Where Stories and Technology Meet: Seward Park’s Digital Literary Map Project

by Emily Williamson

“As a non-tech person this all seems to be magic to me” said Wendy Call, author of the Seward Park digital literary map titled “Sqebeqsed Stories”.

Indeed, combining literary stories with an electronic map for a 300 acre park creates a unique experience for visitors. The fusion appeals to writers, naturalists, history buffs and the average walker with a smart phone. Personally, I came across the flyer for the launching of this project at Seattle’s Mini Makers Fair and was intrigued by what I read:

“What happens when writers and technologists come together in Seattle’s last old growth forest? Join Seattle writer Wendy Call at the Seward Park Audubon Center for the official launch of her digital literary map Sqebeqsed Stories.”

Wendy Call. Photo Credit: Emily Williamson
Wendy Call. Photo Credit: Emily Williamson

I was especially drawn to the fact that the event would take place at Seward Park located just a few minutes from my home and work. One of my favorite spots for enjoying nature, Seward Park boasts a 2.4 mile loop that I have walked, rollerbladed and ran around numerous times. Attending the digital map launch, however, gave me an excuse to step inside the Audubon Center for my first time. A fire was crackling in the upstairs library when I arrived, and a middle-aged woman invited me to get a hot drink and plate of snacks. Nearly a dozen adults plus two children milled about, swapping literary project updates while nibbling on cheese and wasabi crackers. I soon realized the woman who greeted me was Wendy Call. I also recognized the young woman sitting near the fireplace was the person who had given me a flyer about this event at the Maker’s Fair.

A few more people joined us and after about a half hour of mingling, we gathered into rows of chairs opposite the fireplace. Wendy began her presentation by asking us to take out our phones, noting how this request contrasted to most events where people are asked to turn their phones off. She directed us to her project online  then explained how it evolved.

“I was working on book and realized that my book needed to be a map,” Wendy said, “That was in late 2000s and not really possible then.”  

Her research assistant Christina Montilla continued the narrative:

From my standpoint I was like, “OK, we’re gonna take like a physical map, we’re gonna scan it, and we’re gonna put dots on it and those dots are gonna pop up to stories—yeah!” And this is three years ago. We’re like, “That’s not gonna work.” So we were wondering, how do we get a digital map that we can build from the ground up that doesn’t have anybody else’s advertising and pretty much like a sculptor build it from the ground up and call it our own? So we were like, OK, so that probably takes coding, right? Because this is kinda like a website. So I said, “Wendy, I’ll learn. I’ll learn how to code. I’ll just do that because that seems really simple.” So I started towards the end of 2013 and at the beginning of 2014 shopping around for coding classes. So I looked at different Maker’s spaces, people teaching creative coding, which is more of the kind of stuff you see in museums—little, interactive exhibits. So I was like, “Yeah, we wanna do something like that so maybe I’ll learn how to do that!”

Eventually Christina and Wendy realized coding was not as simple as they had originally thought so they hired Seth Vincent, a web developer whom Christina had contacted about a crash course in coding. Seth offered to help them through Code for Seattle (now called Open Seattle), a group that uses their tech skills for civic-minded projects that’ll better their communities.

Seth later explained that he created the web project in java script, html and CSS plus utilized a service called Mapbox to pulled titles in.

Wendy said she loves the flexibility that digital platforms allow writers like her to have. “It’s enormously freeing that you can just fix it any time,” she said.  

Wendy nearly had a breakdown, however, when realized that she was creating a book in a spreadsheet.  

“Right now it’s only about 4,000 words on the map,” Wendy said, “But it’s a beginning.”

The map’s content ranges from historic news archives to Wendy’s personal reflections. Wendy and her team had discussed categorizing the pieces but because most feature subjects of nature, they felt like the universe is too interconnected to segregate the writings.

The project’s photographer, Thomas Bancroft (Tom), also spoke. He passed around giant photographs and explained the natural phenomenon that created each scene. Tom ended his discourse with a Thoreau quote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” then said, “I think Wendy’s project is helping people do that.”

After the project’s four primary contributors spoke, those of us in attendance had the opportunity to ask questions.

“Can anyone submit to this?” one attendee asked.

Wendy replied that the site is designed in a way that it could feasibly receive contributions. However, her team’s real struggle would be more with managing and editing content should they open it to crowd-sourcing.

Christina added that they would have to ask what the site would look like—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram? And if it grew to become an open-source social media platform, they would need moderators and would be faced with the question “Is this our baby for the rest of life?” Seth noted that he is working with Luke on a similar project called Hey Duwamish!  that was designed from the start to get input from community.

“I can’t find where I’m on the map,” another attendee said.

“You should have a pop up when you first enter site that asks permission to access location,” Wendy explained.

Most attendees said they were not experiencing that, including the web developer.

“Why are the dots so big?” someone asked in reference to the red dots places on the map where relevant stories occur.

Wendy admitted they were working from a budget of $7k, which she said may sound like a lot but really isn’t. Consequently, she could only pay their developer a limited amount and even then he had volunteered many hours. They had to determine what aspects of the map were most important and hadn’t prioritized the size of the dots.

Christina pointed out that although other literary maps exist in places like Louisiana, they are using mainstream maps such as Google that slap their company logo on the drawing. This project is unique in that the map is logo-free.

Wendy was planning to lead participants on a short walk highlighting a couple spots on the map, but due to her broken foot, Christina led the stroll. Our short tour by headlamp included just two stops right outside Audubon Center. Someone asked if Seward Park would help advertise the map and Christina replied that because it isn’t a national park, they don’t offer maps or brochures as it is so there’s not any park staff they can partner with.

The team, however, dreams of doing a similar project but on a larger scale at Mt. Rainier.