Open Community Mapping

what we think it is, and what it might be

Mikel Maron @mikel


New Tools in Mapping for Disasters and Development

April 3, 2012

Hi, my name is Mikel Maron. I wear many hats, but for this talk I am co-director of GroundTruth Initiative. Now, new, open approaches to community mapping are generating lots of excitement; in a sense, that's what we're exploring here today in this forum ... this is not just a technology, but also an approach. And I wonder, open community mapping ... why the excitement and to what purpose? What are the range of ideas of what community mapping actually means, and how ultimately, can we all shape this practice to be of greatest benefit to the "community"?

Presenter Notes

Map Kibera

making the invisible visible

In 2009, GroundTruth initiated Map Kibera, working with young people in the Kibera slum of Nairobi to map their own neighborhoods in OpenStreetMap, report on what's happening, and tell their own stories. Despite being the center of so much development attention, this was a literal blank spot on the map, but no longer. And the original seed bloomed. We thought the project would last 3 weeks, and it's now a registered Trust in its own right, going on its third year, expanded throughout Nairobi.

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free and open mapping community

OpenStreetMap, the cornerstone of Map Kibera and I believe, any open community mapping, is a free and open map of the entire world, created by anyone, used by anyone. Amazing data source, amazing community. This and other open source communities have inspired some of the greatest acheivements in disaster response and development of the past few years. You'll hear more throughout the day.

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But why is Map Kibera interesting?

technology tricks us to connect across real boundaries

Map Kibera has generated a lot of interest, and really since leaving Nairobi at the end of 2010, we've been trying to figure out why, and see how the techniques adapt to new contexts. One answer, I think, is similar to how the space of the Open Data community provides a vocabularly and practice that reaches across people from very different domains of technology and policy & governance. The greatest potential of open community mapping projects are their great ability to level, to create a common, accessible way to communicate and relate that reaches across social, economic and political boundaries. Technology is shiny and beautiful and inspiring, and can create spaces where those real life differences are still relevant, but surmountable.

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For centuries, these tools only belonged to the powerful

now anyone can see like a state

This marks a departure from centuries of practice. Traditionally, maps, data, and mass media are tools of the powerful. They provide means to bring legibility to the domain, reading and writing the details of people's lives in order to enable the activities of the State, we hope, to benefit the people. These data and stories carried authority and absolute information. But in just the past few years, this has been completely upended, giving literally anyone the potential to make their own world legible, for their own purposes ... and we are only just starting to see what kind of political system or development relationships may result from that.

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Open "Community" Data


Community Data is more than Open Data. Open Data in development, as it's practiced now is at the International and Nation Levels. The aggregation and filtering, and plain inability to reach lower than these structures obscures the community level, where ultimately development is supposed to really have an impact. You could almost say that just having an Open Data site has the potential to obscure an actual lack of transparency. It reinforces the power of those providing the information. So, I see the institutional interest in community mapping as recognition, that in order to truly fulfill the promise of open data, there is a need to breach the limits of traditional legibility.

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this is what an open community can look like

The is what a mapping community looks like. This is a community making its data, the OpenStreetMap community of Kosovo. They're amazing high school and college kids, excited about technology and the future of Kosovo. When I first met them, they were throwing mapping parties catered by their moms. Nowadays, they're key partners with Unicef in the Kosovo Innovation Lab, experimenting with new flows of information in a place still finding its footing as a State at all.

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Communities are not Crowds

There are risks, but to me, probably not the same ones you imagine. Those mappers are not a "crowd". Crowd-sourcing is a term which distorts much of what happens with new technologies. We are not a faceless, wild mob ... this image is what sets up the confusion you hear again and again about trustworthiness of community data. Really, successful open projects are communities, complex communities of people who have real, trusted relationships, both online and offline, people who care about their common endeavor in a considered way. That doesn't describe a crowd.

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Why is Map Kibera interesting?

perhaps our expectations are too low

There are other misunderstandings. I think a lot of the attention Map Kibera has received is due to low expectations. Slum dwellers are not experts, in fact just basically educated with little formal experience, on the edge of poverty. Are we surprised that a slum dweller can master technology if given the chance ... yea, and why is that? Why are the poor poor? Is it their intrinsic fault? Well, there are huge global forces beyond anyone's control, that are accelerating urbanization and slums, projected by UN Habitat to be a population numbering 2 billion by 2030. We better have higher expectations of the poor and undereducated, and invest time and effort, or else we're all in trouble.

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Mapping is not only Data

stories are more subjective, but no less important

With how we practice "mapping", the focus is more than simply on data. People love maps and data ... but this can be a distraction from the full story. Map Kibera is more than mapping, there's also a strong voice, the Voice of Kibera and Kibera News Network. Communities are also becoming their own journalists and story tellers. Now data can seem objective, but stories typically are not. Allowing for this kind of community empowerment, requires a remarkable release of control. People might say something you don't like, but something which needs to be heard. Without this, data alone, even if open, can potentially be nothing more than simple information extraction.

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What is a "Community" anyway?

not a thing, but a relationship and engagement

It's easy to misinterpret "community". Any community is hard to understand, and not precisely defined. But it certainly means people living in that place. Outsiders, whether foreigners practicing development, or even officials or local students, necessarily bring with us a remove and different perspective. Ensuring that it is the actual community, whatever it means in a particular place, is not something which can be put into a formula, but takes a deliberate trusted engagement. Communities are not monolitic, have divisions and struggles. This is where it's important to recognize that technology is only an enhancer at best, at worse a risk for a community, and not the end goal.

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Learning from Community Development

people deserve to know the facts about their lives

Open community mapping has more in common with community development approaches than ICT4D. There is an established practice of participatory development, which does in fact include non-technical and non-open mapping ... what can we learn from them? It's about relationships, and understanding, and different approaches to power. Communities do not "scale", they "grow". And in the process, who owns the results? With the data collected in the commons, do the communities that created the data really have access and use of the information? We must hold our projects strictly to this kind of accounting. Does data "do no harm"? What kind of data puts communities and individuals at risk? For instance, GroundTruth only facilitates mapping of public infrastructure, not demographics.

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mapping is inherently political

Another community, this is East Jerusalem. This is another place so well known, so talked about, but not really on the map and not representing itself. Grassroots Jerusalem will be working there for years, with community based organizations and just regular people, so they can represent themselves on OpenStreetMap and tell their own stories, for themselves. Like Al Walajah, a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem near Bethlehem, which will be completely surrounded by the wall. Are we prepared to talk about what's happening in these kind of communities?

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Community Mapping Means Open Mapping

we're all learning

We are all learning! The World Bank signed a secret MoU with Google, and announced it in the NYTimes by highlighting all the cool things that have been done with ... OpenStreetMap! Now I'll admit, the legal details of what openness really means, it's obscure. But fortunately, this episode has turned out to be an opportunity for more people to grapple with the kinds of issues we're talking about today in this forum. And in the end, there was learning and the community benefited: "the World Bank only supports citizen-mapping efforts that give users free access to the map data they create." Let's keep learning together.

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Keys to Community Mapping

* open data and open community

* people are doing it themselves, using whatever tools are most appropriate

* it's connected to their immediate needs, and immediately available

We need to define the key requirements of Open Community Mapping. Allow me a first draft. It's open data and in an open community. Communities are doing it directly themselves, using whatever tools are most appropriate. And importantly, the activities are connected to their immediate needs, and freely available in convenient forms.

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Only Possible with Open Community Data


There are concrete things that can only be accomplished with this kind of openness. HOT has supported the Haitian OSM community in the transition from disaster response to community building. TapTapMap shows the routes of informal public transit in Port au Prince. Soley Leve maps illustrates the expansion of grassroots slum upgrading in Cite Soleil. This transition would not be possible without real open community mapping.

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When Networks Meet Hierarchies

everyone, be gentle

In these next steps, as institutions become interested in communities, we need to take heed. Open source communities and marginalized communities do share some characteristics; they can be distorted and affected by the great gravity of the spotlight and funding. This is still a young, small practice which needs space to grow. Most of the main practitioners are in the room today. How can we build a space where these network structures can really hold a proper conversation with institutions on how best to shape the practice? Not another community of practice website, but a living dialogue?

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One idea: overshare our challenges

let it all hang out

But perhaps we should practice more what we preach. In OpenStreetMap, things go on the map immediately, there's no filter, it goes public and the feedback comes. The same with how we train citizen journalism, don't wait for perfection, but get it out. This kind of learning by doing results in very quick improvement. And for our practice of community mapping, it's too easy to fool ourselves, and too risky to fully disclose our challenges. In development, perhaps we should overshare, and be our own worst critic, in a space where that won't have reprecussions for getting the next contract. How else can we get better?

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fundamental power shift

people can improve their lives themselves

Essentially, the excitement of community mapping is beyond the data that's being created, but the possibility of a fundamental shift in the power dynamics of how development is practiced. If people know the facts about their own lives, they have more power to call to account those instituations which are supposed to serve them, and ultimately, to improve their lives themselves.

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Thank you

let's shape together

Mikel Maron


Thank you for listening, and I look forward to building from this talk into conversation today.

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