Ryan  Burns, phd
October 23, 2011

Inequality, poverty, and the geoweb

The last decade or so has seen a prominent shift in the ways we communicate geographic information. From Google Maps to geotagged Flickr photos and blog posts to the iPhone, a new suite of technologies is enabling everyday people to produce digital geographic data for wide (or small) audiences. Geographers are coalescing around the term “geoweb” - from “geospatial web” - to describe these processes. In my dissertation research I’m most interested in two geoweb applications: OpenStreetMap (OSM), an entirely volunteer-generated free base map of the world, and Ushahidi, a software service that maps SMS messages in crisis-struck areas and which most often communicate some sort of “need”.

Geographers typically discuss the geoweb in one of two ways: either they report on the “newness” and remain mostly within the descriptive realm, or they focus quite heavily on questions of how “accuracy” can be determined and maintained. This has many ramifications for the discipline, including obscuring the geoweb’s emergence in a specific political economy, a privileging of technological development over societal effects (in other words, building up “hype”), and casting the geoweb user as the new normative subject in our analyses.

My dissertation research addresses this gap by borrowing from the literature on inequality and poverty. While the discourse surrounding the geoweb often entails terms such as “empowering”, “enabling”, “democratic”, and “participatory”, I am interested in looking at the inequalities that may be (re)produced in the geoweb. Like the literatures from which I borrow, I’m starting from the perspective that no social intervention (whether that be welfare policy, technological development, or “natural” disaster) has equal effects across an entire population; that certain factors such as race, gender, geographic location, and community, all influence the structural conditions in which one operates daily. This stands in stark contrast with the purported “autonomous individual actor” who lives in complete control of how their life develops (see footnote 1). In other words, an individual is always already a member of certain social assemblages and thus never independent of structural factors. To give a quick example from my own background, by complete chance I was born a male in a white, working-class, Christian family, and was raised by a mother who (through certain social welfare affordances such as food stamps and friends with well-paying jobs) was able to work through nursing school and provide me with a strong education. Responsibility of course played a role in my being able to work through college with a good GPA, but it was also quite a bit of this fortunate background (see footnote 2) and my good luck (no serious health problems, for instance).

The next couple blog posts - I don’t know how many yet - will be an exploration of the lessons we can borrow from poverty and inequality academic literatures to understand the geoweb. They will eventually (once written) be aggregated into the third section of my general examination statement. They will also provide the general structure for a talk I’m giving at the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers in February. A word of note here, though: I’m writing this in blog format first, and then will be heavily editing for language, citations, and content once it’s in my statement. I’m writing this here for a public audience, and so I avoid difficult language when possible, and when I cite I will likely cite the popular press first (due to copyright protection of academic articles). Many of the examples I provide may seem banal or obvious, rather than completely illuminating. Due to the nature of this topic some language will be unavoidably difficult, but I make every effort to simplify it so that most average readers will have a sense of what I’m saying. If anything is unclear, please ask for clarification in the comment section.


  1. This idea comes broadly from Enlightenment ideals, and more specifically, classical liberal philosophy exemplified John Locke’s and Thomas Hobbes’s writings. These ideas have crept into many other spheres of thinking, including lassez-faire economics and rational choice theory, among others.

  2. The keen readers will have noticed I imply that being born a white male is a “fortunate background”. This is precisely what I meant to imply. Not because of any innate superiority that this entails, but because it begins from a position of relative social advantage - most role models available for children are white males, and if I were to run for president I wouldn’t have to answer questions about mood swings or my sense of fashion. This is an injustice that I hope my academic work as well as my life will help remedy. It is not only unjust to those disadvantaged by it, but to society as a whole; to whites, to blacks, to makes, to females.

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