Confessions of a Cartographer in Crisis: Why I’m Committed to the Commons of Cartography

Today, 5 years ago, I started mapping and fieldwork in this precious place that was destroyed by cyclone Haiyan, which was by then the strongest cyclone in historical records to make landfall.

This experience rendered me speechless. I was totally unprepared for this.

This was my humanitarian turn, when things became absurd. Why? My childhood was a religious one. I was told that there’s an end to suffering. But my personal experience threw my belief system in disarray. This amount of suffering, with thousands killed in a few hours, didn’t make sense. On the other hand, my college and postgrad life was my nationalist phase. I was taught that things will only make sense if you offer your life to the country. But seeing how certain national government agencies managed the disaster gave me a lot of questions. Because of this post-disaster experience, I still have strong doubts about those happy endings preached at church and the nation’s grand story promoted at school.

5 years later, I’m still figuring out what I’m actually setting out to accomplish. But one of the main things that remain in my life is OpenStreetMap (OSM), the project of a global community of volunteers who make and share a free map of the world, especially to those who really need it.

From the typhoon Haiyan disaster in Tacloban to the Marawi siege, OSM volunteers traced the places that matter to make the maps available to everyone for free. I have personally experienced this during Haiyan during my work with UN-Habitat; to participating in the Missing Maps Project during MSc study in London (2016–2017); to the work in Marawi when I returned to the Philippines in 2017.

Tacloban, 2013, because of Super Typhoon Haiyan. image source: http://inapcache.boston.com/universal/site_graphics/blogs/bigpicture/typhoon_after_2013/bp4.jpg
Downtown Marawi in December 2017 during our fieldwork.
Using OSM data in Tacloban with mapmaker Mikko Tamura
Using OSM data in Marawi as background for participatory mapping.

The OSM community, including the local chapter in the Philippines, helps regardless of your belief, nationality, or any background. And you can join it, too. This community that is committed to our cartographic commons makes mapping meaningful. There’s something about this geography of generosity, and I aim to understand it for the next few years. And if you were one of the OSM volunteers, I’d like to say a very sincere and heartfelt “thank you”. The maps you made are still being used by the local communities, especially when they evacuate when a typhoon is coming.

My present stopover is in New Zealand, where I’m doing a PhD scholarship in the Geospatial Research Institute about crowdsourcing geographic information. OpenStreetMap in the Pacific region, including New Zealand and the Philippines, is the centre of my research project. I want to understand the quality, usability, and equity of the geographic information. To do that, I must understand not only the map data itself, but also the community and conditions that make it possible.

These are my research questions thus far:

1. How good is crowdsourced geographic information, such as OpenStreetMap, for whom, and why?

2. Why is crowdsourcing geographic information necessary? If OSM is the answer, then what is the question?

3. At what point does OpenStreetMap become useful, and under which conditions?

This project will requirement to explore, evaluate, and embed trends and issues that could be observed about the project. Personally and professionally, it will require me to become a better mapmaker and volunteer-member of OSM.

For inspiration, I’d like to borrow this passage from Matthew Wilson’s amazing book about critical cartography.

This will require more of us — both a greater involvement of geographers and nongeographers and more out-of-the-box thought and action within our ranks. That a single point does not form a line summarizes this requirement. It serves as a kind of manifesto for a renewal of critical mapping practice, recognizing that this work cannot reside only within the single point of an individual, a discipline, or a subfield. Instead this work must-under these new mapping conditions-be part of an expanding constellation, where connecting the dots with new lines is the making plastic of our most prized mapmaking habits.
We need new lines.

Next post

Before I took that new year flight to do fieldwork in Eastern Visayas in 2014, I was crying in my office while watching the video of the onslaught of the typhoon. Because of the disaster, I decided to leave my teaching job in the University of the Philippines. To be very honest, I wish the disaster never happened. I will share more about my personal experiences in the next post.