Towards a spatial epidemiology of hate

The relationship between airs, waters and spaces are connected to our individual and collective well-being, write Hippocrates, the ancient greek physician. However, the first clear use of disease diffusion mapping is not found until the cholera maps of John Snow, which were used to identify the source of the outbreak at the end of the 19th century.

What John Snow discovered was that locating infection data on a map could yield radically new understanding about a disease. Doing so in response to cholera started the research into microbes, previously inconceivably and invisible organisms, as sources for ill health. Rather than making visible that which was thought to exist, Snows maps also revealed that which was previously invisible, intellectually inconceivable and unknown. Visualizing data provided answers, but more importantly it changed the nature of the questions.

Since Snow’s map, both our mapping tools and data collection strategies have become increasingly more sophisticated and complex. Regrettably, the politics of how data is collected and where boundaries are drawn are now often used to create maps which do not change questions but rather verify dominant mythologies and ideologies, as “How to Lie with Maps” by Mark Monmonier shows so clearly.

Disturbed by the amount of vitriol and Islamophobia in the United States during the 10th anniversary of September 11, I was wondering what would happen if we were to map all the incidents of aggression against Muslims and those who were perceived to be Muslim in space and also in time.

BIASMAP, a spatial epidemiology of hate tracks bias and prejudice by crowdsourcing reports of perceived discrimination and overt expressions of hate directed against specific groups of people. With Biasmap we ask, what patterns emerge? What questions are created, when we see time periods and geographic areas where this aggression is more prominent? Do the clusters of aggression spread out over time?

Some research points to the fear of infection by outsiders as the basis for prejudicial behavior. Biasmap asks, Is hate and prejudice infectious and what are the means and methods of transmission of this disease? How does official hate speech of political candidates and public figures spread to the people around them?

It is now 2013 and we are about to launch a new phase of the project and we want you to be a part of it. We want everyone to be able to help out. Together we will map the aggression and prejudice against us and all of our brothers and sisters. Muslims, Jews, Black, Brown, Yellow and White, Lesbian , Gay, Transgendered, politically left and perhaps even politically conservative. If we logged this aggression, what questions will we are able to answer and more importantly what new questions would emerge?

BIASMAP.ORG, is a web-based mapping tool that allows everyone to report incidents of prejudice and hate via text messages, emails and even twitter.

The mapping is not limited to criminal activity, but includes the small almost imperceptible moments when you realize that something just happened that was unfair or unkind, because of who you are. We walk away from those moments all the time. Often we are made to think that we imagined not getting the job because of our gender, our race or our country of origin. While we may never know the answer, recording these moments is one of the motivations behind BIASMAP. Imagine that everyone that had one of those experiences mapped it. What patterns might we discover?

A coincidence is a one-time occurrence, a pattern is a collections of coincidence organized in time and or space.

BIASMAP’s goal is not to know, but instead to see and to discover.

Traditional and legal approaches to the problem of prejudice focus on the perpetrator, on the person committing the act against the victim. Adorno called this the authoritarian mind.

What happens if we collectively say, we believe you had this experience, regardless of who or what might have caused it? If you say this happened and this is how I felt. What happens, if we do not ask who did it and instead paid attention to how many people had similar experiences in the same place?

Bias is invisible and often unverifiable, but our experience of it is real. While we may not see the “microbes” of this “prejudice disease,” we see the effects on people and things. It is your experience; it causes changes in your body. Physical changes. Biopsychosocial models show stress related to ill health and detrimental to positions in work and society. What might happen when maps of prejudice experiences are overlaid over maps of city services, income, quality of education, and public health data?

Making these experiences visible might make us realize that we can no longer pretend that they do not exist or that the problem is not that bad.

People will say that this will create changes in behavior. People will stop going to those places. This is true, Egyptian women, informed of the high number of assaults in Tahrir Square, certainly changed their behaviors. Some men also changed theirs, setting up private patrols, organizing protests and interventions to reclaim these spaces.

The collection of harassment data in Egypt, has elevated the problem to the level of a national debate and for the first time people are openly talking about the problem in public media.

By logging the experiences of people and mapping them, these acts of aggression that thrive on secrecy are being made visible, allowing artists, educators and activists to respond with strategic and tactical actions.

Like John Snow in 1854, we are blind, and we are formulating questions based on blindness. How will our questions change, when we can see, perhaps for the first time, what is actually happening.

Join us on BIASMAP.org and help make the invisible – visible.

Huang, J. Y. et al. “Immunizing Against Prejudice: Effects of Disease Protection on Attitudes Toward Out-Groups.”

Racism as a stressor for African Americans. A biopsychosocial model. Clark R, Anderson NB, Clark VR, Williams DR.

Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J., Sanford, R. N. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. Norton: NY.