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In the Digital Age, An Unmapped Place Becomes a Forgotten Place

BY Julia Wetherell | Wednesday, February 13 2013

Today’s digital maps can showcase a world of hyperlocal data and history; as of this past month, even North Korea has been meticulously cataloged by Google Maps volunteers.  Yet while some locations maintain a robust digital presence – with Wikipedia, Google, and other geolocational initiatives reinforcing their virtual existence – blank spots on the world map can fall behind exponentially, running the risk for digital obscurity. 

Emily Badger tackled this “unmapped” side of the world in the Atlantic Wire last week.  Her conclusions show a digitally mapped Earth that contradicts many tenets of the maptivism movement – one that can serve to reinforce economic inequality and privilege certain information sources.  This can often come down to the level of accessibility to the open Internet available in an area; she points to one study that found Wikipedia edits coming from Israel over a three-month period were triple the number originating in other Middle East countries.

Unmapping can also reinforce itself from outside of the areas it affects.  Simply by not appearing in a Google search, an underutilized vacation spot can lose significant potential income.  Mark Graham, the Oxford researcher whose studies Badger cites, said he saw this kind of feedback loop in the story of a Kenyan tour operator who was looking to expand his business into Rwanda.  He based his business decisions on a Google search – ultimately, as Graham uncovered, on information that came from Wikipedia:

"I think in a very real way that was sort of shaping the flows of capital and people over quite large distances between Europe, where they were coming from, and Kenya, and then Rwanda,” Graham says, "simply because someone had written a Wikipedia article about that place and not another place."

As information technology expands into underserved markets, initiatives like Google’s Map Maker can work to combat these geo-knowledge gaps.  Yet looking at the balance of information privilege could help to build fairer, smarter maps. 

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.