Feedback Labs is part of a research consortium focused, in part, on real-time data and decision-making. Together with ODI, IDS and Reboot, we will be releasing research results in 2017.
This year marks the 100-year “anniversary” of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, which carved up the Levant region of the modern Middle East into territorial spheres of influence by colonial powers, and which still defines most of the region’s modern borders. Many generations later, the implications of this map on politics, society, and economy among other things are still widely cited, questioned, and grappled with. [While there are libraries of literature on the topic, more about Sykes-Picot’s legacies can be read here and here.]
Maps are hardly the first thing that come to mind when we hear about real-time data. Maps seem static, or at least, relatively slow to change. By contrast, the real-time data that we experience daily through smart phones, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and news from our neighbors, is dynamic, changing, and adding to our lives every few minutes. It’s there one day and antiquated the next. Yet real-time data, often combined with or layered onto other data, help form the core of maps generated in the digital age.
While maps are not new, the digital age most certainly is. Are maps in the digital age, then, free from the politics and interests of maps from a century ago?
Yes and no.
The politics of map-making in the digital age has moved beyond the standard (though still relevant) questions of political and economic agendas. Technological invisibility, for example, is one of many questions people are asking about the world’s newest society: the Internet.
Real-time, crowdsourced, maps rely heavily on information provided by people who can access and afford digital platforms, who are comfortable moving around in app-culture, and who are motivated to contribute among many other factors.
The digital divide has been written about extensively, and is one of the main features of technological invisibility, but not the only one.
Algorithms also now play a big role in map-making. They take instruction from programmers to identify which information counts and where it should be made visible. The technological specifications can render potentially important issues invisible. This exclusion doesn’t necessarily reflect sinister intent or self-interest, although of course it can. It’s more about functionality. If I want feedback on X, or if I’d like to monitor progress on X, what comes through related to P or L is not really recognized because it’s not functional. In other words, it doesn’t exist.
We have yet to reckon with the power dynamics of the Internet as being different from the power dynamics we are used to wrestling with in terms of the state, private interests, and historical legacies among others. [Data & Society puts out interesting commentary and research along these lines almost every week.]
A day-to-day example is the app-ification of what used to be public services (such as checking the time the next bus is coming). While public service information improves rapidly for some, overall investment in public information infrastructure may be diminishing equally as fast for those who don’t use apps. The tremendous potential for real-time maps also remains undeniable. One example is Ushahidi’s map of post-election violence and hate crimes in the United States, which provides a database of resources for community groups and legal organizations to take systemic action where they may have been more limited to a case-by-case approach in previous years. Whether the law is able to keep up or whether those organizations have the resources to adjust as quickly is the bigger question.
More generally, President Obama succinctly stated in a recent address to Silicon Valley that heeding calls to take Silicon Valley’s approach to technology development as a governing philosophy across society actually elevates the very marginalization of some populations that government is, in fact, designed to counter and remedy. While the two seem increasingly intertwined, it can’t be stated enough that the government, and the public sector more broadly, is not a technology company.
Map-making, real-time or otherwise, has gained traction as a quick informational fix to political, legal, and social challenges. While the legacies of maps from earlier centuries continue to arise in our daily lives, the complex realities of in/visibility, sovereignty and autonomy, surveillance, consent, and regulatory questions arising from maps generated in the digital age seem to be of secondary consideration. If speed is the disconnect, perhaps we should seriously consider the pitfalls of taking shortcuts rather than primarily urging surrounding systems and institutions to catch up.
Map-making in the digital age is a medium for going deep into the philosophical weeds of rights, democracy, civic and political participation, and the list goes on. While these maps may bear the publicly visible imprint of millions of people rather than the opaque advocacy and authority of a few, they re-energize old questions as often as they raise new ones.
This research is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The contents are the responsibility of Feedback Labs and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID or the United States Government.
LOGOS: USAID, FHI 360, mSTAR, IDS, ODI, Feedback Labs, Reboot