Sign Of The Times: Safety Maps Help You Plan For Catastrophe

Paper can still save your life, in a networked world.

Sign Of The Times: Safety Maps Help You Plan For Catastrophe

Most of us live in places saturated with comms signals. We carry phones in our pockets and we’ve come to rely on them for coordinating our movements. As Clay Shirky points out, we’ve basically replaced planning with coordination. We don’t make plans, we say, “I’ll call you when I get there.” What happens when you can’t call?


Safety Maps is a service designed to help people make a plan for meeting up in the event of a emergency. When disaster strikes, communications networks are often knocked out of service or become saturated by people trying to get word of loved ones. When this happens, having a plan in place can be key to reunion.

Safety Maps is an initiative of Do projects, a flexible “platform for collaborative making” with a shifting roster of collaborators. For Safety Maps, Do consisted of Nurri Kim, Bloom’s Tom Carden, and Stamen’s Michal Migurski, with Urbanscale’s Adam Greenfield. Safety Maps is a focused solution to a very particular problem, but peel back the layers and you’ll uncover fascinating questions about fragility, resilience, and the place of paper in the networked world.

[The Safety Maps site]

The core of Safety Maps is simple: by following the instructions on the site, you can create a nice-looking map that shows a meeting point along with instructions or a personal message. The site then generates PDFs with versions of the map that you can print off in sizes ranging from business card to small poster. “We wanted to design map templates that would work well with the printers and paper people already had at home, and the contexts we imagined people using them in,” says Kim. In this way, the service is resilient: it creates documents that can be printed in just about any environment.

Kim’s original idea for the project grew out of fieldwork she did in India in the aftermath of the Gujarat earthquake. “I realized how fragile everything can be in the wake of a serious disaster,” she says. “Both the communication technologies everyday life relies upon and the infrastructure of the city itself.”

Safety Maps is built on top of a variety of open tools and data, most notably OpenStreetMap, Python, PHP, and MySQL. From one perspective, these are resilient solutions. “The properties of open technologies that make them cheap and accessible also make them flexible and adaptable,” says Migurski. From another perspective, reliant as the whole system is on working servers and stable network connections, this arrangement is fragile. This is why the final output is paper.

“Consider the many virtues of paper,” says Greenfield, “its cheapness and ubiquity, its ‘user-editable’ nature, and paradoxical robustness.” Paper doesn’t need to be recharged. Paper can’t lose a network signal. Paper doesn’t crash. It is easy to tear, easy to burn, and nearly impossible to repair, yet a folded up piece of paper can survive in your pocket for years. Paper is both resilient and fragile.


Something weird has happened with paper in the past decade. The presence of the network has changed it. This shows up in obvious ways like marketers adding QR codes to everything. It shows up in projects like Newspaper Club, BERG’s Little Printer and Migurski’s Walking Papers. It also shows up in how we relate to documents. The stuff that gets printed off is only ever a copy. The original resides on a disk somewhere. There is still very much a place for paper in the networked world, but in the presence of computers, it is transformed. We thought we were going to get paperless offices; instead we got new relationships with paper.

“The word you’re definitely looking for is ‘Papernet’, coined by Aaron Cope in 2007,” says Migurski. “The Papernet is a closing of the loop between the digital and the physical, and owns up to the fact that our most durable everyday storage medium is also our easiest technology to read and write.” Resilience and fragility. Even as paper is displaced as the medium of choice, it adapts and endures.

Safety Maps also speaks to a different order of resilience, the emotional resilience of people trapped in an emergency. With every map that you make you are invited to include a personal message. “Remember that the recipient might be reading this at a very difficult moment, so please think carefully about what you want to write here!” the site advises. “It’s a strange service–as the designer, I genuinely hope people never have a need to use the site,” says Kim, “but of course there’s a spike in usage every time there’s a natural disaster in the news.”

Kim says that this is partially the point. The maps are intended to function in a real emergency situation, but they also serve as a focal point around which families and friends can discuss the unthinkable. To create, print, and share a map is to have the resilience to acknowledge how fragile your day-to-day existence really is. It invites a conversation that seems to be necessarily terrifying.

“I think that’s why the site got so many ‘zombie apocalypse’ joke maps at first,” says Kim, “and maybe it’s only by using language like that, that people can sneak up on their real feelings.”