Monday, May 18, 2015

Images from Singapore (ICTD2015)

After the ICTD2015 conference I finally got out of the Nanyang Executive Centre for a walk:

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Hubris of Proactive Disaster Mapping

The Guardian and The Economist have both (rightly) lauded the efforts of Humanitarian OpenStreetMap and the Missing Maps project.

There are at least two major ethical issues with the Missing Maps project, and with such proactive mapping projects generally.  These ethical issues amount to a new colonial mentality in mapping, one that seeks to assert power over space from a distance, using the allegedly free OpenStreetMap platform to do so, citing low barriers to entry (the FOSS paradigm) and the allegedly altruistic motives of the mapmakers.  Upon closer examination these same motives look remarkably self-centred, expert-driven, and dominated by non-local actors.

The first main issue is the opportunity cost associated with what are actually salvage mapping operations.  Anticipating a natural disaster that could strike anywhere in the world at any time, the mappers have a self-created imperative on their side.  This imperative is completely artificial, but images of landslides in Nepal, or Ebola victims in Liberia can always be pulled out to corroborate the (spurious) need to do the mapping now, at all costs.  The next disaster could, so the argument goes, be literally right around the corner.  So, volunteers are enlisted on the ground to add place names to maps created by other volunteers tracing building and road shapes on imagery from freely available sources or, increasingly, collected by drone.  There is an increased level of outside surveillance of local populations, from top-down perspectives correlated to increased mapping effort.  The scholarly value to the place name information collected is suspect.  Its value to local populations is that the place names form part of the topological and cognitive structures of everyday life.  These structures are being actively harvested by outside forces, with no compensation, under the auspices of an altruistic imperative.

With any rigorous mapping effort come the necessity of defining scale, extent, intensity of effort, coverage, and time between map updates.  None of these things, as far as this reporter can surmise, are being clearly delineated.  Instead there is a subconscious logic of completion, control, and power over space being played under the guise of humanitarian action.  But action toward what end?  Disasters have occurred (and this is the second main point), but where will the next disasters occur?  Could the anticipation of the next disaster area not actually result in a kind of spatial black boxing of that place as doomed, inextricably linked (on Google Search, for example) with negativity and death?  On the other side of the coin, if we are acting in a disinterested fashion and simply applying blanket coverage to the globe, then are map legends being properly defined in consultation with locals?  An original impetus of OSM was that locals were meant to map their backyards themselves, in mapping parties designed to be fun, interactive and meaningful locally.  Place and space could thus meld together meaningfully, with grounded cognitive and mental map views hybridising (in minds and on maps) with top down disembodied views in ways that often resulted in a very heterogenous looking tapestry of mapping efforts across the whole of OSM.

The HOSM efforts and missing maps will end up, instead, homogenising that same map forever, westernising it, colonising it, and in effect coopting the last vestiges of autonomy in its creation that remain(ed).

Saturday, May 16, 2015

ICTD 2015: Information and Communication Technologies for Development, Singapore, 2015

Halfway through the conference, with one day of open sessions and one day of single track now past, the conference (my first ICTD) has been very worthwhile, fun, and useful for thinking through new directions in theories and practices of ICT4D.

My session on GIS for Development was well-attended, and I met several new contacts, including a couple from the United States (DC, and Rochester, NY).  The American presence at this conference is especially striking, with a large number of presenters from Michigan, for example.

Just to talk about the fun parts for a moment, last night we watched some Chinese lion dancers before the Gala dinner, and then we saw an Indian dancer on a stage in the event itself.  The evening before an alumnus of Royal Holloway's ICT4D stream guided us through central Singapore to some wonderful street food and drinks.

With two days remaining, we have one more day of single track and another of open sessions.  These two kinds of session offer a really nice contrast to each other.  The papers are of high quality, and in the open session they gather some interesting questions, some often very challenging.

The open sessions tend to be more guided group discussions that are critical in a more distributed way, across a range of perspectives and experiences, depending on the audience gathered.

I've picked up some great books at the Springer and Routledge stands as well, titles I would not have come across except at a conference, and these will prove to be key academic references in the coming months of summer writing.

Spending the hours of 4-6 am sleepless, tweeting, and thinking about GIS for development, I'm now ready for the coming two days of exciting research in ICTD, with some wonderful colleagues, including Dorothea Kleine, Sammia Poveda, Vera Hoeschler, Endrit Kromidha, and Yinqin Zheng.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Failure and the Academic Self (Top Academic Self-Help Books)

The past week has been a mix of wonder and despair.  A paper, submitted long ago (8 months to be exact), and used as the basis of a book launch this past week, was rejected.  The book launch was described by colleagues as wonderful, and I believe that it was.

We are not supposed to advertise failure in academia, but there is a growing literature and sub-genre I would describe as academic self-help.  These books are meant to help with the anxieties and challenges to integrity that go along with life as an academic.

In Silicon Valley people wear failures like badges of honour because they indicate risks taken, boldness, and lack of fear.  Persistence is a virtue there.  Back here the atmosphere is such that wearing those same badges might be taken the wrong way.

One comes to know that publication of papers is the best way to get promotions, to get your work known, both of which lead to research grants and more papers published, in a virtuous cycle.  When things don't pan out in a very straightforward way (and I don't believe they really do for anyone) despair, usually private, ensues.

My point here is that perhaps we need to make more of failure public. We need to publish more about it (as books and papers), and especially talk about it more (in conferences and on blogs, and amongst ourselves) with candour and honesty.

I recommend below some top books of academic self-help, two of which are published by McGill-Queen's University Press.

Killinger's two books are Achieving Inner Balance in Anxious Times and Integrity: Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reason.

Despite (or maybe because, I honestly don't know) a Jungian framework, these two books made me think about my place, and the place of my fears and anxieties, in academia.  These no longer felt so misplaced, especially once I adopted the frame of mind of thinking of my work in terms of integrity.  Killinger is a clinical psychologist with extensive experience dealing with the problems academics face.

Donald Hall's The Academic Self and The Academic Community: A Manual for Change are two others that changed my way of thinking, and bolstered my sense of confidence in myself (in the context of academic work, life, and collegiality).  Hall's books (both published by Ohio State University Press) are clearly written and honest with straightforward advice.

These last two books are wonderful in the sense that they speak a language academics can relate to.  They cite Foucault and Butler.  This is academic work for academics, but couched in terms of selves, identities, movements, and moments in the life of academics that make for uncertainty, fragmentation, and wholeness at various stages.

At any rate, it is now time to go re-submit that paper, without delay (or fear)!

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Naming Names and the Problem of (Ancient) Greece

On page 81 of Naming and Necessity, Kripke (1981) states,

"that we know that Cicero was the man who first denounced Catiline.  Well, that's good.  That really picks someone out uniquely.  However, there is a problem, because this description contains another name, namely 'Catiline'."

Kripke is trying to avoid the circularity condition (C) spelled out in Lecture II of Naming and Necessity, delivered on January 22, 1970 at Princeton University.

The circularity condition (Kripke, 1981, page 71) states that "for any successful theory, the account must not be circular.  The properties which are used in the vote must not themselves involve the notion of reference in such a way that it is ultimately impossible to eliminate."

By vote Kripke means a set of properties that uniquely pick out some object (person, place, or thing).

On Friday, I was reading McGinn's (2015) wonderful new book The Philosophy of Language.  On page 53 McGinn makes an interesting statement that is directly refuted by the Kripke quotes above. McGinn claims that Kripke makes no mention of impure descriptions, or those that define a name in terms of other names, despite what Kripke wrote on page 71 of Naming and Necessity.

McGinn writes that the name "Aristotle" can be replaced by the definite description "the best pupil of Plato."  To quote McGinn, "notice that this description contains a name, 'Plato.' Many of these uniquely identifying descriptions contain such names.  But according to the description theory, all names are equivalent to descriptions.  What then is meant by the name 'Plato'?  The name 'Plato' cannot abbreviate the definite description 'the teacher of Aristotle' because that definition would be circular.  To refer to Plato, we must create a new definite description.  We could say, 'the most famous philosopher of ancient Greece,' but then the question would arise as to what the name 'Greece' means.  The point is that the uniquely identifying definite descriptions themselves contain another name.  To explain what that name means, the descriptions continue to regress to descriptions containing other names.  This issue raises serious problems for the description theory, since names are supposed to depend ultimately on descriptions for their reference."

McGinn's chapter on Kripke is fascinating and incredibly useful, but it is short on the chain of communication theory of reference and gets some aspects of it wrong, in my opinion.  This will be the subject of another blog post.

Suffice to say here that definite descriptions are Fregean constructs that Kripke set out to refute.  Kripke was successful in this (in my opinion), using the idea of possible worlds to spell out how names can retain their referents that in other worlds have radically different properties.  What if Aristotle had decided to study music, or had been born with a brain defect?  He would still have been Aristotle, and the name would still have referred to him uniquely.  Analogously (or not), to what does 'Greece' refer?  Could it have turned out differently?  In what ways?  We think of many things (both ancient and modern) when we utter the name Greece, but it does not refer in any straightforward way.  Think of the Elgin marbles, for example.

The question now is how all of this applies to theories of geographical reference.  "Geographical Naming and Necessity" is the title of a paper I will be delivering at the Canadian Association of Geographers meeting (1-5 June 2015).  I will present my findings so far, from what will be (by that time) 8 months of study of primary texts by Kripke, Wittgenstein, McGinn, Evans, Hanna & Harrison and others, applying their insights towards geographical naming systems, with necessary and sufficient referring conditions spelled out, and special reference to the 'problem' of indigenous names.
Stay posted, or see you at the CAG!


Kripke, Saul.  1981.  Naming and Necessity.  Oxford: Blackwell.

McGinn, Colin.  2015.  The Philosophy of Language.  Cambridge, Massachussetts: MIT Press.