fb-pixel

Harvard PhD students track anti-Asian aggression on crowdsourced map

Dozens of accounts of anti-Asian harassment in Boston are documented on a public crowdsourced map (above) created Tuesday.
Dozens of accounts of anti-Asian harassment in Boston are documented on a public crowdsourced map (above) created Tuesday.Google Maps (custom credit)/Google Maps

A woman screamed “Chinese Virus” in Kendall Square. A man in Cambridge pointed to the dirt splayed on his shoe bottom and taunted “China, China” at a masked passerby. An Uber driver canceled a ride after seeing that the customers waiting on the curb were of Asian descent.

These are just three of dozens of anti-Asian harassment complaints pinned on a new crowdsourced Google “My Map.” Created recently by two Harvard University PhD students, the map displays more than 40 markers, each representing a complaint of verbal or physical aggression in Boston or New York City.

It’s a sobering exhibit of the racism plaguing the Asian community during the pandemic, which originated in China’s Hubei province. News reports and social media posts of Asian people being assaulted or forcibly removed from public places have popped up regularly since January, when fears of COVID-19 began to spread.

Advertisement



“I’ve been in Cambridge for six years," said co-creator Boram Lee, an international PhD political science student from Korea. “And I’ve never seen this before at this level.”

Through the project, Lee and co-creator Ja Young Choi hope to empower victims of microaggressions and other small incidents that rarely warrant police action and therefore go unheard.

“We don’t set a too-high bar for complaints,” said Choi, who is also Korean and studying neuroscience. “Our goal is not to get them direct help. It’s more for if I, as someone who feels vulnerable to this type of aggression, want an outlet to make my voice heard. If there’s enough information about what happened and where and when, then we would record it.”

The map’s visual display could help community members pick the safest spots to carry out essential activities, like grocery shopping and picking up prescriptions, said Lee. It has been viewed more than 10,000 times already.

Advertisement



Residents submit accounts of harassment via a Google form that asks for the date and details of the incident. Lee and Choi use the information to plot a point on the map themselves, without revealing any identifying specifics about the complainant.

The form also includes fields for victims’ nationality, the number of people they were with, whether they have contacted police, whether they were wearing a mask, and any relevant links. Choi said the questions help show that the discrimination extends beyond any specific neighborhood, class, and country of origin. With all the details, people are also less likely to resort to victim blaming, she said.

As the pandemic persists, Lee and Choi are looking to expand the project’s accessibility. Originally created only for incidents in Boston, the map was enlarged to include New York City shortly after a viewer’s request. The women have also contacted friends who will help sift through new submissions and translate the text into various East Asian languages.

With a booming interest in the map on social media and in local Asian advocacy groups, its potential applications are growing. But Lee never intended to use the map for academic research. Instead, she’s focusing on her original goal: quote the project’s findings in a letter to Harvard administrators, who she hopes will issue concrete measures or a statement of support for affected students.

“Me and [Harvard’s] government department, the program I’m in, were trying to draft a letter” before, she said. “This data could make the letter a little bit more credible or a little bit more compelling.”

Advertisement



Diti Kohli can be reached at diti.kohli@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ditikohli_