Tag Archives: Hacking

Crisis Mapping, Neogeography and the Delusion of Democratization

Professor Muki Haklay kindly shared with me this superb new study in which he questions the alleged democratization effects of Neogeography. As my colleague Andrew Turner explained in 2006, “Neogeography means ‘new geography’ and consists of a set of techniques and tools that fall outside the realm of traditional GIS, Geographic Information Systems. [...] Essentially, Neogeography is about people using and creating their own maps, on their own terms and by combining elements of an existing toolset. Neogeography is about sharing location information with friends & visitors, helping shape context, and conveying under-standing through knowledge of place.” To this end, as Muki writes, “it is routinely argued that the process of producing and using geographical information has been fundamentally democratized.” For example, as my colleague Nigel Snoad argued in 2011, “[...] Google, Microsoft and OpenStreetMap have really demo-cratized mapping.” Other CrisisMappers, including myself, have made similar arguments over the years.

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Muki explores this assertion by delving into the various meanings of demo-cratization. He adopts the specific notion of democratization that “evokes ideas about participation, equality, the right to influence decision making, support to individual and group rights, access to resources and opportunities, etc.” With this definition in hand, Muki argues that “using this stronger interpretation of democratization reveals the limitation of current neogeographic practices and opens up the possibility of considering alternative development of technologies that can, indeed, be considered democratizing.” To explore this further, he turns to Andrew Feenberg‘s critical philosophy of technology. Feenberg identifies “four main streams of thought on the essence of technology and its linkage to society: instrumentalism, determinism, substantivism & critical theory.”

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Feenberg’s own view is constructivist, “emphasizing that technology development is humanly controlled and encapsulates values and politics; it should thus be open to democratic control and intervention.” In other words, “technology can and should be seen as a result of political negotiations that lead to its production and use. In too many cases, the complexities of technological systems are used to concentrate power within small groups of technological, financial, and political elites and to prevent the wider body of citizens from meaningful participation in shaping it and deciding what role it should have in the everyday.” Furthermore, “Feenberg highlights that technology encapsulates an ambivalence between the ‘conservation of hierarchy’, which most technologies promote and reproduce—hence the continuity in power structures in advanced capitalist societies despite technological upheaval—and ‘democratic rationalisation’, which are the aspects of new technologies that undermine existing power structures and allow new opportunities for marginalized or ignored groups to assert themselves.”

To this end, Feenberg calls for a “deep democratization” of technology as an alternative to technocracy. “Instead of popular agency appearing as an anomaly and an interference, it would be normalized and incorporated into the standard procedures of technical design.” In other words, deep democratization is about empowerment: “providing the tools that will allow increased control over the technology by those in disadvantaged and marginalized positions in society.” Muki contrasts this with neogeography, which is “mostly represented in a decon-textualised way—as the citation in the introduction from Turner’s (2006) Intro-duction to Neogeography demonstrates: it does not discuss who the people are who benefit and whether there is a deeper purpose, beyond fun, for their engage-ment in neogeography.” And so, as neogeographers would have it, since “there is nothing that prevents anyone, anytime, and anywhere, and for any purpose from using the system, democratization has been achieved.” Or maybe not. Enter the Digital Divides.

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Yes, there are multiple digital divides. Differential access to computers & comm-unication technology is just one. “Beyond this, there is secondary digital ex-clusion, which relates to the skills and abilities of people to participate in online activities beyond rudimentary browsing.” Related to this divide is the one between the “Data Haves” and the “Data Have Nots”. There is also an important divide in speed—as anyone who has worked in say Liberia will have experienced—it takes a lot longer to upload/download/transfer content than in Luxembourg. “In summary, the social, economic, structural, and technical evidence should be enough to qualify and possibly withdraw the democratization claims that are attached to neogeographic practices.”

That said, the praxis of neogeography still has democratic potential. “To address the potential of democratization within neogeographic tools, we need to return to Feenberg’s idea of deep democratization  and the ability of ordinary citizens to direct technical codes and influence them so that they can include alternative meanings and values. By doing so, we can explore the potential of neogeographic practices to support democratisation in its fuller sense. At the very least, citizens should be able to reuse existing technology and adapt it so that it can be used to their own goals and to represent their own values.” So Muki adds a “Hierarchy of Hacking” to Feeberg’s conceptual framework, i.e., the triangle below.

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While the vast majority can participate in a conversation about what to map (Meaning), only a “small technical elite within society” can contribute to “Deep Technical Hacking,” which “requires very significant technical knowledge in creating new geographic data collection tools, setting up servers, and configuring database management systems.” Muki points to Map Kibera as an example of Deep Technical Hacking. I would add that “Meaning Hacking” is often hijacked by “Deep Technical Hackers” who tend to be the ones introducing-and-controlling local neogeography projects despite their “best” intentions. But the fact is this: Deep Tech Hackers typically have little to no actual experience in community development and are often under pressure to hype up blockbuster-like successes at fancy tech conferences in the US. This may explain why most take full owner-ship over all decisions having to do with Meaning- and Use-Hacking right from the start of a project. See this blog post’s epilogue, for more on this dynamic.

One success story, however, is Liberia’s Innovation Lab (iLab). My field visit to Monrovia in 2011 made me realize just how many completely wrong assumptions I had about the use of neogeography platforms in developing countries. Instead of parachuting in and out, the co-founders of iLab became intimately familiar with the country by spending a considerable amount of time in Monrovia and outside the capital city to understand the social, political and historical context in which they were introducing neogeography. And so, while they initially expected to provide extensive training on neogeography platforms right off the bat, they quickly realized that this was the wrong approach entirely for several reasons. As Muki observers, “Because of the reduced barriers, neogeography does offer some increased level of democratization but, to fulfill this potential, it requires careful implementation that takes into account social and political aspects,” which is precisely what the team at the iLab have done and continue to do impressively well. Note that one of the co-founders is a development expert, not a technology hacker. And while the other is a hacker, he spent several years working in Liberia. (Another equally impressive success story is this one from Brazil’s Mare shantytown).

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I thus fully subscribe to Muki’s hacking approach and made a very similar ar-gument in this 2011 blog post: “Democratizing ICT for Development with DIY Innovation and Open Data.” I directly challenged the “participatory” nature of these supposedly democratizing technologies and in effect questioned whether Deep Technical Hackers really do let go of control vis-a-vis the hacking of “Meaning” and “Use”. While I used Ushahidi as an example of a DIY platform, it is clear from Muki’s study that Ushahidi like other neogeography platforms also falls way short of deep democratization and hack-ability. That said, as I wrote then, “it is worth remembering that the motivations driving this shift [towards neogeography] are more important than any one technology. For example, recall the principles behind the genesis of the Ushahidi platform: Democratizing information flows and access; promoting Open Data and Do it Yourself (DIY) Innovation with free, highly hackable (i.e., open source) technology; letting go of control.” In other words, the democratizing potential should not be dismissed outright even if we’re not quite there yet (or ever).

As I noted in 2011,  hackable and democratizing technologies ought to be like a “choose your own adventure game. The readers, not the authors, finish the story. They are the main characters who bring the role playing games and stories to life.” This explains why I introduced the notion a “Fischer Price Theory of Tech-nology” five years ago at this meeting with Andrew Turner and other colleagues. As argued then, “What our colleagues in the tech-world need to keep in mind is that the vast majority of our partners in the field have never taken a computer science or software engineering course. [...] The onus thus falls on the techies to produce the most simple, self-explanatory, intuitive interfaces.”

I thus argued that neogeography platforms ought to be as easy to use (and yes hack) as simple as computer games, which is why I was excited to see the latest user interface (UI) developments for OpenStreetMap (image below). Of course, as Muki has ably demonstrated, UI design is just the tip of the iceberg vis-a-vis democratization effects. But democratization is both relative and a process, and neogeography platforms are unlikely to become less democratizing over time, for instance. While some platforms still have a long road ahead with respect to reaching their perceived potential (if ever), a few instances may already have made in-roads in terms of their local political effects as argued here and in my doctoral dissertation.

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Truly hackable technology, however, needs to go beyond the adventure story and Fischer Price analogies described above. The readers should have the choice of becoming authors before they even have a story in mind, while gamers should have the option of creating their own games in the first place. In other words, as Muki argues, “the artful alteration of technology beyond the goals of its original design or intent,” enables “Deep Democratization.” To this end, “Freely pro-viding the hackable building blocks for DIY Innovation is one way to let go of control and democratize [neogeography platforms],” not least if the creators can make a business out of their buildings. 

Muki concludes by noting that, “the main error in the core argument of those who promote [neogeography] as a democratic force is the assumption that, by increasing the number of people who utilise geographic information in different ways and gain access to geographic technology, these users have been em-powered and gained more political and social control. As demonstrated in this paper, neogeography has merely opened up the collection and use of this information to a larger section of the affluent, educated, and powerful part of society.”  What’s more, “The control over the information is kept, by and large, by major corporations and the participant’s labor is enrolled in the service of these corporations, leaving the issue of payback for this effort a moot point. Significantly, the primary intention of the providers of the tools is not to empower communities or to include marginalized groups, as they do not re-present a major source of revenue.” I argued this exact point here a year ago.

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Crowdsourcing vs Putin: “Mapping Dots is a Disease on the Map of Russia”

I chose to focus my dissertation research on the impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs) during elections in repressive states. Why? Because the contentious relationship between state and society during elections is accentuated and the stakes are generally higher than periods in-between elections. To be sure, elections provide momentary opportunities for democratic change. Moreover, the impact of ICTs on competitive events such as contentious elections may be more observable than the impact on state-society relations during the regular calendar year.  In other words, the use of ICTs during election periods may shed some light on whether said technologies empower coercive regimes at the expense of civil society or vice versa.

This was certainly the case this past week in Russia as a result of the above crowdsourced election-violations map, which was used to monitor the country’s Parliamentary Elections. The map displays over 5,000 reports of election viola-tions that span the following categories:

While this map is not powered by the Ushahidi platform (contrary to this claim), the many similarities suggest that the project was inspired by the earlier nation-wide use of the Ushahidi platform in 2010, namely the Russia Fires Help Map. In fact, the major initiator of the Violations Map attended a presentation on Ushahidi and Help Map in Boston earlier this year.

The Elections-Violation Map was launched by Golos, the country’s only independent election monitoring organization and Gazeta.ru, Russia’s leading Internet newspaper. This promotional banner for the map was initially displayed on Gazeta.ru’s website but was subsequently taken down by the Editor in Chief who cited commercial reasons for the action: “Right now we have such a period that this advertisement place is needed for commercial advertisement. But we’re still partners with Golos.”

The deputy editor from Gazeta who had curated the map resigned in protest: “After it became evident that the Violation Map ‘no longer suited the leadership and the owners of the website’, [the deputy editor said,]  it would have been “cowardice” to continue the work. Despite Gazeta.ru’s withdrawal from the project, the Violation Map found another partner, “Slon.ru, a popular blog platform (~1 million unique visitors monthly).”

My colleague Alexey Sidorenko argues that the backlash against the Violations Map “induced the Streisand Effect, whereby any attempt to contain the spread of information results in the opposite reaction.” Indeed, as one Russian blogger tweeted: “Why are ‘United Russia’ representatives so short-sighted? It is evident that now half of the country will know about the Violation Map.” Needless to say, the Violations Map is one of the trending topics being discussed in Russia today (on election day).

As is well know, Golos is funded by both American and European organizations. Not surprisingly, Vladimir Putin is not a fan of Golos, as recently quoted in the Washington Post:

“Representatives of some states are organizing meetings with those who receive money from them, the so-called grant recipients, briefing them on how to ‘work’ in order to influence the course of the election campaign in our country,” Putin said.

“As the saying goes, it’s money down the drain,” he added. “First, because Judas is not the most respected of biblical characters among our people. And, second, they would do better to use that money to redeem their national debt and stop pursuing their costly and ineffective foreign policy.”

As expected by many, hackers took down the Golos website along with the Election-Violations Map. (The Sudanese government did the same last year when independent Sudanese civil society groups used the Ushahidi platform to monitor the country’s first presidential elections in two decades). Incidentally, Slon.ru seems to have evaded the take-down. In any case, the blocking of websites is just one very easy tactic available to hackers and repressive regimes. Take this other tactic, for example:

According to a Russian-speaking colleague of mine (who also pointed me to this pro-Kremlin activist video), the woman says that “mapping dots is a disease on the map of Russia.” The video shows her calling the Map’s dedicated number to report a false message (she gives a location that doesn’t exist) and subsequently fills out a false report online. In other words, this is an instructional video on how to submit false information to a crowdsourcing platform. A fully translated transcript of the video is available here.

This same colleague informed me that one of Russia’s State Television Channels subsequently broadcast a program in which it accused those behind the Violations Map of making false claims about the falsification of reports, accusing the “Maptivists” of using an American tool in efforts against the Russian ruling party. In addition, the head of Russia’s Election Committee submitted a complaint against the map to the court, which resulted in the organizers receiving a $1,000 fine (30,0000 Rubles).

Gregory Asmolov, a PhD student at LSE, argues that the Russian government’s nervous reaction to the crowdsourced map and its attempt to delegitimize and limit its presence in cyberspace is clear proof of the project’s impact. Gregory goes on to write that the crowdsourced map is an interim product, not a finished product, which serves as a diagnostic system in which individuals are the sensors. He also argues that crowdsourcing mirrors the reliability of society and thus claims that if there is low confidence in the reliability of crowdsourced information, this is a diagnosis of society and not the crowdsourcing tool itself.

Alexey Sidorenko concludes with the following: “The Violation Map incident is just an indicator of a much deeper trend – the growing will for the need of change, exercised by free, non-falsified elections. In previous election cycles, most journalists would not have resigned and no big portal would have been brave enough to advertise election violation monitoring. Aside from the deeper sociological undercurrent, technology plays a crucial role in all presented stories. [...] none of these events would actually have happened if Golos and Gazeta.ru had not united in producing the Violation Map. Golos has had an election violation database since 2008, but it never was as influential as it is now. This suggests the success of the project relies heavily on its online mapping element (if any event gets concrete geographic coordinates it automatically gets more real and more appealing) and having a proper media partner.”

My dissertation research asked the following question: Do New ICTs Change the Balance of Power Between Repressive States and Civil Society? In the case of Russia’s Parliamentary Elections, it would seem so. So my next question is this: If Help Map inspired this week’s Election Violations Map, then what will the latter inspire now that many more have been exposed to the power of crowdsourcing and live maps? Stay tuned for the next round of Crowdsourcing vs. Putin.