There is a growing interest in using maps on diverse platforms to bring communities together
The promise of Web 2.0 was simple, yet tall. The explosion of social media and the Web led us to believe in a world where people could converse, tell their stories, grow into communities and, in some sense, use this inter-connectedness to achieve greater democratisation of the Web.
Yet, a cursory look at Web maps from around the world reveals that this promise is far from being fulfilled. That's why when journalist Erica Hagen and hacker-geographer Mikel Maron discovered that Kibera — the largest informal slum settlement in Africa located in the most densely populated district in Kenya — was all but a small spot on the World Wide Web with a few crime reports attributed to it, they wanted to give the community an opportunity to tell their own story, and be heard.
So they started the Map Kibera project, which engaged with and trained local community members to map geographic information about their lives, their living spaces and lived realities on digital maps, using simple global positioning system (GPS) devices.
This endeavour in mapped citizen reporting took all of three weeks, and a year later today, it is being sustained by enthusiastic community members, who use video, audio, photographs and short reports — all mapped on the freely editable Open Street Maps (OSM) — to present a constant stream of information on what's happening in the community, says Ms. Hagen.
A growing interest
While the Kibera example has been methodically replicated in a few other African cities, there has been a growing interest in using maps on diverse platforms to bring communities together or even simply disseminate information. The role of the social media in sections of the ‘Arab Spring', the citizen aerial mapping project initiated by an MIT student that uses low-cost balloons and kite-based aerial mapping to study the extent and impact of oil spill in the deep seas, and location-based crowd sourcing initiatives are some recent examples.
In a free-wheeling chat with The Hindu on the sidelines of Cartonama, a workshop on managing location data for location-based services held last week in Bangalore, Ms. Hagen said that with the Kibera project (an initiative of GroundTruth, a non-governmental organisation she co-founded with Mr. Maron) showed the world that technology could indeed be used in the context of developing countries. Of course, with Kibera, they had to start from scratch; provide equipment and even teach community members to use gadgets and editing software (Java Open Street Map editor). Not only did they have to be trained, they also had to be convinced that “putting them on a map” would be useful in getting their voices heard, and working towards larger development goals with policy planners and authorities.
In East Jerusalem
But with another project that GroundTruth helped organise in East Jerusalem, things were smoother as stakeholders were not only educated and tech-literate, but also politically aware. A Palestinian women's group, living in East Jerusalem, used mapping to write and tell their stories, and map in real time what each of them living in different and largely-isolated pockets, was experiencing in terms of the unfolding crisis, or doing in the way of activism.
What the duo are doing through these projects is taking on the old-school idea that governments can control or own geographical information. This is also the larger purpose or promise of OSM. Leveraging the legacy of Open Source, these projects map information and citizen reports on OSM, a collaborative wiki-like platform that is a participatory, volunteer-driven mapping project.
The choice to use OSM, instead of proprietary platforms offered by Google, Yahoo and other Internet service providers, becomes critical when it comes to the Palestine example.
Mr. Hagen points out that it is impossible for citizens to map anything from Palestine on Google Map Maker, simply because it is blocked. “Now that's a company making a political choice. On OSM, people are already mapping in conflict areas,” she says. The larger question this poses, she explains, is that whom do we allow to decide what we can map and what we cannot. “Earlier it used to be governments, now is it corporations? This is where an Open platform such as the OSM becomes important.”
The ‘Open' environment in mapping is not just restricted to the actual map. For instance, the Kibera project used Ushahidi (Swahili for eye-witness), the Free and Open Source Software platform that has grown to be associated with online map-based activism and crowdsourcing after it was used successfully by activists to map post-poll violence after Kenya's disputed presidential elections in 2007. A key offering of a platform such as Ushahidi, besides being Open and customisable, is that it allows you to receive email and SMS about your area, something that takes forward the purpose of mapped reporting by taking the information directly to the stakeholders.
But how can a project like this be scaled up? In her presentation, Ms. Hagen makes the distinction between ‘scaling up' and ‘replication', indicating that simply scaling up might not be as effective in a project that banks on community involvement. When asked about how a project like this could make an impact in India, a country where indeed the sheer numbers and the required scale of even a micro-level project could be mind-boggling, Ms. Hagen is optimistic. “The best way is to engage with systems of local organisation. Unlike what we found in Kenya, here, luckily, you have a long tradition of participatory governance and development.” Tools that help map or create these Web interfaces, for instance, can be taught in the school curriculum, she adds.
Kibera project engaged community members to map information on their lives with GPS devices Open Street Maps have given communities an opportunity to tell their own stories
Kibera project engaged community members to map information on their lives with GPS devices
Open Street Maps have given communities an opportunity to tell their own stories