Whose Map is it? Mapping for all.

I’m happy to have been selected as an EthicalGEO fellow by the American Geographical Society. I will be working on developing guidelines for mapping with vulnerable populations, and I am looking for those interested in and working on this topic to get in touch with me! I recently spent the summer in Nairobi, looking back on ten years of work which centers, above all, on ethics in mapping. In 2009, Map Kibera began working with residents and youth to help them put the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, on the map for the first time. Ever since, I’ve been working on making mapping more accessible to people in vulnerable communities by connecting them to OpenStreetMap and open source tools, primarily in urban settings in Africa. 

When we started Map Kibera, on the forefront of my mind was that people everywhere are the true experts on their own communities, but they are usually not able to even see – much less create or use – the data and maps being created about them. In 2013 I took part in a roundtable with ICTWorks about the issue of ethical participatory mapping. Many discussions and blog posts have since followed, but I have found that ethics in mapping and geography has not been given nearly enough prominence and attention.

Unfortunately, while Map Kibera has since become a well-known project, and we are approached regularly for insights by others who wish to map in slums or other challenging locations, it is still very rare that people are asked to actually map in their own community. In spite of the spread of OSM mapping and the popularity of open data and transparency for accountability, most of the time it is those with more education and wealth who enjoy the opportunities to become skilled mappers. Even more, it is still mainly foreign researchers and organizations who are mapping slums and poor communities. Part of the original impetus of Map Kibera was to bring the democratizing power of the internet, via OpenStreetMap, to people for whom it could make the biggest difference. The internet allowed us this feat, but, more broadly, the hope that people worldwide would be able to use information for empowerment and accountability has not fully materialized. Partly that is because of a lack of emphasis on WHY; why are we mapping? And for whom are we mapping? Whose map is it, really?

In my view, ethical mapping is not only about following protocols of privacy protection and consent; it is about the system which we continue to subscribe to which privileges foreign “technical” expert knowledge over local knowledge, even when we are now long past the point where such technical tools are out of reach of those very locals (much of this is due to the sustained effort required, and the way data functions in the economies of aid – we’ll dig into that later). It is about sharing the potential of the map and the tools used to create it fairly and equitably. We need a new code of conduct that acknowledges that many times, residents of vulnerable places are themselves digital entrepreneurs, tech savvy, and very much aware of the power of information. The opportunities people are afforded to map for themselves, and the maps they already have in many cases created, should be respected and used rather than dismissed by both national governments and foreign “experts” alike. 

My EthicalGEO fellowship will allow me to bring together those who are interested in these issues of access, power, economics and equity in geography and discuss how we would like to see global mapping develop in the future. I will be convening virtual discussions and workshops around the best practices in mapping with vulnerable communities, such as slum dwellers, refugees, remote rural communities, and others who may be subject to mapping and data collection exercises but not empowered to create and use maps themselves. We will discuss people’s access to both information and to the global marketplace as it relates to maps and map tools, including financial and other barriers to sustainability and equity in mapping. With a focus on the developing world – but not exclusively – we will create a set of draft guidelines and best practices, and a website with all the details, with an aim toward influencing future work in mapping both with OpenStreetMap and other tools. 

If you would like to take part in these discussions, please contact me at erica@groundtruth.in.

Erica Hagen, based in Washington DC, is the Director of Map Kibera Trust and GroundTruth Initiative.  Ms. Hagen will use this opportunity to bring together people who are interested in issues of access, power, economics and equity in geographic information. She will create and publish guidelines around ethics of mapping, with a focus on global communities who traditionally have had less access to maps and mapping tools. She will include discussions with a variety of people living in and working with digital mapping in low income countries, informal settlements, remote rural areas, refugee camps, and others often left out of the conversation around sustainable access to and use of geographic data and tools.