As you probably know, OpenStreetMap is a global project to create a shared map of the whole world. A user-created map, that is. Of course, in a project where anyone can add their data, there are many forms this can take, but the fundamental idea allows for local ownership of local maps — a power shift from the historical mapping process. Now, if I want to add that new café in my neighborhood to the OSM map, I can do it, and quickly. And I don’t have to worry that I’m giving away my data to a corporate behemoth like Google — open and free means no owner.

But lately I’ve noticed a trend away from the radical potential of such hyperlocal data ownership, as OSM gets more widely used and recognized, inspiring everyone from the White House to the Guardian to get involved in remote mapping (using satellite imagery to trace map details onto OSM, like roads and building outlines). But remote activities still require people who know the area being mapped to add the crucial details, like names of roads and types of buildings. So why is the trend worrying?

Since first training 13 young people in the Kibera slum to map their own community using OSM, in 2009, I have focused quite a bit on questions of the local — where things actually happen. And the global aid and development industry, as anyone can see who has worked very closely with people anywhere from urban slums to rural villages, tends to remain an activity that begins in Washington (or at best, say, Nairobi’s glassy office buildings) and ends where people actually live. Mapping, on the other hand, is an activity that is inherently the other way around — best and most accurately done by residents of a place. And, I would argue, mapping can therefore actually play a role in shifting this locus of decision making.

More poetically perhaps, I also see maps as representations of who made them rather than a place per se. So if the community maps itself, that’s what they see. And that can shift the planning process to highlight something different — local priorities. After all, a resident of a place knows things faster, and better, than any outsider, and new technology can in theory highlight and legitimize this local knowledge. But just as easily, it seems, it can expedite data extraction.

Even more importantly, as any social scientist will tell you, a resident of a place knows the relevant meaning and context of the “facts” that are collected — the story behind the data. An outsider often has no idea what they’re actually looking at, even if it seems apparent. (An illustrative anecdote: I was recently in Dhaka and we noticed a political poster with a tennis racket symbol. We wondered why use a tennis racket to represent this candidate? That’s not a tennis racket — it’s a racket-shaped electric mosquito zapper, said one Bangladeshi. What you think you see is not the reality that counts!)

So, when the process of mapping gets turned around — with outlines done first by remote tracing and locals left to “fill in the blanks” for those outside pre-determined agendas, that sense of prioritization is flipped. In spite of attempts to include local mappers, needs are often focused on the external (usually large multilateral) agency, leaving just a few skilled country residents to add names to features in places they’ve never set foot in before.

There are degrees of local that we are failing to account for. Thinking that once we’ve engaged anyone “local” (ie, non-foreign) in a mapping project we’ve already leveled the playing field is letting ourselves off the hook too easily. By painting the local with one brush we fail to engage people within their own neighborhood (not to mention linguistic, ethnic group or gender). We underestimate the power of negative stereotypes in every city and country against those in the direst straits, including pervasive ideas of lack of ability, tech or otherwise. This is especially problematic when dealing with the complex dynamics of urban slums, in my experience. But any place where we hope to eventually inspire a cadre of local citizen mappers who care about getting the (data) story right, it’s crucial to diversify.

Having dealt with these challenges nearly from day one of Map Kibera, I’m particularly sensitive to the question “How does a map help the people living in the place represented?” You might say that development agencies and governments have a clear aim for their maps that will help in very important ways. Therefore, a faster and more complete map from a technical standpoint is always better. (Indeed, getting support for open maps in the first place is quite an achievement). But more often than you’d think, the map seems to be made for its own sake or to have a quick showpiece.

Even if our answer is that the map would help if disaster struck, that seems to be missing the point and might not even be true in most cases. Strong local engagement and leadership are said to be “best practice” even in cases of disaster response and preparedness, though they aren’t yet the norm. Since the recent earthquake in Nepal, there has been a very successful mapping response thanks to local OSMers Kathmandu Living Labs. But critically, this group had been working hard locally for some time. And we should see this as a great starting point for widespread engagement, not an end product.

Another problem is that established mapping processes in the field aren’t questioned much, even when it comes to OSM. Since mapping is often something people do who are techies of some kind — GIS people, programmers, urban planners — organizers sometimes seem to forget to simplify to the lowest common denominator needed for a project. Does the project really need to use several types of technological tools and collect every building outline? Does every building address need to be mapped? If not, it just seems like an easy win — why not collect everything? One reason not to is because later when you find you need local buy-in, even OSM may be viewed as an outsider project meant to dominate a neighborhood, a city, especially in sensitive neighborhoods where this has indeed been a primary use of maps. I wonder if people will one day want to create “our map” separately from OSM. A different global map wiki which is geared toward self-determination, perhaps? That would be a major loss for the OSM community.

Perhaps I seem stuck on questions of “whose map” and “by whom, for whom?” Well, that’s what intrigued me about OSM in the first place. We used to talk a lot about the democratizing potential of the internet, about wikis and open source as a model for a new kind of non-hierarchical online organizing. Now, it’s clear that because of low capacity and low access, it’s actually pretty easy to bypass the poor, the offline, the unmapped. And because of higher capacity among wealthier professionals and students in national capitals globally, it’s easier for them to do the job of mapping their country instead. Of course there isn’t anything wrong with people coming together digitally over thousands of miles to create a map. In an idealistic sense it’s a beautiful thing.

But the fact is, we (that is, technologists and aid workers — both foreign and not) still tend to privilege our own knowledge and capacity far and away over that of the people we are seeking to help. We can send messages to the poor through a mobile phone, strategize on what poster to put up where, but the survey to figure out who lives there and what they care about? Still done by outsiders, hiring locals only as data extractors. As knowledge and expertise used to make decisions becomes more data-driven and complex, a class of expert and policy maker is created that is even more out of reach. Access has always been messy. Now (thanks in part to mobile phone proliferation and without much further analysis), we hardly talk about access anymore. The fad has shifted to “big data” and other tech uses at the very top.

To me, OSM was always so much more than just a place where people shared data. It was one small way to solve this problem of invisibility bestowed by poverty.

The possibilities of OSM to empower the least powerful are still tantalizingly close on the horizon. With just a few tweaks to existing thinking, I hope we can tip the scale — we can prioritize the truly local and allow the global to serve it. But to do so we must resist glib and lazy thinking around how those processes actually work. We must pay attention to order of operations (who maps first? whose data shows up as default?), and subtleties of ownership and buy-in, and we must examine who we think of as “local”.

But most of all, and most simply, we have to reorient our thinking in designing mapping projects. It could be quite straightforward, for instance:

  • integrating more localized thinking into training courses and OSM materials, suggesting that people on the margins (such as slumdwellers) can and should be learning OSM tools as well;
  • training people to think about social context and local priorities not just technology;
  • doing more offline outreach and print map distribution; creating new map renderings highlighting levels of local and remote mapping;
  • making it the norm that residents of a neighborhood be involved in early project planning;
  • engaging with people who have long done offline forms of data gathering and mapping in their communities;
  • considering that first pass on a blank map might matter.

And considering that leading local technical mappers start to conceptualize their roles more as mentors to more marginalized communities and to new mappers living there than as expert consultants to foreign organizations. I’ve seen the light bulb go on when that happens.

Yes, ultimately, we will do best to address the incentive structures of international funding which are keeping us from achieving what we’d all undoubtedly wish to see, which is everyone getting the opportunity to put themselves on the map.

Many will say that it is just too hard, too time consuming, too cumbersome, too expensive, too — something — to really prioritize local in the way I’m talking about. We’ll never hit “scale” for instance. Something needs to be done now. But I would ask you to reconsider. I believe that in fact, sensitive and thoughtful engagement with communities is the only real path to scale and sustainability for many kinds of “crowd-” or “citizen-” based data work that is now happening, and most certainly the only way to reach the real target of any development-oriented data effort — actual improvements in the lives of the world’s poor and marginalized.

This post also appears here on the GroundTruth Initiative blog.