I recently had the distinct pleasure of participating in a fascination workshop on “Information and Communication Technology in Areas of Limited Statehood: A New Form of Governance?” The workshop was organized by the Frei Universität’s program on Governance in Areas of Limited Statehood and co-directed by Professors Gregor Walter-Drop and Steven Livingston. Update: the result of this meeting, and a follow up meeting in 2012 is a book on the topic to be published by Oxford University Press in 2013.
Throughout the workshop, I kept thinking back to one of my all time favorite books, James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed.” But while I’ve been fully immersed in the field of crisis mapping since the early days (2007), I haven’t really taken the time to think through the deeper implications of these new tools with respect to governance and especially statehood.
My colleague Gregory Asmolov made the link explicit during his excellent presentation on “Russian Wildfires and Alternative Modes of Governance: The Role of Crowdsourcing in Areas of Limited Statehood.” Here’s a summary:
“Because of it’s geographical size, high degree of corruption, and reliance on an extraction economy, governance by government in Russia is often weak and ineffective. Russian political expert Liliya Shevtzova goes so far as to claim that the current regime is an imitation of governance. The 2010 wildfires demonstrated the limited capacity of the state to provide effective emergency response. Information technologies, and crowdsourcing platforms in particular, fulfill the gap of the limited statehood. At the same time, however, the Russian government is also trying to use ICT to increase its claims to effective governance.”
Gregory and his colleagues in Moscow used the Ushahidi platform to create a “Help Map” during the forest fires. They also set up a call center to facilitate communication between those who needed help and those who were offering it. While I knew this had been one of the most stunning examples of citizen-based crowdsourcing initiatives in Russia, I hadn’t thought through the deeper political implications. Not only were citizens helping themselves because of Russia’s limited statehood, they were actually taking over functions of the state, which the map made very explicit. Gregory noted that some Russian citizens even went out to buy firefighting equipment with their own money to combat the fires themselves. Many official fire stations didn’t even have basic equipment needed to respond. In some ways, these efforts laid bare and indeed exposed the Russian regime as an “imitation of governance.”
The Russian government apparently responded by setting up webcams around the country to show that it was in control and still able to monitor the situation. But as this cartoon shows (from Gregory’s presentation), many in Russia were not buying the pretense. See also this article from Christian Science Monitor that Gregory shared: “Russia’s YouTube Democracy is a Sham.“
As James Scott notes in his book Seeing Like a State, “the legibility of a society provides the capacity for larger-scale social engineering, high-modernist ideology provides the desire, the authoritarian state provides the determination to act on that desire, and an incapacitated civil society provides the leveled social terrain on which to build.” By legibility, Scott means the ability of the state to index, search, understand and hence manipulate society. But unlike the past, and thanks to free mapping software and crowdsourcing, society is no longer as incapacitated as it used to be. Indeed, thanks to new free and open source mapping technologies, society is able to define it’s own legibility, the contours of which necessarily reveal the limits of statehood.
Moreover, as I have noted before, the resulting map is often not as profound as the social capital generated between the dozens, often hundreds, of people collaborating on a live crisis map. In turn, this social capital facilitates mass collective action. In other words, social capital is fungible. As Scott notes, “this transformative power resides not in the map, of course, but rather in the power possessed by those who deploy the perspective of that particular map.” In many ways, therefore, the Ushahidi platform is a social-capital and collective-action generating technology.
For more on the Russia Fires projects, I recommend the following links:
Development of the project following crisis situation:
The Russian National award:
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Greetings from Spain.
Where I can get the powerpoint of Asmolov?
Hola, I’ll ask Gregory and will let you know, thanks!
Hey Patrick, thanks for the great post on the workshop! Scott’s work is indeed a fascinating starting point for theorizing the role of information technologies for statehood and governance. His perspective might be a great addition to our theoretical framework. I really got to re-read Seeing like a State before working on the paper…
Hey Cord, thanks for your kind note!
The notion of the state is certainly shifting in response to information tools. It’s something I explored in this talk to the Kosovo Free Software Conference last September http://brainoff.com/weblog/2011/02/22/1640
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