Nicolas Bouliane

A map for every journey Posted on

Remember the world before Google Maps?

When I started driving, the front passenger was the navigator. They plotted the route, then kept their finger on the map and watched the exits until we reached our destination. The success of the journey depended on them. If you found a really good one, you married them.

Trips to new places were still an adventure. We navigated by dead reckoning. We followed pre-printed instructions and paper maps that only showed arteries. We took directions from relatives on the other end, and if the navigator failed, from strangers along the way.

When we got lost, we got lost. There was no blue dot indicating our position, no blue line to guide us. We had to figure out where we went wrong, and find our way back. It was nerve-wracking. It strained relationships. We had screaming matches in Tim Hortons parking lots.

Now, we have Google Maps. We no longer get lost. The navigator queues songs, passes snacks and picks restaurants.

Maps made the journey predictable. We know exactly how to get there, how long it will take, what difficulties we can expect, and where to go if we have a problem.

It made navigation completely stress-free.

So why don’t we have this for other kinds of journeys?

I help people navigate German bureaucracy. The people I help are on a different kind of journey, but their concerns are the same: they want to know how to get there, how long it will take, what difficulties they can expect, and where to go if they have a problem.

The stakes are higher than showing up on time for dinner. Some people are fighting for their right to live in Germany. Their whole family is sitting in the car with them. They put their life savings in the tank.

There is no GPS this time. There isn’t even a map. There are only scarce, ambiguous instructions. The rest is just rumours from fellow travellers.

What I really want

A map would make the journey predictable. It would not fix the months-long bureaucratic traffic jams, nor would it turn business registration into a scenic drive, but it would give people a sense of what’s ahead.

I don’t picture a literal map, just good information that fills the same role, anything that prepares travelers for their journey. I’d settle for plain text and some flowcharts.

This is hardly a revolutionary idea. How can you watch people take the same wrong turns over and over again, and not want to put up a sign? Ask your civil servants.

So I’ve been drawing maps and putting up signs myself. I’ve mapped dozens of bureaucratic processes in Berlin, and a few more in other places. I now make a living out of it.

But I face the same problems as any cartographer: the world changes faster than I can map it.

Unlike Google, I have limited visibility into what I map. I don’t have satellite imagery of bureaucratic processes, nor camera cars that roam around the Bürgerämter. I just read forum posts and ask around. It’s a lot like drawing a map by interviewing travellers.

I don’t have a better solution yet. I automated some of the change monitoring, reduced my scope to mostly Berlin, work with people on the ground and try to work with the city government. I also get a lot of feedback from kind readers.

It’s far from perfect, but that’s the best I can do for now. I’m open to ideas.