlife refuge where Ghana’s biggest river meets the Gulf of Guinea.

“He’s looking for a bamboo rod poking a couple feet above the surface. When he finds it, he holds out a computer tablet and taps the screen. Then he motions for the captain to move the boat forward as he scans the water for the next rod. …

” ‘Before you can start to recognize a fishery, you need to have a lot of data,’ says Bogobley, a researcher with Hen Mpoano, a Ghanaian nonprofit that supports small-scale fishers. ‘These people don’t have any platform to fight for what is theirs.’

“The Volta River is rich with clams, harvested year-round by a bustling community of several hundred fishermen and women. The meat is packaged for sale across West Africa, while the shells are ground into an additive for whitewash and chicken feed.

“The riverbed itself is divided into intricate real-estate parcels, each one an underwater clam ‘farm’ with its own caretaker.

“The farms have become a flashpoint in a broader conflict over the land rights of indigenous peoples in Africa: The clam fishers have no legal claim to their farms, and are under increasing pressure as they compete for prime real estate with the booming tourism industry and cope with the impacts of climate change. …

“[Clam farmer Kofi] Amatey spends most of every day working here about ten feet below the surface, gathering clams into a basket. Wearing eye goggles and a weighted belt, he breathes through a makeshift scuba apparatus that pumps air from a compressor on his canoe.

“It’s a subsistence living: Amatey estimates that he earns less than $1,000 per year. And in recent years, it’s gotten even harder.

“A crop of new luxury resort hotels now crowd the riverbanks, forcing the clam fishers off of land where they used to live, dock canoes and process clams. Tourists’ speedboats and jet skis churn the water, threatening to topple the narrow dugout canoes loaded with clams. …

“Without a formal, legal claim to the clam farms, Amatey and his neighbors say they have no way to protect themselves from hoteliers and other developers who acquire deeds from the government. …

“Many indigenous land rights lack protection because of a scarcity of data. …

“That’s where the GPS tablets come in. A growing number of research groups and international aid organizations are rolling out software aimed at making it easier for anyone with a tablet or smartphone to accurately map community-held land and record basic information about its proprietors. This data alone doesn’t offer any legal protection, but it’s an essential starting place.”

More here.

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