Geospatial Data in Authoritarian Contexts

Ethical issues in geography mean very different things across different contexts. I tend to think of them from an international perspective, and in particular from the perspective of developing, nondemocratic countries. One of the most challenging questions I received when starting my own EthicalGEO project was, “What is the point of using new geospatial technology to provide land rights, when an authoritarian government can simply take your land away at any time?”

This is not a question to dismiss, because macro-political dynamics directly inform what is possible in development and humanitarian work. Authoritarian governments, by definition, have very strong central power and limited political freedoms. Part of this power comes from their ability to control and disseminate information. Having lived in the Middle East and Africa for a number of years, I am sensitive to what one is allowed to say, even if there are laws in place nominally protecting these freedoms.

So, my first inclination is to agree with my challenger’s point—which is, one should not assume a project can be successful if it goes against the desires of the ruling party. Taking this a step further, one would do well not to take data in authoritarian contexts at face value. Official statistics may offer some useful insights, or, may simply reflect the world as those in charge wish it to be seen. Because of this, ethical issues—not to mention safety concerns—are of particular importance. Creating geospatial data that contradicts the official line may very well lead to intimidation, fines, prison or worse. 

Surveyors in the Field, Dar es Salaam, 2020

A less nefarious, but equally consequential aspect of working in authoritarian contexts, is bureaucracy. By this I mean any state-run departments that implement policies, as well as regulate or deliver services. To Americans, this may conjure up long waits at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). In a developing country, this may mean labyrinthine processes for obtaining permission to collect data. The Overseas Development Institute, an independent think tank, did research in 16 developing countries and found that bureaucracy is one of the more problematic arenas of governance—hiring is rarely on merit, bureaucrats are seldom seen as accountable, and the operations of the civil service lack real transparency. In addition, reforming the bureaucratic arena is truly difficult, reforms take time to implement, and even longer to have an impact on development outcomes.

I can say that in my experience, I have personally found the above to be true. Even after getting the buy-in and request from the community, it took months before the official letter arrived to begin fieldwork. Tanzania, for instance, is listed as the 146th most difficult country to register property in, with 8 different procedures, according to World Bank data. Such delays can stop a project in its tracks. It will be an equally formidable barrier even after data collection, as new processes and technologies will be suspect to official standards. 

And yet, none of the above justifies not trying, for the following three reasons:

1) It is in the developing, nondemocratic world, that open data can have the greatest impact, where geospatial issues are directly related to poverty, hunger, and health. 

2) Occasionally, with some luck and perseverance, geospatial data has a breakthrough, and transforms a business, or an entire sector. This is because data that is fit-for-purpose finds its own audience, as in the case data broke the Nash equilibrium between trash collection companies and citizens. 

3) Building local capacity pays dividends in the long run. Ultimately, those who possess the greatest skills may end up working in positions of power, even if they are a young, nerdy, GIS analyst now. 

There is no doubt that introducing geospatial technology in authoritarian contexts is a challenging business, with no guarantee of success. Yet there are so many areas where these tools and processes, if introduced with the right ethical principles, can have a major impact in urban planning, disaster risk management, land rights, and public health. Governments, whether democratic or not, will support initiatives that make their cities more resilient, their tax revenues larger, and their people healthier. The potential benefits are too great to ignore.

Mr. Evans, based in Charlottesville, Virginia, is a Project Manager for the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team. Mr. Evans plans to use the resources from the fellowship to carry out a pilot project in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania using a dual frequency GPS sensor to create highly accurate surveys in an informal settlement. This will empower a local community in Tanzania, but also could be a pathway for people around the world without legal titles to their land. At the same time, he hopes to spark the conversation about the ethical issues involved in using geospatial technology, with a specific focus on land administration. Three issues he hopes to explore are how land rights can protect citizens against expulsion, how they can give residents the ability to access credit, and how this connects with governance as it can be a primary means of taxation.