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Spotlight on Professor Annette Kim and the Spatial Analysis Lab (SLAB)



By Chi Zhang

Professor Annette Kim directs the newly established Spatial Analysis Lab (SLAB) at USC Price School for Public Policy. The lab leverages ethnographic methods and critical mapping to unveil urban processes and phenomena. Prior to joining USC, Professor Kim has led extensive research on street vendors and public space use in Vietnam, and low-income subterranean residents of Beijing.  



Professor Kim’s research on affordable housing and low-income migrant workers in Beijing engages both the human scale and the urban scale.



MetaConnects spoke with Professor Kim to learn about her past and current work, and the role of critical mapping in policy and public engagement.

MetaConnects: How do you use maps in your work?

Professor Kim: I think social change is undergirded by some core foundations in society of how we construct knowledge, so that if you want to change something, you often have to change the narrative of what is legitimate or what is happening. We try to develop alternative kinds of maps that could unleash knowledge about what is there.  What I really find compelling and intriguing is that there are things all around us that we just haven’t been seeing. That’s why I like to map the ubiquitous but overlooked, and maps can help them become apparent. Other people have been very creative, mapping smells, mapping feelings, mapping fallen fruits, etc. In my own work, one thing I have focused on is sidewalk life, which is actually the main open space in a lot of cities, but we just step on it and don’t notice it. 


Sidewalk use over time in Ho Chi Minh City, represented in symbols and images.


Professor Kim (cont.): Another critical position we take is to employ different aesthetics. There has been a lot of visualization that is computationally generated, that is really elegant and abstract. I love that too. But the kinds of visualizations we are introducing, contrary to conventional modes of mapping, often don’t look sleek and professional. They acknowledge the role of the map maker as another person, instead of this position of being the professional presenting an objective truth. We often try to re-humanize the map, so we try to find ways of showing people in the city. 


Map based on a conversation with a coconut water vendor who strategizes jurisdictional boundaries.


Metaconnects: How has your work been mobilized for policy and public engagement?

Professor Kim: I worked internationally, mostly in non-democratic societies, so you can’t do participatory organizing and meetings. My approach has been to do ethnographic research. For example, in Vietnam, we interviewed 275 street vendors, in different parts of the city. They haven’t formally organized before, but obviously they want to make a living and to have a space in the city. So seeing what their livelihood practices are is one thing I have been doing. This also contributes to our understanding of other modes of critical mapping projects besides the participatory.

I worked as a consultant with planning bureaus directly in places like Vietnam and China. But I think different kinds of visualizations can be helpful in introducing new narratives to the general public. For example, I have been doing exhibitions in the art realm. In a place like Vietnam, I was really surprised by the kind of reception it could get. There was a very curious larger public. I reached a lot more people than I did with policy reports to officials and it got a public conversation going. The exhibition raised issues that were featured on the front page of the largest newspaper in Vietnam and radio evening news, and two documentaries were made about the project. Exploring different spaces in society for creating narratives is an important aspect of SLAB’s public engagement.


MetaConnects: Where do you see community organizations in the work of SLAB?

Professor Kim: We have just landed in LA this year and are setting things up. My intent is to develop long-term relationships with community organizations, and we are just trying to find out who they are for now. I also think there will be a good part of SLAB that has its own research agenda. We are not consultants or contractors, but also trying to further knowledge about what’s possible to do with mapping.

In terms of public engagement events, we are going to have an exhibition in the fall, as part of the Visions and Voices series at USC, to showcase projects that reimagine the city. We also have a symposium about contesting the streets and vending in public space, which will happen in October 2-3.

For more examples of critical maps, see here

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