Ryan  Burns, phd
November 13, 2012

crisis maps for profit

About a month ago I attended the weeklong International Conference of Crisis Mappers; consider my mind blown. It was an incredibly rich experience and I’ve gathered loads of notes that will probably influence my dissertation work in some way or another. I’m currently writing a more formal summary of the conference for the Commons Lab, but I have a few thoughts I’d like to dump here in the meantime.

Quick overview of demographics first. The conference was seemingly younger and more gender-balanced than most I’ve attended (particularly conferences themed around geographic data), and primarily representing the affluent global North. It seemed - but I could be wrong here - that nearly everyone there was involved in the administration or development of information technologies, in contrast with being disaster responders (one exception would be those from the Virtual Operations Support Teams).

One of the most striking themes underlying much of the conference has been the role of the private sector in developing new technologies. The first day was comprised of 30 lightning talks, each lasting 5 minutes. I was surprised at the number of these that reported on newly-developed technologies by the private sector, in presentations given by exciting, gregarious young (and some not-so-young) entrepeneurs. Flashy, beautiful new software programs to integrate into every aspect of disaster management, and the venture capital to back them up.

Now, I have a number of thoughts with regard to the private sector’s involvement in disaster management. First off, there was little mention of how the techs are influencing disaster response strategies. This fact wasn’t lost on others who mentioned it to me, either. In fact, I may take this back later once the videos are posted, but I’m pretty sure the only mention of adapted response strategies was a hypothetical situation drawn up by Clarence Wardell. So, while lots of new innovation is occurring, I’m at a loss in describing the impact it’s having.

(In fact, it was touted at least once that disasters are harbingers of innovation. According to this way of thinking, if there’s a “good” outcome of disasters, it’s that lots of cool new technologies are developed. If this isn’t as immediately troubling to you as it is to me, perhaps it will become so after I describe some potential results of this dynamic.)

But second, the effects of these privatized labors in disaster management have yet to be fully explored. As a citizen who wears my political affiliations on my sleeve, I’m comfortable making the value judgement that profit should not be generated from disasters. As a social scientist, I would be more cautious and say: the point here is not whether private businesses making profits from disasters is a “good” thing or a “bad” thing, but rather that we observe it happening and our goal should be to explore the effects and implications of this dynamic. Without having completed my dissertation fieldwork I’ll shy away from strong pronouncements for now, but further along when I have my write-up, I’ll have substance to deliver here.

Third, I want to note that charity and philanthropy are becoming central to contemporary capitalism, and unfortunately crisis mapping is no exception. I first heard these ideas delivered in this Zizek talk, but have since realized that many are discussing it. For crisis mapping this means Google now has Google.org, that Bing lends its imagery to OpenStreetMap to trace over, and that ESRI now is increasing profit margins from developing technologies used in disaster management (there are many others, but these are some of the largest companies). The problem with this approach, as identified by Zizek, is that the mechanisms that caused the disaster, e.g., the drive for capital accumulation (for there’s “no such thing as a natural disaster”) are being leveraged to ameliorate the damages it caused. “It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property,” Zizek argues.

Many discourses could be mobilized to defend this privatization. The one I most expect to hear is that the public sector has limited resources with which to address a disaster, and these resources can be spared if the private sector can deliver technologies in exchange for lower compensation than that required by the public sector. This utilitarian discourse is problematic for many reasons, including the fact that it ignores the role of non-profit organizations, it evades the question I’ve raised (“what are the implications…”), it relegates the highly political processes of economic resource distribution to a “natural” science, and it takes as concrete and singular people’s needs during disasters. To this latter objection I would point the reader to Nancy Fraser’s paper “Talking about needs”, a very insightful argument about need interpretations.


Concluding thoughts? Well, I’ll certainly have more to say about this further along in my fieldwork and as I read more about the “charity economy” and the “humanitarian present”. I think there are many very serious, fundamental questions that this raises, and that bear exploring. And hopefully this will be understood by my audience as an effort to temper quixotic unexamined optimism, not to claim that crisis mapping is a “bad” thing. In the spirit of feminist scholarship, this is meant as a push to reflexive praxis.

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