Don't Worry, Austin is Still Weird

StreetCred Team - February 25, 2019

First: Welcome to MapAustin week! This Friday we begin a contest to map all the places in Austin to win Bitcoin. Check out the details here; we’d love you to join us.

Second: If you’re in Austin this Thursday, we’re having a party and you should come! Sign up here.

Third: to celebrate MapAustin week, we're running a series with a special guest: Fletcher Berryman, a New York based writer and photographer who covers overlooked areas of NYC and beyond on his site fletch.nyc. We love his work, so this week he’s going to write about East Austin, Bouldin, and Barton Springs. Check back every day this week to explore Austin neighborhoods with us.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="1600.0"]  The Texan flag. Quite possibly flown with more frequency and pride than any other state flag in America, and rightly so.  Austin, TX The Texan flag. Quite possibly flown with more frequency and pride than any other state flag in America, and rightly so. Austin, TX [/caption]

Here’s Fletcher, with some background:

Ready yourself for a three-part literary journey to the middle of Texas, an adventure involving an app that’s changing the world of mapping and one that begins, in of all places, two blocks over from the New York Stock Exchange.

Far below the celestial monuments of stone and steel, underneath the ever-reaching towers of Man for which no number of superlatives will ever do justice (though the day-to-day experience of such grandiosity and wonder is often counter-balanced by men verbally accosting you with discounted boat tours to the Statue of Liberty), stands a giant bronze bull. Across the street and in the background of the countless photos taken with it by tourists (who believe in the bottom of their innocent hearts that they are the first people to think of taking a picture cupping the aforementioned bull’s manhood) lies an ornate building whose doorway is labelled by yet another piece of bronze… a small, largely unnoticed plaque.

For the four out of seventeen thousand people (myself being one of them) who actually read these trivia-ridden signs that can be found scattered across the city, this particular plaque tells quite the story. The building is 26 Broadway. Once the site of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton’s home three centuries prior, this site is now home to a gigantic feat of masonry which came to be in 1888 when one of America’s largest companies at the time up and left Cleveland to reestablish itself in The City That Never Sleeps. That company was Standard Oil, one of the earliest and largest multinational corporations on the planet, was led by the famed John D. Rockefeller, still the richest man in modern history.

He and his company are long dead but his opulence lives on in the building that stands on the site to this very day. If you enter this building and take its equally impressive elevators to the 3rd floor you’ll find a small team of mapping veterans doing big things. I found out about the company and their eponymous app, StreetCred, through, well, reading (people still read sometimes).

I like to read. A lot. A lot, a lot. In fact, to say I like reading is perhaps a slight lie. It’s more of a full-fledged addiction; at times I feel compelled to read when my mind and body and swollen eyes are begging me to stop. But the addiction reaches deeper still, until hours later I come-to...where I end up, God only knows. Wikipedia articles about Scrabble letter distributions, archival New York Times articles about fatal boxing matches, official letters from the IRS legally recognizing the Jedi Order as a legitimate and tax-exempt religious organization …I never know where I’ll eventually surface. Usually, I don’t take any action on it. Yet when I read an article in Wired Magazine titled “This Mapping Startup is Challenging Google Maps – And It Needs You”, I was immediately intrigued. I reached out to their team and have since had the pleasure of both sitting down with them at 26 Broadway and ultimately heading to Texas this past week to happily tell the next chapter of their story.

StreetCred’s mission, one they’ve already begun to achieve, is to close a long-standing gap in the world of mapping. Many people, understandably, think that “everything has been mapped”. But stop to think for a second. How do new cafes on your block or the latest daycare center in your neighborhood appear on your smartphone’s map? Is it a magical series of code? A thousands-deep team of people in a cramped Google office who do nothing but place dots on maps whenever the next cute cafe that thinks its original for having a minimalist menu and hanging plants appears out of thin air? The answer is actually far more surprising.

For the most part,

Regular people do it.

People like you and me.

Just as average Joes and Janes contribute articles to Wikipedia, users all over the world contribute points of interests to crowdsourced projects such as OpenStreetMap whose data in turn feeds hundreds of thousands of apps…many of which you may be using right this very moment. And just like Wikipedia, human interest, trends, cultural influence and countless other inherent biases affect what people decide to map and not map. Wikipedia has struggled for ages to counter its vast disparity in content by language: tons of people write articles in English, not so much in Albanian. Likewise, just about everyone maps Times Square, to the point where it is “over-mapped”, yet hardly anyone maps the far reaches of The Bronx or malls in Staten Island. If and when companies like Google even do map these areas, the cost to obtain and use the data can be extraordinary. Cartographers have wondered for a long time how to fix this problem and StreetCred seems to have hit the jackpot for solving it:

Make it a game.

StreetCred holds competitions where users are challenged to map as many features as possible. Some features are worth more points than others. The top contributors win Bitcoin, amounting to thousands of dollars for the top spot. There first competition, MapNYC, was a smash hit, with 761 contributors and thousands of features added to the map. But Streetcred isn’t stopping there. Their next competition, Map Austin, promises a prize pool worth over $50,000 and a whole new city to explore. When they asked if I’d want to take to the streets of Austin beforehand and write as I always do about the overlooked areas of a city, I eagerly agreed and headed straight for JFK.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="750.0"] Adding a place in Streetcred’s app takes seconds. Here, I added a hamburger joint right after stepping off the plane. Adding a place in Streetcred’s app takes seconds. Here, I added a hamburger joint right after stepping off the plane. [/caption]

Now my only other foray into the Great State of Texas involved several days of eating nothing but Whataburger for three days and debating the Grassy Knoll Theory while visiting friends in Dallas (I feel compelled to mention tangentially that Dallas weirdly has an incredible aquarium). Austin, however, has remained high on my list for years. For being the self-described geography nerd that I am, I admittedly knew quite little about the place heading into the trip. I knew of its reputation as the Live Music Capital of the World, that is had a famous spring-fed pool, and that its residents were insistent on Keeping It Weird. Beyond that, my imagination was left to wander as I flew from New York through chilly Minneapolis and straight down to the Republic of Texas.

Check back in tomorrow for an exploration of East Austin.