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The GPS Selfie: Embodied Mapping Practices in Veloviewer Explorer

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Abstract and Figures

Semester paper for Space and Place, MA Visual and Media Anthropology, Freie Universität Berlin. Accompanying film:
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The GPS Selfie: !
Embodied Mapping Practices in Veloviewer Explorer"
Karl Andersson"
Freie Universität Berlin"
Space and Place, 298C2-S19 !
Student ID: 5279610!
Lecturers: Christian Reichel and Mike Terry!
MA Visual and Media Anthropology !
30 August 2019 "
Introduction "
At least since Haraway (1988), it has been argued that knowledge is situated, as in dependent on
the context in which it was produced rather than neutral and objective, or “‘out there’ waiting to be
collected” (Hubbard et al. 2002, 8). Geographers are at the center of this epistemological turn,
since maps were often seen as “representations of the world” (Wood 2014, 285, emphasis in
original) – a concrete piece of neutral knowledge; a “fact of nature” (ibid., 283) – whereas they are
nowadays rather seen as performances – “artefacts with almost ritualistic functions” which are
“used to establish the real” (ibid., 284) with their own “particular aims and motivations” (Gibson et
al. 2010, 332).
In this essay I want to explore the corollary of that notion by zooming in on Veloviewer Explorer, a
website that visualises bicycle rides on a map in a gamelike fashion. By asking its users how and
why they use the website, I try to find an answer to my central research question: What is the allure
of Veloviewer Explorer for its users? Drawing on Parks’s concept of “subjective mapping” (Parks
2001, 212), I will argue that individuals’ use of geographical information systems (GIS) can be seen
as a form of self-expression.
Background and relevance"
Geospatial technologies (GT) is an umbrella term denoting systems for “collecting, storing,
displaying, or analyzing geographical information” (Kwan 2007, 22). GT can be applied in the form
of GIS, consisting of digital data, computer hardware, and computer software (Sutton et al 2009,
2). Satellite navigation such as GPS (Global Positioning System) can “capture, store and transmit
information about the relative location of things in space” (Gibson et al. 2010, 329), and is often a
part of GIS.
Pioneered by the US military (Gibson et al. 2010, 346; Parks 2001, 210), and for a long time used
mainly by companies and universities (Sutton et al 2009, 3), GPS-related technology is now
“rapidly finding its way into the flows of everyday life” (Parks 2001, 210) of individuals, where it is
used for both practical ends such as navigation and for gamelike activities such as geocaching
(O’Hara 2008) and Pokémon Go (Denyer-Simmons 2016).
The personal application of GT has opened up a new field of studies, where the “social and cultural”
aspect of GIS has begun to be explored (Gibson et al. 2010, 329). Even so, “bodies … are often
absent or rendered irrelevant in contemporary practices of GT” (Kwan 2007, 23). This paper
therefore aims to contribute to the research of embodied practices of GT.
Figure 1: Veloviewer Explorer. A map tile is marked (in a colour and opaqueness chosen by the user) if the
user has passed through it. The largest square within which all tiles are marked is called “max square” and is
surrounded by a frame. This image displays my max square, which in August 2019 measured 26 x 26 tiles.
The field site"
Veloviewer is a GIS application that visualises GPS data from Strava, a sports tracking website and
online community where millions of users upload their bicycle rides each week (Musakwa & Selala
2016, 903). Run by Ben Lowe, an individual in the UK, Veloviewer started as a spare time project
in 2012, but has since become a paid service.
Introduced in March 2015, Veloviewer’s “Explorer Score” is “the number of unique map tiles
(256x256 pixel) at zoom level 14” that the user has passed through, or checked. Related features
such as “max square”, which demarcates the biggest square of checked tiles on a heat map with
aggregated bike rides (see figure 1), and “max cluster”, which denotes the biggest solid area of
checked tiles that border to four other checked tiles in the north, east, south and west, were
“About”, Veloviewer (website),, accessed August 30, 2019.
Veloviewer, “New addition to the Summary page - the Explorer Score!”, March 28, 2015, accessed August
30, 2019,
subsequently introduced and gained a following of users who started riding in a way that made
them score points in these “disciplines”, which have their own leaderboards.
I created a web survey where I asked Veloviewer Explorer users to explain freely how they use the
application and what they like about it. Thanks to retweets by Veloviewer and other cycling-related
accounts on the social media platform Twitter, I got detailed responses from more than 70
Veloviewer Explorer users, all of them male. I went over a printout of all answers with highlighters
to find common themes. I followed up with semistructured interviews (Bernard 1995) with two
participants via the video conference application Zoom. Quotes from these interviews feature in the
ten minute film, “Tiling”, that accompanies this paper. The participants contributed to the film
with certain visual material and were happy with the final result.
As a researcher I am an insider; I have used Veloviewer extensively myself, and I was even the one
who inspired Ben Lowe to introduce the “max square” score, which I measured manually myself
before it became an official feature. A risk with being an insider is that one is “too familiar with the
setting for the unfamiliar and exotic to arouse curiosity” (O’Reilly 2009, 112). But since the
Veloviewer Explorer users are a disparate group with sometimes little interaction, as confirmed by
several respondents who said they would be interested to learn more about each other, we are in
some respects “exotic” enough to each other to “arouse curiosity”.
Cycling, exploring, visualising
Three consistent themes that emerged were a combination of love for cycling, exploring, and
visualising. If the cycling interest can be taken for granted, the exploring theme was expressed as a
will to “discover” and “explore” “new places” and “new roads to keep my riding interesting”.
Variations on this theme featured in the majority of survey responses and was seen as a major
benefit of Veloviewer Explorer. The visualising part includes an interest in maps, numbers, and
statistics. “I have always loved maps” and similar positive remarks were frequent. One said he
appreciated the “clever use of GPS, tracking, GIS and data”, another claimed to be “obsessed by
Veloviewer, “Inspired by the personal challenge of karlberlin on Twitter to Explore the biggest square
possible …”, November 8, 2015, accessed August 30, 2019,
Karl Andersson (@karlberlin), “Personal challenge: My biggest filled square in @VeloViewer Explorer is
now 20 tiles on each side. Thanks @Ben_Lowe!”, Twitter, November 8, 2015, accessed August 30, 2019,
Figure 2: Venn diagram of the interests that make people use Veloviewer Explorer.
On their own, each of these three interests would probably spark but a meagre interest in
Veloviewer Explorer, but when combined they constitute a potent mix that perfectly aligns with the
affordances of the application, as illustrated in figure 2.
The will to “expand your square” is driven by competition; some respondents mentioned how they
“compete with friends to pick up tiles, expand the max square and the cluster”, and that they aim
for the leaderboards. Others saw Veloviewer Explorer as a “competition with yourself” where even
those who are “not the fastest guy” can win. A 60 year old with “a slight heart condition” said that
Veloviewer Explorer “gives me something achievable I can improve on”. Yet others said they “like
to solve puzzles” and create the most efficient way to “score a tile”. Competing and solving puzzles,
not to mention “scoring”, are important elements in game design, and several respondents
mentioned “gamification” explicitly when asked what they like about Veloviewer Explorer. The
game aspect makes them “addicted”, “obsessed”, and “hooked”, but also “motivated”, “triggered”,
“encouraged”, or even “forced” to go out and explore new areas, and it also gives them a feeling of
“achievement” and “satisfaction” after having completed the “challenge” of collecting some hard
When probed further about the allure of Veloviewer Explorer, one respondent mentioned that “it
almost feels like it’s my territory”, in the sense that “because you’ve been there it belongs to you”.
Of course they know that they don’t own that territory, but this feeling adds a geo-strategic element
to route-planning and goes well with another respondent’s claim that “planning routes can take
almost as much time as riding them”.
Parks has researched how GPS can be used “to document human movement and everyday
experiences in a way similar to that of home video, photography and travelogues” (Parks 2001,
210), thus becoming a “technology of the self” (ibid., 211) and an “interactive medium”, since “the
user modifies the visual display of the GPS receiver each time she moves through space” (ibid.,
212). Veloviewer Explorer well captures this idea; the red line on the map is a documentation of the
bike ride, and the growing “max square” can be seen as a way to express oneself. In that sense, GPS
can be seen as a “new media form”, which might “yield new ways of seeing, new structures of
memory” (Parks 2001, 213). Although some Veloviewer Explorer users engage in more traditional
“GPS art” (Coulter-Smith 2009), it can be argued, following the reasoning of Parks, that all lines
drawn by the GPS constitute “art” in the same sense. A GPS image is “intimate” (Parks 2001, 218)
in the sense that no one gets the exact same line; the lines, drawn as they are between multiple
waypoints, are as diverse as we are as humans, although the abstract character of the GPS map
makes that harder to see:
Despite its abstraction and its inability to display the body as an
anthropomorphic form, we find in the GPS map new visual codes for representing
the body’s everyday itineraries. (Parks 2001, 218)
In that sense, the GPS maps created in Veloviewer Explorer can be seen as a form of abstract self-
portraits, or why not GPS selfies? Just like the traditional selfie has been described as “a side
product of the recent technological developments” (Tifentale & Manovich), so can the personal heat
map of a Veloviewer Explorer user be seen as a side product of the democratisation of GPS
technology. Although the goal is to grow a big “max square” or “max cluster” in Veloviewer
Explorer, the way its users do this differs. The “problem solving” process of growing your square is
in other words highly individualised, and the “satisfaction” of seeing your square grow may come
from the fact that it is your personal process that is behind the growth. The resulting square and
cluster then become unique expressions of the self, an “embodied map” (Parks 2001, 220) within
the standardised frame of the system. When the users talk about “puzzles” and “problem solving”,
they implicitly mean that it is their personal solution that will eventually materialise in the form of
a grown square. In the light of that, it is logical that planning routes can take as long as riding
them, since planning a route is an important part of the self-expression that the GPS selfie
constitutes – it may be compared to the careful preparation that goes into the making of a
traditional selfie (Wang 2016).
To round this up, I would like to join Parks in introducing Paul Virilio’s concept of the “trajective”,
which refers to “a space in between the subjective and objective” (Parks 2001, 214). In the case of
Veloviewer Explorer, the predefined grid of tiles may be called objective, and the user’s actual
biking subjective, whereas the resulting line is the trajective, “a ‘being of movement’ located
somewhere between the objective map of territory and the subjective experience of motion on the
ground” (ibid.). In Lefebvre’s (1991, 233) terminology, we might place the trajective between the
“representation of space” that the user sees on the computer screen when creating the route, and
the “representational space” of the actual world that is passed through. It is in the constant
“oscillation” between these two concepts, as represented by the trajective red line, that the allure of
Veloviewer Explorer resides. This is where the user performs by inscribing his own record onto the
canvas of the map, a process that Parks has captured:
When used as a technology of self-reflection, GPS can become interactive in the
most productive sense: it invites the user to see herself as a subject-in-motion, as
a reader and a writer, reflexively inscribing personal trajectories onto the text of
the social and the world of the everyday. (Parks 2001, 220)
By embracing the performative aspect of maps to the fullest, the ensuing GPS selfie can serve as a
beautiful embodiment of the idea that knowledge is situated.
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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