A mental map of city street drugs

Urbanite has a fascinating article on researchers who are attempting to map drug users’ minds onto the city streets.

They are giving addicts GPS-enabled PDAs that ask the participants to rate their psychological state as they move around Baltimore.

By using pre-existing maps of the city that chart things like neighbourhood poverty and local drug availability it’s possible to see how the mental state of users changes as they move through the different physical and social environments of the city.

To make the patterns of movement meaningful, the researchers have to understand the various city “environments” that the drug users move through. This job fell to Craig, the biostatistician and a Baltimore native. To create maps of the urban landscape, Craig started with Census indices, which include race, income, and other socioeconomic metrics. To those he added a system developed by Dr. Debra Furr-Holden at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, who sent teams out to score city blocks based on physical characteristics (broken windows, shell casings, street memorials for recent killings) and on people’s behavior (clearly intoxicated adults, unsupervised children, and so on). “Her data are like nothing else I’ve ever seen,” says Epstein.

On these maps, Craig plots the paths of drug users as they move through the city, weaving in the information they’ve plugged into their PDAs. The result is a detailed rendering of how addiction is lived in space and time, opening a new window on the experience of tens of thousands of city residents. “Their work is novel,” says Yale University’s Rajita Sinha, professor of psychiatry and child study and director of the Yale Stress Center. This research “allows us to understand the social context in which drug use takes place and to evaluate that context,” says Sinha, who is internationally known for her pioneering research on the mechanisms linking stress to addiction.

The technique is called ‘ecological momentary assessment’ – although it is similar to a closely related method called ‘experience sampling’ that also involves giving participants an electronic device that requires they record their mental state at various points in their daily life.

These techniques have been around since the early 90s but the new aspect is the incorporation of GPS to map these responses into physical space.

One of the pioneers of this technique has been, not a scientist, but the artist Christian Nold, who has been making emotion maps of cities for many years to beautiful effect.

The Urbanite article covers how a team from the US National Institute on Drug Abuse are attempting perhaps the most ambitious and data-rich version of this approach to date which truly attempts to blend both inner and outer worlds.

Link to article ‘On the Trail of Addiction’.

2 thoughts on “A mental map of city street drugs”

  1. Drawing on an earlier post, I wonder if the patterns would resemble an epidemic. The original ArcGIS-style maps were used early on to track plague.

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