By Emilie Castillo
For the past two semesters, I have worked as a CURO Research Assistant in the service of the Community Mapping Lab and BikeAthens towards the goal of creating a comprehensive cycling map of Athens-Clarke County (ACC). While the project will most likely continue into next fall, as of the end of this semester we have succeeded in creating a web-based map of biking routes throughout the county with classifications noting the safety/preference level of each route, bike lanes, multi-use trails, slope, points of interest, and bus stops. This project was undertaken at the request of BikeAthens for the purpose of making cycling in Athens an easier and safer alternate form of transportation. Alongside Olivia Gilliam, a fellow CURO Research Assistant, I worked as an aid to Dr. Jerry Shannon, who headed up this project in the Fall of 2019.
In recent years, Athens-Clarke County Government as well as several community organizations have been interested in building up and refining the cycling infrastructure and resources of ACC. BikeAthens in particular operates with the mission of creating equity in transportation; when they requested the Community Mapping Lab undertake this project, they hoped the map would assist both novice and seasoned cyclists in planning rides throughout the county. That being said, this project was not concerned with classifying the safety level of every existing road or path in ACC, nor was its purpose to showcase recreational rides. The web map, as it is today, displays and classifies those routes necessary for travel throughout the county along with destinations determined as useful or necessary for those using a bike as their main form of transportation.
When Olivia and I began working on this project in Fall 2020, a former student, Regina Nasrallah, had already worked with Dr. Shannon to determine some points of interest and classify some existing road data. Olivia and I began our research by collecting more points of interest (POI). First, we had to determine what were “useful and necessary” destinations for the people in this community and for cyclists in general. Grocery stores, healthcare clinics, bike shops, bike repair stations, bike parking, pharmacies, dollar stores and coffee shops were some of the categories we discussed; we needed to make sure we were being as inclusive as possible when compiling this list because we did not want our map biased towards any particular demographic, rendering it useless to large portions of the Athens community. After determining this list, we needed to collect the location, name, and service type of all the destinations in ACC falling under these categories. I relied heavily on Reference USA, a database of businesses located in the U.S. available through UGA’s Library website. We also extracted several locations from OpenStreetMap. In some cases, a list had already been partially compiled for some destination types, but for the most part we had to search around to make sure we were getting everything. We then organized all these collected data points into a single spreadsheet and mapped it. At this point, we noticed how few points of interest are located to the East of the Loop/ SR10 and we added random location points occurring on the eastside in order to ensure our routes were not missing large chunks of the county.
With the comprehensive POI data mapped, Dr. Shannon used R software in conjunction with Google, HERE, and Mapbox routing APIs to generate approximately 1,500 routes for each routing service between all our identified POI’s (over 600 points). We identified common streets used by those three services and aggregated them to make our first draft routes.
At this point we began to classify the routes, relying heavily on speed limit as an indicator of safety. Later, BikeAthens helped us better classify routes as safe and unsafe from their personal experiences as cyclists in Athens. We were using Strava Heatmap data as a point of reference to determine if the routes we had were ones actually travelled by cyclists and to identify routes we may have missed entirely. I georeferenced screenshots of the Strava Heatmap for the entire county so we could easily compare and edit our data within QGIS.
A large portion of this spring semester has been focused on editing the existing bike routes. Dr. Shannon generated slope data for all the road routes from elevation data provided by Athens-Clarke County. We attempted to gather public feedback through a Survey123 form that allows the user to comment on specific locations of our draft map; however, as the COVID-19 pandemic persisted, public feedback became challenging and often disappointing.
Once we had edited our draft routes to some degree of satisfaction, we began transferring our data from QGIS to ArcGIS Online to begin configuring the web app. We focused on cleaning things up to ensure the map would be easy and intuitive to read. We trimmed down our initial POI data to a smaller pool of points and set the transparency level of that data as smaller than that of the routes so as not to overwhelm the reader upon opening the WebApp. We also began to discuss the best way to color routes, bike lanes, and trails. Further, we determined the best symbols to denote our points of interest and slope. Daniel Sizemore, Bicycle, Pedestrian, and Safety Coordinator from ACC Unified Government, assisted us and is still in the process of organizing data to provide our map with a more comprehensive list of bike lanes. We reviewed several other similar bike route maps of other cities such as Vancouver, Portland, Madison, etc. to get a better idea of how to visualize the data. Dr. Shannon and I worked on creating a print map for BikeAthens staff and patrons to mark up physically, but again, community feedback was difficult and less fruitful than we hoped.
Now, as the semester is ending, we feel that we have a solid draft to start distributing to the public, with the understanding that the routes will continue to be refined and updated throughout the rest of the year. In our final meeting with BikeAthens, we discussed the possibility of one more semester’s worth of work in collecting that much-need feedback from the community. BikeAthens is interested in creating some formats of the map that can be easily printed, possibly even some pocket size maps to be kept at BikeAthens and other biking resource locations.
I really enjoyed working on this project and feel I learned a lot about GIS project management. It was extremely valuable to see first-hand what it is like to work with local organizations and utilize those available resources in showcasing data. Before this experience I would not know how to even start, and now I feel confident in my ability to organize the steps of a project like this and be a part of the construction. The COVID-19 pandemic kept us from meeting in person and facilitating more community events where we could have generated feedback and creative collaboration, and that setback was felt by all of us. Zoom fatigue and generally busy schedules made me feel like I did not engage with this project as whole-heartedly as I could have. A part of me wonders if we had been able to meet in person whether we would have gotten more done in that first semester, giving us more space for creativity in the second semester. All things said, I am really proud of our final product and I hope to stay in the loop about the future of this map and its impact.
Emilie Castillo recently received an undergraduate degree in Geography alongside a certificate in GIS at the University of Georgia.
"We do not have weapons, but now we have GIS to protect our territory. We plan to conserve our natural resources for present and future generations through the maps, our maps."
Domingo Ankuash, Shuar Indigenous Leader
During the last five years, campesinos* (peasants) and indigenous people from Southeast Ecuador have started to use maps as a powerful tool for protect their territory against mining companies. Local people believe by mapping their biocultural ecosystem services and territorial boundaries, they are avoiding being cheated by mining companies or by the government. Between Amazon and Andes Ecuadorian region, there is located El Collay Territorial Association, that it is set up by campesino and Shuar indigenous population. 15 years ago, the Shuar communities were the first ecuadorian indigenous population in Ecuador to used participatory GIS. In order to go deeply into campesinos and indigenous Shuar's GIS experience defending their territory, I participated in some community participatory mapping workshops in the El Collay Territorial Association, for the past four years . In this article, I will talk about methodological experiences I have gained over these years and I will show a few maps about biocultural services identified by local communities actors.
El Collay Territorial Association is a political and administrative entity formed by six local municipalities. All six are autonomous, decentralized governments: Paute, Gualaceo, El Pan, Chordeleg, Sevilla de Oro and Santiago de Méndez. This Territorial Association is in the northeastern corner of the Azuay Province in Southern Ecuador. One of the most important inhabitants of this Territorial Association is the Shuar indigenous people. They represent one of the most prominent ethnic group in the Amazonian Region, with around 35,000-40,000 living mainly in the Ecuadorian provinces of Pastaza, Morona Santiago and Zamora Chinchipe, in the southeast of the country. Since 2000, Shuar’s ancestral lands have been assigned for copper mining concessions “for the sake of development”** and, as a result, indigenous communities have suffered persecution and violence. The expropriation of the Shuars’ lands and resources has forced the indigenous community to fight off industrial-scale copper mine and oil extraction and threats to their lands and way of life.
The Shuars struggle to protect their land despite peaceful marches, legal actions, and an international pressure campaign. However, in the last ten years, the Shuars have turned to mapping as a strategy in this effort. Four years ago, as part of my research process to obtain my master’s degree, I started working with campesinos and Shuars indigenous communities. In several conversations, local people pointed out that it is a need to establish community mapping workshops that allow them to delimit their ancestral territories and recognize biocultural services. Later and thanks to local governments and some Shuar leaders support, I managed few meetings and workshops where we gathered an important group of participants that contributed significantly to the project.
My experience in Participatory GIS and Indigenous communities
First, I had some meetings with local actors to explain them the objectives of this project and how Participatory GIS methodology works. There were around 30 participants between indigenous and peasants leaders, that they came from each small villages of El Collay. In a second meeting, I asked the community leaders to make a sketch of their nearest territory, that is, neighborhood or Municipality. Local people had to identify important cultural and natural sites. They used colors, pins and stickers to identify the different types of assets in the community. Once, first workshop finished, I realized that there were major criteria to characterize each small village. Therefore, we used the largest number of responses and create biocultural categories and then units of ecosystem services. As a result, we identified together the categories for important values by local people (i.e. arts, crafts and sacred sites). This outcomes helped me out to make the first map (fig 1). In addition, those decisions over their territory allowed me to integrate each biocultural category as a landscape units in order to give each small village a biocultural unique identity (see fig 2).
The last workshop, I used a local map. In order to avoid bias about indigenous boundaries, I used data from the National Institute of Statistics and Census. I asked them to locate conflict points, that is, environmental, social and cultural problems affecting their territory and changing the landscape. According to local people, the principal territorial problemas are mining companies activities and deficiente local governments administrations. Third, once I finished workshops, I moved to geocoding some biocultural assets exposed by local actors, using ArcGIS 10.5.
Finally, I made two maps about biocultural assets and biocultural ecosystem services. The first map (see fig 1) represents what local actors considered the five essential biocultural elements in their land: archeological sites or sacred sites, traditional skills, food heritage, immovable heritage, and forest (natural elements). Using the biocultural assets map base, I made a map about ecosystem services. So, I grouped characteristics of each small community and made ecosystem services landscape. However, each category can overlap each other, since each village could has all biocultural category in its territory. There are five landscape units: El Collay Forest, Ancestral Knowledge, Sense of Territory, Forbidden Place and the Heritage Food Place (fig 2). The criteria for the cultural ecosystem services classification are the following:
El Collay Forest - This area represents an important element for the El Collay inhabitants, since in addition to be a zone of protection, it is considered a sacred space.
Ancestral Knowledge - It refers to all the knowledge that has been acquired from generation to generation. As for example, the elaboration of crafts, textiles, food preparation, among others.
Sense of Territory - It implies a closeness and an intimacy that is a product of experience, history and time. It demands that people develop an aesthetic sensibility that one gains only when population lives in one place for a long time. This service is mostly located in the Shuar indigenous territory, because for them the sense of territory is linked to the land where their ancestors were born and where future generations will belong.
Forbidden Places - They are sacred places and therefore forbidden to carry out any human activity against natural resources.
Heritage Food - They are characteristic places at local and national level for their gastronomy.
Conclusion and Future projects
There is still much left to do. I plan to continue working over this process in this summer 2019, using counter-mapping approach. The main future objectives are to map sites at risk and conflict, and resilience and resistance areas lead by local communities to mining companies impacts. In conclusion, the maps that have been generated from this participatory GIS process with indigenous and campesinos communities, provide a new way of understanding the world from different worldviews. PGIS maps also demand the integration of these new conceptions of territory, in local territorial planning and national protect biocultural heritage politics of ancestral populations.
*I use campesinos in Spanish because the word peasants has a negative connotation in English language
**This phrase was part of the neo-extractivism speech by ecuadorian government, during 2014
Estefania Palacios-Tamayo is a PhD student in Geography at the University of Georgia. Her research focuses on biocultural landscape dynamics for territorial planning and conservation of local heritage.
By: Jerry Shannon
At the end of last month, I and several students from the Community Mapping Lab were able to help run the first international workshop in community geography, or #commgeog19 for short. This two day workshop, supported through a grant from the National Science Foundation, was held on the campus of Georgia State University in downtown Atlanta. It featured presentations from 41 workshop fellows and collaborative breakout groups around topics of common interest. While we will eventually be posting more materials from the workshop, in this blog post I give a brief overview of some of the highlights of the workshop and what stood out to me as one of its organizers.
Community geography is a relatively new subfield within our discipline. In a paper that I and others are working on, we currently define it as
"a form of praxis, one rooted in collaborations between academic and public scholars resulting in mutually beneficial and co-produced knowledge. It draws from and contributes to geographic theorizations of space and place, engaging with research in fields including development, urban geography, political ecology, critical food studies, and health geography. Community geography employs a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods, often makes use of participatory research approaches, and has, as its epistemological framing, a commitment to address pressing social and environmental problems and work toward systemic change. A commitment to praxis entails a fundamental integration of research and action, one that explicitly values excluded and marginalized perspectives and fosters just and sustainable communities."
Geography has a long tradition of participatory and engaged research, and we recognize our connection to past work in public participatory GIS (PPGIS), feminist and black geographies, and participatory action research. Organizing around community geography has provided a formalized way to recognize this work, particularly through the creation of positions explicitly devoted to it at Syracuse University, Columbus State University, University of Central Florida, Chicago State University, and at my institution, the University of Georgia. By recognizing community engagement as an explicit expectation for promotion and tenure, these positions provide a model of academic work that blurs lines between the university and broader publics. While often based at academic institutions, community geography also includes the work of community scholars who partner in research and teaching.
The community geography program at Syracuse--the nation’s first--is now over a decade old, but thus far this group has been relatively small. Community geographers are predominantly academic faculty and staff, most of whom identify as White. To broaden the range of folks at this table, we successfully applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation to hold an international workshop for the full range of scholars interested in community geography. This grant allowed for the workshop to be offered without charge and provided significant travel assistance to many of the workshop fellows who presented their work.
The call for participation to this workshop elicited a strong response. We received 91 applications, many of whom came from scholars new to community geography. From these, we invited 42 workshop fellows. Among these fellows, we had seventeen academic faculty/staff, sixteen graduate and undergraduate students, and none community scholars. Twenty three fellows identified as White, eight as African-American, three as Hispanic/Latinx, four as Asian-American, and two as mixed race. While still predominantly academic and White, this group was more diverse than both the planning team (almost all of whom were White academics) and the academic geographers as a whole.
The workshop itself was structured to promote sharing and connection. The full program is available here. The first day was structured around a series of eight minute presentations, delivered in two concurrent tracks across three sessions. These presentations shared highlights from each fellows’ work while leaving room for questions and discussion of shared themes across presentations. Workshop fellows and other attendees identified these themes, sharing thoughts on large post-it sheets throughout the day.
At the end of the first day, we identified multiple themes from these shared notes:
Workshop attendees then signed up for breakout groups, each focused on one of these themes. For much of the second day, these groups outlined potential shared collaborations that could be continued after the workshop. Summaries of these discussions are currently being compiled and will be shared on the conference page, linked at the top of this post.
During the second day, we also took a field trip to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, just a short walk away from our workshop site. This field trip got us out of the conference space and provided an opportunity to reflect on other struggles many of us address through our teaching and research.
We are still working through evaluations and feedback from the workshop. Many participants expressed strong appreciation for the chance to connect with others doing similar work, and most also expressed a strong interest in continuing to participate in conversations around community geography and collaborating with others at the workshop. We will encourage this work in multiple ways: creating an email list for discussion of topics and events relevant to group interests, sponsoring sessions at conferences hosted by the American Association of Geographers (AAG) and similar groups, organizing a special journal issue for topics presented at the workshop, and securing funding for future events and collaborations for community geographers.
I share a few other photos below, with special thanks to Dorris Scott for being our official photographer. Video from many workshop presentations will be available soon on the workshop webpage.
As the principal investigator for this grant, I’m thankful for the work of others on this team who helped make this event happen. Most notably, Katherine Hankins and the Department of Geosciences at Georgia State University provided significant logistical and financial support for the workshop. The other planning team members were Danny Block, Amber Bosse, Tim Hawthorne, Jonnell Robinson, Dorris Scott, and Andy Walter.
In sum, the first ever Workshop in Community Geography was a smashing success, welcoming many new voices to the conversation and spurring ideas for future work. Check back on the workshop page for more information and opportunities in the coming weeks and months!
Author: Jerry Shannon is an Assistant Professor at the University of Georgia in the Departments of Geography and Financial Planning, Housing, & Consumer Economics. He is the director of the Community Mapping Lab.
Imagine you are a project officer with an international development agency. You are charged with assessing the water resources, quality of access, and management-related challenges of a rural community in Eastern Tibet. You are provided substantial funds by your organization to facilitate a Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), an increasingly common method to involve community members in planning, knowledge exchange, and decision-making to address perceived local problems.
You, your development project team, and volunteers from the community work together on a map to document land and water management issues in the region. This map will be a key product for future planning with your agency and will be included in the annual report. One community mapping participant remembers seeing twice as much winter snow accumulating along the mountain ridgeline, just 10 years ago. You put it on the map. Another participant notes the declining abundance of suitable alpine grasslands for their herds of sheep and yak. You put it on the map. Every participant remembers the day they saw a dragon ascending into the sky near a glacier-fed stream. You pause. You don’t put it on the map.
For many Tibetan Drokpa, dragons are real. They’ve seen them. In the positivistic world of western science, a legacy that deeply informs our governmental, non-governmental, and academic institutions, dragons belong to folklore, to myth, and to metaphor.
As makers of participatory maps, I think we need to map the dragon. Beyond metaphor. Beyond folklore. Dragons have a place in this map because they exist in the shared cultural worlds of the map makers. Drokpa knowledge of dragons does not need a western positivist knowledge filter. It does not need to be validated by scientific objectivity, or confirmed under foreign protocols of “data” or “evidence”.
As makers of participatory maps, I think we need to challenge the space of assumptions associated with other cultural realities. Beyond fiction. Beyond myth. I think we need to interrogate the epistemological foundations of our institutions, and recognize that the edge of our maps of knowing may be the beginning (or center) of somebody else’s. After all, there are no neutral ways to represent “reality” on a map; any “reality” depicted is largely informed by ones’ intellectual and cultural predecessors.
In “Dragons, Drokpa, and a Drukpa Kargyu Master”, Diane Barker, recounts testimonies of those who have seen dragons in Tibet, positioning them alongside stunning depictions by Choegyal Rinpoche. Her article makes me pause. It forces me to re-consider the perspectives and worlds deemed legible in academia, and the constraints of the technologies we employ to help compartmentalize and categorize our complex world. Maps and map making can help us to visualize spatially complex interrelationships between social and natural forces. Relationships between water scarcity and elevation, for example, or grassland abundance and shifts in human land-use over time. Maps produced with Geographical Information Software (GIS) can take us even further and help us to measure these complex interactions by experimenting with scale-dependent variables and spatial layers. GIS, as such, is a powerfully important spatial toolset for map making. It is, however, worth recognizing both its technical and epistemological constraints.
Rundstrom (1995) suggests that “GIS technology, when applied cross-culturally, is essentially a tool for epistemological assimilation, and as such, is the newest link in a long chain of attempts by Western societies to subsume or destroy indigenous cultures”. Perhaps it is, in certain contexts. This point is considered in depth by Dr. Kenneth Bauer (2009) who notes that embracing GIS, and the worlds we create through mapping, means embracing a “mode of thinking”.
Bauer argues that “one’s knowledge of the environment lies not in the ideas in our heads but in the world that our predecessors reveal to us”. If our intellectual predecessors are international development officers, who focus on the material and societal needs of the “developing” world, not only will our maps reflect these priorities, but the edge of our maps will hold epistemologically particular metaphorical dragons. If our predecessors are geospatial scientists, many of whom focus on the scalar dynamics between social and natural systems, the edge of our maps will hold equally specific metaphorical dragons. And if our intellectual predecessors are nomadic Drokpa herders, the center of our maps might include real, non-metaphorical dragons. Then, the edge of our map, the boundaries of our known world, may hold something entirely different. Something as foreign as Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA). Something as foreign as “development”, “geospatial science” or “conservation”.
“Dru gu Choegyal Rinpoche's painting of a dragon sucking up water from a stream in Tibet, 2012” Dragons, Drokpa, and a Drukpa Kargyu Master
In the end, local Drokpa knowledge of dragons may not be commensurate with western knowledge mapping traditions; spatial frameworks that we, as academically-inclined map makers, can know and interpret: 2D, cardinal direction, cartographic maps. Unless we expand our definition of “map”, perhaps Choegyal Rinpoche’s paintings can simply remind us that the edge of our mappable world does not mean the world’s end. Certain cultural realities and worlds of knowing may simply be invisible to us, unless we choose to radically challenge our own preconceptions, trusting and supporting the deeply held realities of our community mapping partners.
Indeed, there are different worlds in each of us. There are also shared cultural worlds that invisibly govern our institutions, design our technologies of visualization (i.e. GIS), and condition what we deem “mappable”. What if, when reaching the boundaries of our own mappable knowledge, we consider how to support other worlds of knowing in our work. We must ask ourselves how we diminish other worlds of knowing by assimilation into our own. Perhaps we can recognize our privileged positionality as map-makers and practice radical epistemological reflexivity, challenging our categories of “data” and “evidence” to produce new maps. Maybe we map the dragon. As mappable as increasing annual glacial snow melt. As mappable as declining range and extent of alpine grasslands.
But can we truly re-consider and re-evaluate our core perspectives, biases, and beliefs during this process? The worlds we know and occupy? Perhaps not completely. What’s more, would such radical reflexivity necessarily dis-empower our scientific perspective in a post-truth world? I don’t think so. I think it broadens our capacity as social scientists to engage in and practice epistemological humility rather than epistemological assimilation.
In my research in Bhutan, known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, we use participatory mapping as a medium to talk about spatially-explicit, place-based deities, spirits, and divinities that reside and preside over forests, lakes, trees, rivers, and mountains. These more-than-human beings have significant bearing on the ways people make land-use decisions, and conceptualize foreign concepts of development, conservation, and natural resource management. By including dragon sightings in the Drokpa community map, without pause, without filter, our Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) will not simply pay lip service to aspirations of “participation”. Instead, the map will be a better reflection of the different worlds that reside in each participant, and more representative of the worlds inherited by our intellectual predecessors.
When the map is complete, it will inevitably be incomplete. Maps will always hold unknowns & uncertainties, assumptions and biases, at their edges. If our aim is to challenge these assumptions, we must put the dragon on the map. Beyond myth. Beyond metaphor. We must challenge who has the power to define the “we”: the voices and viewpoints at the table. A map of this type, however partial, may be a stepping stone to increasingly egalitarian representations of our respective cultural worlds: as academics, international development officers, geospatial scientists, and Drokpa herders.
David Hecht is a PhD candidate in the Integrative Conservation & Anthropology program at the University of Georgia. His research explores the intricacies of sacred landscapes and lived religion in relation to community-based conservation programs for priority bird species in Bhutan. Follow him on Twitter at @davidmhecht.
OpenStreetMap (OSM) is an open-source map, an alternative to the ever present Google Map. But it is much more than a data source. OSM is community driven, and its community members host mapathons, participate in FOSS4G and OSGeo activities, and get together to talk about maps, from cartography and aesthetics to the political ramifications of delineating boundaries. These discussions are highlighted at OSM’s State of the Map (SOTM) conferences. State of the Map is the annual, international conference organized by the OpenStreetMap Foundation that brings OSMappers together from across the world. In addition to the international conference one, there are intra-national SOTM conferences that bring mappers within a region together to discuss pertinent regional topics.
I had the opportunity to attend the regional SOTM-Asia conference in Bengaluru, India from November 17 -18, 2018. Over 200 people attended the conference, from students and governmental agencies, to NGOs and academics, to more tech-based companies such as Grab and Facebook. There were country representatives from Indonesia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Japan, and the Philippines (and I’m sure many more that I am forgetting!), with a panel highlighting the work happening in each country. The true highlight, however, was seeing the dynamism and diversity of the community. Talks ranged from critical geography to AI-based image recognition, with stimulating conversations at the chai breaks in between.
In the US, the OSM community is technologically-driven, with few recognizing the critical geography theory behind their actions or the societal consequences. This mirrors a similar split within the discipline of geography itself (Wilson 2015). And so, it was refreshing to hear discussions on participatory mapping, empowerment, and how to democratize maps and knowledge at what I had expected would be a tech-centered conference. In fact, this was the final message of the opening keynote address, recognizing that open maps aren’t necessarily democratized maps.
Historically, maps have been used as a tool of colonization, with the methods to create them and the resulting knowledge only available to a select few. An infamous example of this is the resulting map of the African continent following the Berlin Conference, in which European powers divided the a whole continent into colonies under their control. But we needn’t look to the 1800’s for examples of exclusionary mapping. OSM itself was founded in 2004 in response to the UK’s ordnance survey, a government-run project that created a map of the UK which was not freely available. Since then, OSM encourages “the growth, development and distribution of free geospatial data and [provides] geospatial data for anybody to use and share.” (OSM Wiki)
An OSM map is ‘democratized’ in that anyone can contribute to or edit it and the resulting data is free to use for all. Relative to other sources of geospatial data and technologies, this is certainly true. However, we should question who is included in the idea of ‘all’. While the SOTM-Asia conference had a wider diversity of participants than OSM activities in the US, we were all educated, spoke English (in fact, this is a big issue in OSM in Asia in particular, and was brought up by multiple speakers), and boasted a relatively high digital literacy, representing a small portion of the global population. In order to contribute to OSM, one must not only have an internet connection, but also the computer skills to use the editing software. Actually downloading and using the data represents another technological obstacle. The recent development of more open-source, user-friendly software tools has helped reduce this digital divide, but technology still determines who are the mappers and who are the mapped.
In this age of rapidly accumulating open data, there is a concurrent call to engage critically with emerging technologies and question how it is changing how knowledge is produced and valued. One session focused on an older ‘technology’, the role of Helavaru storytellers as the archivers and narrators of families’ histories in Karnataka. Helava communities travel with centuries old documents detailing the history of a family and a village, and share the story of a place through a narrative or song (you can see the video from SOTM-Asia here). Following the presentation, a discussion unfolded about how this data could be recorded, and whether computerized technologies such as AI could contribute to an automated process. However, there was push back to this suggestion. What would be lost in the translation of this narrative style into numbers and GPS points? As TB Dinesh said, “Maps are denotational, but storytelling is connotational.” Whose knowledge is this and who has a right to capture and/or disseminate it? And perhaps more importantly, what would this mean for the Helava community if the records become digitized, and telling stories is no longer sustainable?
I spent a large portion of the conference wrestling with these questions and, based on my discussions with others, I was not alone. Like other FOSS communities, OSM aims to democratize data and the tools to create and analyze the data. ‘Open’, as discussed above, can be a relative term, and ‘putting people on the map’, so to speak, is not always in their best interest if they are not involved in the process or have access to the data that is created. OSM and other open GIS systems, particularly Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOTOSM), are often critiqued for a reliance on remote mapping (Palmer 2012), whereby those in the Global North map out the Global South, meeting Pickles’ prediction of a ‘new imperial geography’ (Ground Truth, 1994).
OSM chapters and contributors in Asia are working against this critique through their use of participatory mapping and field-based projects. However, even within a chapter, inequality exists, particularly around gender. OSM has a reputation for being dominated by men, which translates into maps that are not representative of everyone’s landscape. During the SOTM Asia country panel, this issue was brought up, and OSM chapters are working hard to ensure their meetings and mapathons are safe spaces for women and others. In fact, this reputation may be changing. As OSM chapters are moving from simply documenting the world to responding to natural disaster crisis and creating data specifically to address social injustices, new members are getting involved. Programs such as Youth Mappers and Let Girls Map are working to improve inclusivity in the OSM community, and show those working in social justice and advocacy how OSM can be a tool for change.
OSM’s creation caused a radical shift in mapping, opening up control of the map to a much wider audience than had previously been allowed. Over a decade after its creation, however, the community is reflecting on just how ‘democratized’ open data is. I’m optimistic that a combination of FOSS-based tools and community-driven critique and discussion, such as took place at SOTM-Asia this year, will continue to expand our notion of ‘all’ in the effort to democratize the map.
Note: In addition to these more theoretical discussions, there were also some workshops on cutting edge software and tools and presentations highlighting innovative applications of OSM to a range of societal issues. Once the slides and videos are made available, I will post a link to them here, and I highly recommend checking them out.
Michelle Evans is a PhD student in the Integrative Conservation and Ecology program at the University of Georgia. Her research explores the ecological, social, and political drivers of spatial inequalities in mosquito-borne disease burdens.