Ryan  Burns, phd
November 14, 2011

Inequality, poverty, and the geoweb

The inequalities of the geoweb, while always present, emerge quite strongly and clearly in the moment of crisis mapping. Crisis mapping involves four processes that make it an inherently unequal endeavor: the enrollment of power relations, the political economy of the geoweb, representations of knowledges, and urban redevelopment processes. Before getting into these, though, I should note that my project is one of critique, but not for critique’s own sake. I hope that by looking at moments of inequality, crises mappers and aid organizations can more fully problematize their practice and, ideally, adjust these practices to account for the marginalized. No amount of “accounting” can erase these inequalities, of course, but problematization can lead to positive change.

Related to my previous post, crisis mapping is rife with power relations that take different forms in different contexts. It’s first important to note that mapping happens in urban areas more often than in rural areas. Due to population concerns and the unique challenges faced by aid organizations in urban areas, these are the spaces that get mapped first, if not the only areas altogether. This inequality stemming from the disproportionate “power” of urban areas disadvantages people in remote or more rural areas. In other words, the geoweb is an urban phenomenon. This urban privilege is not so much a concern of my dissertation research, but rather the starting point for a series of questions related to urban geography and geoweb relations.

I am concerned with the unequal power relations involved when people from the global North map the global South. This phenomenon raises many questions such as, what is knowable by those working remotely, and what impact does this limitation have on redevelopment processes? OpenStreetMap (OSM) captures this problematic: for OSM, “the map” consists of Cartesian and absolutely defined objects such as roads, buildings, fire hydrants, electric poles, and refugee camps. This is all important, but the North-South power relation that enables mappers to know these places (i.e., access to satellite imagery on which to trace, the expendable time with which to get involved, the ability to “feel good” by “helping”, etc.) also derives its legitimacy from the very forces that produced the global North (Cartesian logic, scientific infrastructure to enable satellites, political superiority, and so on). Ushahidi sits in interesting relation to this discussion: not only was it developed in the global South, but it requires local knowledges. In other words, it depends on a different power relation. Still, my previous post argued that not only is there a politics in needs claims, but also in need interpretation. Ushahidi further enables the recognition side of Fraser’s redistribution-recognition dialectic, but on whose terms (this can mean the software level, the institutional level, or the social level, for instance)? In other words, what are the terms on which this recognition is achieved?

It’s arguable that the full effects of the geoweb’s political economy have yet to be theorized. Leszczynski is working on this, so I won’t spend too much time on it here (especially because it’s as yet a half-baked thought). A few main points will suffice. Political economy is essentially a social relation in that it involves a mode of production, distribution, and (in)ability to influence flows of capital. For the geoweb writ large political economy can be observed in the HUGE amount of venture capital being dumped into location-based services and geographic software/hardware such as iPhone apps, geographically-enabled search engines (I.e., Google.com), and different Google APIs, to take a few prominent examples. For crisis mapping specifically, the geoweb sits in interesting relation to political economy. First, OSM has been discursively contrasted with traditional GIS for its purported qualities such as ‘efficiency’, ‘speed’, and low use of resources. GIS, an enormous industry, is thus de-privileged here and challenges aid organizations to think about how to better leverage the geoweb over GIS. Another crisis mapping platform, Google’s MapMaker, is, of course, proprietary and Google owns all data put into it. For places defined (loosely? strongly?) as ‘crisis’ zones where MapMaker is used - the Kibera slums of Nairobi, the people outside capital relations in the Amazon, etc. - mapping is undertaken in order to bring these spaces into market relations. It is implicitly (perhaps explicitly; I’m not sure) suggested that through community asset development, in these cases a map of services and merchants, access is necessarily developed and people will be able to more fully utilize their consumerist identities. In some cases the assets mapped - clinics, schools, banks - have real material impacts on everyday lives; however, it is still important to think about the social relations behind the mapping itself and the relations encouraged by this sort of mapping. Lastly, mapping platforms such as OSM and Ushahidi operate in the economic ‘third sector’ of non-profit. In a certain sense they represent the devolution of state government-led initiatives to individuals and to the non-profit sector, what social scientists have called ‘neoliberalization’ (discussed in my last post).

The third way inequality is implicated in the geoweb is through representations of knowledges. Lots of academic discussion has revolved around the politics of knowledge representation (McLafferty 2002; Kwan 2002; Corbett & Rambaldi 2009; Jung & Elwood 2010), so I want to take the discussion in a slightly different direction here. What gets mapped in disaster contexts can be conceptualized as needs. I make this rhetorical turn both because I think it’s a useful analytic lens, but also because it draws connections to Fraser’s (1988) discussion of needs claims and interpretations. Needs claims are themselves fraught with politics, but Fraser focuses on needs interpretations. For Ushahidi, one can inquire into the terms on which needs are expressed; in other words, what discourses are available for users to express needs? Who sets these terms? What is an ‘acceptable’ need? These questions could be directed to the software level (e.g., “what pieces of data does Ushahidi need in order to map the need?”), but also on a social-theoretic level (e.g., are psychological needs addressed? How must people communicate needs for them to be addressed?). More broadly, this is a question of which knowledges are considered legitimate for which purposes. OSM focuses on “permanent” Cartesian knowledges to the exclusion of relational and interpersonal ways of knowing (i.e., roads are mapped, but not memories). In contrast, Ushahidi maps relational knowledges (i.e., police abuses, medical needs, etc.), but still must make exclusions for practical reasons. Is there space for subverting these platforms? Interestingly, some Occupy Wall Street tents are being mapped in OSM, which raises a whole set of new questions related to this discussion.

Since the factors above are all implicated in urban redevelopment through the geoweb, urban redevelopment is an inherently uneven process. Power relations, political economy, and knowledge representations all manifest in the geoweb, and may be accentuated in crisis mapping contexts. These factors impact the urban redevelopment processes after a disaster. How, specifically, is the topic of my dissertation. At this preliminary point, though, I expect to see that urban redevelopment takes [new/modified/influenced/shifted] forms due to the availability of geoweb modes of mapping and data production. The geoweb mobilizes various forms of inequality that necessarily must manifest in redevelopment contexts.

In conclusion, I must note that this post has focused on the inequalities that work through crisis mapping by virtue of the geoweb. I do not mean to imply here that the geoweb is a “bad” thing; rather, I mean to say that it is complex and embedded in social relations that necessitate critical investigation. Plenty of literature speaks to the benefits of the geoweb and so my goal here is not to reproduce those arguments. Instead I take a metaphorical step back and think about the processes that are obfuscated by tropes of “egalitarianism”, “participation”, “empowerment”, and so on. Like the critical and participatory GIS literatures, I am interested in the social relations present in, and fostered through, emerging technologies. To understand this requires moving outside the realm of technological expertise per se: echoing Heidegger (2005), “the essence of technology is by no means anything technological”.


  1. Of course it’s more complex than this; these are the four processes I look at in my dissertation.

Works Cited

Corbett, J., and G. Rambaldi. 2009. “Representing our Reality”: Geographic Information Technologies, Local Knowledge and Change. In Qualitative GIS: A Mixed-Methods Approach, eds. S. Elwood and M. Cope, 70-90. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Heidegger, M. 2005. The Question Concerning Technology. Philosophy of the Internet. Retrieved from http://www.wright.edu/cola/Dept/PHL/Class/P.Internet/PITexts/QCT.html (last accessed 14 November 2011).

Jung, J.-K., and S. Elwood. 2010. Extending the Qualitative Capabilities of GIS: Computer-Aided Qualitative GIS. Transactions in GIS 14 (1):63-87.

Kwan, M.-P. 2002. Feminist Visualization: Re-envisioning GIS as a Method in Feminist Geographic Research. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 92 (4):645-661.

McLafferty, S. L. 2002. Mapping Women’s Worlds: knowledge, power and the bounds of GIS. Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography 9 (3):263-269.

blog comments powered by Disqus