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Posts Tagged ‘Open Street Map’

The February 5 Technology Salon in New York City asked “What are the ethics in participatory digital mapping?” Judging by the packed Salon and long waiting list, many of us are struggling with these questions in our work.

Some of the key ethical points raised at the Salon related to the benefits of open data vs privacy and the desire to do no harm. Others were about whether digital maps are an effective tool in participatory community development or if they are mostly an innovation showcase for donors or a backdrop for individual egos to assert their ‘personal coolness’. The absence of research and ethics protocols for some of these new kinds of data gathering and sharing was also an issue of concern for participants.

During the Salon we were only able to scratch the surface, and we hope to get together soon for a more in-depth session (or maybe 2 or 3 sessions – stay tuned!) to further unpack the ethical issues around participatory digital community mapping.

The points raised by discussants and participants included:

1) Showcasing innovation

Is digital mapping really about communities, or are we really just using communities as a backdrop to showcase our own innovation and coolness or that of our donors?

2) Can you do justice to both process and product?

Maps should be less an “in-out tool“ and more part of a broader program. External agents should be supporting communities to articulate and to be full partners in saying, doing, and knowing what they want to do with maps. Digital mapping may not be better than hand drawn maps, if we consider that the process of mapping is just as or more important than the final product. Hand drawn maps can allow for important discussions to happen while people draw. This seems to happens much less with the digital mapping process, which is more technical, and it happens even less when outside agents are doing the mapping. A hand drawn map can be imbued with meaning in terms of the size, color or placement of objects or borders. Important meaning may be missed when hand drawn maps are replaced with digital ones.

Digital maps, however, can be printed and further enhanced with comments and drawings and discussed in the community, as some noted. And digital maps can lend a sense of professionalism to community members and help them to make a stronger case to authorities and decisions makers. Some participants raised concerns about power relations during mapping processes, and worried that using digital tools could emphasize those.

3) The ethics of wasting people’s time.

Community mapping is difficult. The goal of external agents should be to train local people so that they can be owners of the process and sustain it in the long term. This takes time. Often, however, mapping experts are flown in for a week or two to train community members. They leave people with some knowledge, but not enough to fully manage the mapping process and tools. If people end up only half-trained and without local options to continue training, their time has essentially been wasted. In addition, if young people see the training as a pathway to a highly demanded skill set yet are left partially trained and without access to tools and equipment, they will also feel they have wasted their time.

4) Data extraction

When agencies, academics and mappers come in with their clipboards or their GPS units and conduct the same surveys and studies over and over with the same populations, people’s time is also wasted. Open digital community mapping comes from a viewpoint that an open map and open data are one way to make sure that data that is taken from or created by communities is made available to the communities for their own use and can be accessed by others so that the same data is not collected repeatedly. Though there are privacy concerns around opening data, there is a counter balanced ethical dilemma related to how much time gets wasted by keeping data closed.

5) The (missing) link between data and action

Related to the issue of time wasting is the common issue of a missing link between data collected and/or mapped, action and results. Making a map identifying issues is certainly no guarantee that the government will come and take care of those issues. Maps are a means to an end, but often the end is not clear. What do we really hope the data leads to? What does the community hope for? Mapping can be a flashy technology that brings people to the table, but that is no guarantee that something will happen to resolve the issues the map is aimed at solving.

6) Intermediaries are important

One way to ensure that there is a link between data and action is to identify stakeholders that have the ability to use, understand and re-interpret the data. One case was mentioned where health workers collected data and then wanted to know “What do we do now? How does this affect the work that we do? How do we present this information to community health workers in a way that it is useful to our work?” It’s important to tone the data down and make them understandable to the base population, and to also show them in a way that is useful to people working at local institutions. Each audience will need the data to be visualized or shared in a different, contextually appropriate way if they are going to use the data for decision-making. It’s possible to provide the same data in different ways across different platforms from paper to high tech. The challenge of keeping all the data and the different sharing platforms updated, however, is one that can’t be overlooked.

7) What does informed consent actually mean in today’s world?

There is a viewpoint that data must be open and that locking up data is unethical. On the other hand, there are questions about research ethics and protocols when doing mapping projects and sharing or opening data. Are those who do mapping getting informed consent from people to use or open their data? This is the cornerstone of ethics when doing research with human beings. One must be able to explain and be clear about the risks of this data collection, or it is impossible to get truly informed consent. What consent do community mappers need from other community members if they are opening data or information? What about when people are volunteering their information and self-reporting? What does informed consent mean in those cases? And what needs to be done to ensure that consent is truly informed? How can open data and mapping be explained to those who have not used the Internet before? How can we have informed consent if we cannot promise anyone that their data are really secure? Do we have ethics review boards for these new technological ways of gathering data?

8) Not having community data also has ethical implications

It may seem like time wasting, and there may be privacy and protection questions, but there are are also ethical implications of not having community data. When tools like satellite remote sensing are used to do slum mapping, for example, data are very dehumanized and can lead to sterile decision-making. The data that come from a community itself can make these maps more human and these decisions more humane. But there is a balance between the human/humanizing side and the need to protect. Standards are needed for bringing in community and/or human data in an anonymized way, because there are ethical implications on both ends.

9) The problem with donors….

Big donors are not asking the tough questions, according to some participants. There is a lack of understanding around the meaning, use and value of the data being collected and the utility of maps. “If the data is crap, you’ll have crap GIS and a crap map. If you are just doing a map to do a map, there’s an issue.” There is great incentive from the donor side to show maps and to demonstrate value, because maps are a great photo op, a great visual. But how to go a level down to make a map really useful? Are the M&E folks raising the bar and asking these hard questions? Often from the funder’s perspective, mapping is seen as something that can be done quickly. “Get the map up and the project is done. Voila! And if you can do it in 3 weeks, even better!”

Some participants felt the need for greater donor awareness of these ethical questions because many of them are directly related to funding issues. As one participant noted, whether you coordinate, whether it’s participatory, whether you communicate and share back the information, whether you can do the right thing with the privacy issue — these all depend on what you can convince a donor to fund. Often it’s faster to reinvent the wheel because doing it the right way – coordinating, learning from past efforts, involving the community — takes more time and money. That’s often the hard constraint on these questions of ethics.

Check this link for some resources on the topic, and add yours to the list.

Many thanks to our lead discussants, Robert Banick from the American Red Cross and Erica Hagen from Ground Truth, and to Population Council for hosting us for this month’s Salon!

The next Technology Salon NYC will be coming up in March. Stay tuned for more information, and if you’d like to receive notifications about future salons, sign up for the mailing list!

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Ivan and Massilau working on some mapping in Inhambane, Mozambique.

I had the pleasure of working with Iván Sánchez Ortega in Mozambique earlier this month, and I learned a ton about the broader world of GIS, GPS, FOSS, Ubuntu and Open Street Maps from him. We also shared a few beers, not to mention a harrowing plane ride complete with people screaming and everyone imagining we were going to die! But I suppose it’s all in a day’s work.

Below is a cross-post by Iván about Maps for Mozambique. You can find the original post here, and a version in Spanish here. Note: the opinions expressed below belong to Iván and not to his former, current or future employeers…..

*****

Last week was a small adventure. I went to Mozambique to make maps, as part of the Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media program. The main goal was to train youngsters in order for them to make a basic cartography of the surrounding rural communities.

This travel is part of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team activities. After the successes of Kibera and Haiti, we want to check how much we can help by providing cartography.

Cartography in developing areas provides a great amount of situational awareness – in order to help, one needs to know where the help is needed. In the case of Mozambique rural communities, we’re talking about knowing who has a water well and access to healthcare and education, and who doesn’t.

The problem with rural Mozambique is that the population is very disperse. Each family unit lives in an isolated set of huts, away from the other families in the community. There is so much land available that the majority of the land is neither used or managed.

Which leads to think that, maybe, the successes at Kibera and Haiti are, in part, due to them being dense urban areas, where a kilometer square of information is very useful.

It has been repeated ad nauseam that geographic information is the infrastructure of infrastructures. Large-scale humanitarian problems can’t be tackled without cartographic support – without it, there isn’t situational awareness, nor will coordinating efforts be possible, something very important in an era when aid can get in the way of helping. However, even with agile surveying techniques and massively crowdsourced work, the cost of surveying large areas is still big. And, as in all the other problems, technology isn’t the silver bullet.

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That said, the way one has to go to reach the rural communities doesn’t have anything to do with the occidentalized stereotypical image of rural sub-Saharan Africa. There are no lions, nor children with inflated bellies due to starvation.

There is, however, the image of a developed country but in which the public agencies work at half throttle. Mass transit, garbage collection, urbanism, civil protection, environment, job market, education, social security. Everything’s there, but everything works at a much lower level than one could expect. To give out an example, the Administraçao Nacional de Estradas (national roads administration) plans switching of one-way lanes over hand-drawn sketches.

The reasons that explain the situation of the country are not simple, not by far, but in general terms they can be resumed in two: the war of independence of 1964-1975 and the civil war of 1977-1992. Living is not bad, but also not good, and part of the population is expecting international humanitarian aid to magically solve all of their problems.

When one stops to think, the situation eerily reminds of the Spanish movie Welcome, Mr. Marshall. Only that everyone’s black, they don’t dance sevillanas, and instead of railroads they expect healthcare and education.

Wait a moment. A reconstruction 20 years after a civil war, external aid, and the need of cartography for a full country. This reminds me to the 1956-57 Spain general flight, popularly known among cartographers as the American flight.

These aerial photographs, made in collaboration with the U.S. Army Map Service, had a great influence in the topographic maps of that period, and even today they are an invaluable resource to study changes in land use.

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Which is, then, the best solution? To inject geospatial technology may be a short-term gain, long-term pain in the form of 9000€/seat software licenses. Mr. Marshall won’t come with a grand orthophotogrameric flight. Military mapping agencies won’t implement SDIs (spatial data infrastructures) overnight. Training aid workers and locals into surveying is possible, but slow and expensive, although it might be the only doable thing.

Related posts on Wait… What?

Mapping Magaiça and other photos from Mozambique

Being a girl in Cumbana

Putting Cumbana on the map — with ethics

Inhambane: land of palm trees and cellular networks

It’s all part of the ICT jigsaw — Plan Mozambique ICT4D workshops

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