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As Prop, Cudgel or Sensor, Digital Maps Have a Future in Global Activism

BY Lisa Goldman | Wednesday, January 16 2013

Screenshot from

When Rebecca Chiao, a Cairo-based development worker, co-founded Harassmap in 2010, the idea was to combat Egypt's sexual harassment crisis via grassroots community organizing. The interactive map is a platform on which reports of incidents, ranging from catcalling to rape, are aggregated and curated so that anyone interested in gauging the scope of the problem has access to instant data visualization, which presents a sobering picture.

Chiao was surprised that her small all-volunteer grassroots initiative immediately became the object of much international media attention. She was also a bit dismayed that reporting focused almost exclusively on the nascent NGO’s eponymous Ushahidi-based map, rather than on the crucial, grassroots community work she and her colleagues worked so hard at establishing and growing. Attitudes on the street were not going to change as a result of an interactive map that existed on the Internet, she pointed out. They would change only when the behavior recorded and visualized on that map was deemed socially unacceptable.

Chiao told techPresident that she felt as though the map was a sexy media hook. While she was glad to have awareness raised about Egypt’s epidemic of assaults on women, she regretted the inaccurate impression that maps actually solved the problem, rather than merely providing a visualization tool that told the story of a social crisis.

In south India, Nithya V. Raman established Transparent Chennai, a research project that aggregates government and independent data to empower community organizers in the city after which it is named. The research is particularly focused on the unrecognized slums, where hundreds of thousands live without basic amenities like running water, electricity and sanitation facilities. Transparent Chennai’s website includes an interactive map, via which users can search for data and create visualizations that tell the story of municipal services — or the lack thereof, as described in a recent techPresident interview with Raman.

But while the process of building a map on the Transparent Chennai site is fascinating and sobering for someone like this writer, who has never visited the city and has only passing knowledge of its urban issues, Ms. Raman feels that visualizing data is more important for non-locals than locals. People who live in a community know the situation there, she pointed out during our conversation; they don’t need a map to show them they lack sanitation facilities and public toilets.

Maptivism today

Online mapping is only four or five years old, but it has become so integrated into our lives we often forget how new and innovative it is. Interactive mapping technology is used for everything from visualizing data for aid relief, to reporting the weather, choosing a place to eat or identifying a traffic-clogged road to avoid. People no longer stop strangers on the street to ask for directions; instead, they consult Google maps on their smartphones.

Crisis mapping has become an entire field of its own, with over 2,000 people — including prominent researchers and academics — gathering this October at the World Bank in Washington, D.C. for the fourth international conference of crisis mappers. Participants spoke about mapping initiatives that streamlined the collection and assessment of data, helped identify sustainable solutions to populations in distress, or advanced human rights research.

Mapping can also be used to reconstruct and clarify historical events. In one particularly powerful presentation, Columbia University research director Taylor Owen showed how he used IBM punchcard data released during the Clinton era to map the illegal covert US bombing campaign of Cambodia in the 1970. Owen compared Nixon and Kissinger's statements at the time with the newly mapped data of the bombing coordinates to show not only that the men lied about not hitting highly populated civilian areas, but also that the illegal airstrikes radicalized the Khmer Rouge, which evolved during the period of the bombings from an agrarian revolution to an anti-imperialist revolution. By mapping the bombings and correlating them with the statements made by Khmer Rouge fighters, Owen and his colleagues were able to show that when a village was bombed, the survivors were ripe fruit for Khmer Rouge recruiters. Ultimately, of course, the Khmer Rouge overthrew the government and killed 2 million Cambodians by torture and starvation.

In another presentation, doctoral candidate Jakob Rogstadius showed how he and his volunteers mined and curated tweets about specific events for Crisis Tracker, an open source interactive map. The idea was to put some order to heavily tweeted events by indicating which reports were receiving the most attention (tweets and retweets). Rogstadius readily confirmed in an interview with techPresident that there was no way to verify the accuracy of the tweeted information. The point was to organize the tweets so that researchers and journalists would be able to visualize where and when the most reported events were taking place, and then try to verify the reports. The open source platform, explained Rogstadius, could be customized by a broad range of organizations and agencies looking for a way to curate and visualize information.

But is mapping relevant to people who are impoverished, semi-literate or e-literate? Grassroots work involves going out and organizing people, not sitting them in front of a computer to stare at a map of their own neighborhood or city. They don’t need data visualization to show them their problems; they know what their problems are.

Often, however, an acute crisis requires the help of foreigners who are unfamiliar with the region.

When drought hit the Sahel region of Africa in 2010, aid workers knew there would be a severe food crisis within nine months, after crops failed and food that had been stored the previous year ran out. Agencies needed to figure out how and where to set up aid distribution where it was most needed, before hunger became starvation. The result was, an interactive map created under the auspices of USAID, in cooperation with other aid agencies. The map is built on an open source platform called Mapbox developed by Development Seed.

“We were trying to identify where food prices spiked but were hobbled by bad technology,” explained Eric Gundersen, President and co-founder of Development Seed. Information was scattered amongst various agencies, with some important data only available as .pdf files. “So when the lack of rains in Sahel was becoming more important and affecting crops, people said let’s get together and figure out how to deal with this now — not nine months from now.”

Robert Soden, who leads the Open Data for Resilience Initiative (OpenDRI) at the World Bank, said the map was “Without a doubt a necessary tool for us to plan our work resilience to future crises.” He added, “Pulling together the data and getting it all out was really just phase zero of the project. The next steps are to partner with regional institutions working on drought and drought risk assessment, using open source information.”

In other words, open data will provide the tools enabling local aid agencies to pick up and take over when the foreigners pull out. The Sahel Response map allowed multiple agencies to pool their data on one open source platform. By sharing and mapping existing information they were able to pinpoint where and when the next food crisis was likely to break out, so aid workers were able to set up their facilities before the crisis, perhaps saving lives. When the aid groups pull out, the local organizations will be able to continue working with the open source map, adding and sharing information as it becomes available.

The difference between Sahel Response and Jakob Rogstadius's Crisis Tracker, of course, is that in the former maps are using verified data in the possession of experts; while in the latter case maps unverified crowd-sourced information derived from social media — in this case, Twitter updates. Both approaches have their merits and their uses, depending on the information available and the purpose for which the map is intended.

Have map, need plan

Certainly there are plenty of mapping initiatives that came to nothing, as documented by Dead Ushahidi. But as David Eaves points out in his response to that critique, a map without a plan is unlikely to work. On the other hand, sometimes just the threat of a mapping initiative can elicit an extreme response that only serves to indicate its power to alter the status quo. At techPresident we wrote recently about the case of the Pakistani military, which is in the process of pushing a ban on independent mapping projects through the legislature, with huge fines imposed on violators. The Army asserts its concerns are related to security, but experts pointed out that mapping technology is so easily accessible and the army so noticeably absent from so-called sensitive areas, that the claim seems illogical.

Patrick Meier, co-founder of the International Network of Crisis Mappers and former Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi, does not dispute the value of mapping when it’s relevant. But he believes that in order to move forward and approach its potential as a support tool, the interface of mapping needs to change.

In recent years, Meier has become a proponent of geofencing, which he believes will revolutionize crisis mapping. As he explains in a blog post, the idea of geofencing is to enable a user to specify a location on an interactive map and request periodic, timed alerts about very specific information:

I should be able to geo-fence different parts of a refugee camp and customize the automated alerts feature such that a 10% increase over a 24-hour period in the number of report tagged with certain categories and geo-located within specified geo-fences sends an email and/ or SMS to the appropriate teams in charge.

Meier said he was "not surprised" to hear that Rebecca Chiao of Harassmap and Nithya Raman of Transparent Chennai found mapping of secondary importance to community organizing, but he saw the main issue in the way the map functioned and not in whether or not it was relevant.

“I think we need to get rid of the interface and use one that pushes information that you specify, rather than having you looking at the map every five minutes to see what you have to do,” he said, “And I think that’s really important. So instead of end users in Egypt and elsewhere looking at maps, they should simply have relevant information pushed to them automatically.”

If it seems that Meier and Gundersen are not addressing the issues about mapping raised by Ratham and Chiao, it could be largely because they are talking about using mapping for different purposes — emergency crisis management versus long-term community organizing. But it’s also true that both Chiao and Ratham confirmed mapping is useful even when they are doing basic grassroots work.

Chiao, for example, said that when Harassmap volunteers went into a neighborhood and showed the locals — the greengrocer, the baker and the men playing backgammon and smoking shisha at the local cafes — a printout of the map indicating the number and location of sexual harassment incidents in their area with a big, red circle, it did have shock value. The reaction is something like, “This is happening in my backyard?!” And Ms. Raman did confirm that she sometimes uses maps as a conversation starter when she meets with community organizers in the slums of Chennai.

So mapping is demonstrably indispensable in crisis management. It also raises awareness about embedded social ills that have too long been neglected or ignored, by presenting a clear, undeniable visualization of data. It is also not a panacea, nor should it be. It is part of our lives, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in commercial visualization platforms like weather maps and social media like Foursquare. Like most shiny new tech toys, it can seem overhyped. But that does not diminish its importance. As with most things, the effectiveness of mapping depends on how we use it and to what ends.

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