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).


  1. Yes, I'm sure the next time there's a cholera outbreak in Baraka ( they'll curse the neo-colonialist do-gooders and their authoritarian map legends. It was far more fun when MSF volunteers had to guess where the latest poor sufferer was brought in from - at least any sketched map on a piece of scrap paper they had was a bottom-up sketched map and free from western hegemonic tyranny!

  2. I see you're a Londoner. Why don't you come along to the next missing maps event so you can explain to us how we've got it all wrong while we're trying to sort the massive piles of locally filled out fieldpapers we're processing?