Crisis Mapping, Neogeography and the Delusion of Democratization

Professor Muki Haklay kindly shared with me this superb new study in which he questions the alleged democratization effects of Neogeography. As my colleague Andrew Turner explained in 2006, “Neogeography means ‘new geography’ and consists of a set of techniques and tools that fall outside the realm of traditional GIS, Geographic Information Systems. […] Essentially, Neogeography is about people using and creating their own maps, on their own terms and by combining elements of an existing toolset. Neogeography is about sharing location information with friends & visitors, helping shape context, and conveying under-standing through knowledge of place.” To this end, as Muki writes, “it is routinely argued that the process of producing and using geographical information has been fundamentally democratized.” For example, as my colleague Nigel Snoad argued in 2011, “[…] Google, Microsoft and OpenStreetMap have really demo-cratized mapping.” Other CrisisMappers, including myself, have made similar arguments over the years.


Muki explores this assertion by delving into the various meanings of demo-cratization. He adopts the specific notion of democratization that “evokes ideas about participation, equality, the right to influence decision making, support to individual and group rights, access to resources and opportunities, etc.” With this definition in hand, Muki argues that “using this stronger interpretation of democratization reveals the limitation of current neogeographic practices and opens up the possibility of considering alternative development of technologies that can, indeed, be considered democratizing.” To explore this further, he turns to Andrew Feenberg‘s critical philosophy of technology. Feenberg identifies “four main streams of thought on the essence of technology and its linkage to society: instrumentalism, determinism, substantivism & critical theory.”

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Feenberg’s own view is constructivist, “emphasizing that technology development is humanly controlled and encapsulates values and politics; it should thus be open to democratic control and intervention.” In other words, “technology can and should be seen as a result of political negotiations that lead to its production and use. In too many cases, the complexities of technological systems are used to concentrate power within small groups of technological, financial, and political elites and to prevent the wider body of citizens from meaningful participation in shaping it and deciding what role it should have in the everyday.” Furthermore, “Feenberg highlights that technology encapsulates an ambivalence between the ‘conservation of hierarchy’, which most technologies promote and reproduce—hence the continuity in power structures in advanced capitalist societies despite technological upheaval—and ‘democratic rationalisation’, which are the aspects of new technologies that undermine existing power structures and allow new opportunities for marginalized or ignored groups to assert themselves.”

To this end, Feenberg calls for a “deep democratization” of technology as an alternative to technocracy. “Instead of popular agency appearing as an anomaly and an interference, it would be normalized and incorporated into the standard procedures of technical design.” In other words, deep democratization is about empowerment: “providing the tools that will allow increased control over the technology by those in disadvantaged and marginalized positions in society.” Muki contrasts this with neogeography, which is “mostly represented in a decon-textualised way—as the citation in the introduction from Turner’s (2006) Intro-duction to Neogeography demonstrates: it does not discuss who the people are who benefit and whether there is a deeper purpose, beyond fun, for their engage-ment in neogeography.” And so, as neogeographers would have it, since “there is nothing that prevents anyone, anytime, and anywhere, and for any purpose from using the system, democratization has been achieved.” Or maybe not. Enter the Digital Divides.


Yes, there are multiple digital divides. Differential access to computers & comm-unication technology is just one. “Beyond this, there is secondary digital ex-clusion, which relates to the skills and abilities of people to participate in online activities beyond rudimentary browsing.” Related to this divide is the one between the “Data Haves” and the “Data Have Nots”. There is also an important divide in speed—as anyone who has worked in say Liberia will have experienced—it takes a lot longer to upload/download/transfer content than in Luxembourg. “In summary, the social, economic, structural, and technical evidence should be enough to qualify and possibly withdraw the democratization claims that are attached to neogeographic practices.”

That said, the praxis of neogeography still has democratic potential. “To address the potential of democratization within neogeographic tools, we need to return to Feenberg’s idea of deep democratization  and the ability of ordinary citizens to direct technical codes and influence them so that they can include alternative meanings and values. By doing so, we can explore the potential of neogeographic practices to support democratisation in its fuller sense. At the very least, citizens should be able to reuse existing technology and adapt it so that it can be used to their own goals and to represent their own values.” So Muki adds a “Hierarchy of Hacking” to Feeberg’s conceptual framework, i.e., the triangle below.

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While the vast majority can participate in a conversation about what to map (Meaning), only a “small technical elite within society” can contribute to “Deep Technical Hacking,” which “requires very significant technical knowledge in creating new geographic data collection tools, setting up servers, and configuring database management systems.” Muki points to Map Kibera as an example of Deep Technical Hacking. I would add that “Meaning Hacking” is often hijacked by “Deep Technical Hackers” who tend to be the ones introducing-and-controlling local neogeography projects despite their “best” intentions. But the fact is this: Deep Tech Hackers typically have little to no actual experience in community development and are often under pressure to hype up blockbuster-like successes at fancy tech conferences in the US. This may explain why most take full owner-ship over all decisions having to do with Meaning- and Use-Hacking right from the start of a project. See this blog post’s epilogue, for more on this dynamic.

One success story, however, is Liberia’s Innovation Lab (iLab). My field visit to Monrovia in 2011 made me realize just how many completely wrong assumptions I had about the use of neogeography platforms in developing countries. Instead of parachuting in and out, the co-founders of iLab became intimately familiar with the country by spending a considerable amount of time in Monrovia and outside the capital city to understand the social, political and historical context in which they were introducing neogeography. And so, while they initially expected to provide extensive training on neogeography platforms right off the bat, they quickly realized that this was the wrong approach entirely for several reasons. As Muki observers, “Because of the reduced barriers, neogeography does offer some increased level of democratization but, to fulfill this potential, it requires careful implementation that takes into account social and political aspects,” which is precisely what the team at the iLab have done and continue to do impressively well. Note that one of the co-founders is a development expert, not a technology hacker. And while the other is a hacker, he spent several years working in Liberia. (Another equally impressive success story is this one from Brazil’s Mare shantytown).


I thus fully subscribe to Muki’s hacking approach and made a very similar ar-gument in this 2011 blog post: “Democratizing ICT for Development with DIY Innovation and Open Data.” I directly challenged the “participatory” nature of these supposedly democratizing technologies and in effect questioned whether Deep Technical Hackers really do let go of control vis-a-vis the hacking of “Meaning” and “Use”. While I used Ushahidi as an example of a DIY platform, it is clear from Muki’s study that Ushahidi like other neogeography platforms also falls way short of deep democratization and hack-ability. That said, as I wrote then, “it is worth remembering that the motivations driving this shift [towards neogeography] are more important than any one technology. For example, recall the principles behind the genesis of the Ushahidi platform: Democratizing information flows and access; promoting Open Data and Do it Yourself (DIY) Innovation with free, highly hackable (i.e., open source) technology; letting go of control.” In other words, the democratizing potential should not be dismissed outright even if we’re not quite there yet (or ever).

As I noted in 2011,  hackable and democratizing technologies ought to be like a “choose your own adventure game. The readers, not the authors, finish the story. They are the main characters who bring the role playing games and stories to life.” This explains why I introduced the notion a “Fischer Price Theory of Tech-nology” five years ago at this meeting with Andrew Turner and other colleagues. As argued then, “What our colleagues in the tech-world need to keep in mind is that the vast majority of our partners in the field have never taken a computer science or software engineering course. […] The onus thus falls on the techies to produce the most simple, self-explanatory, intuitive interfaces.”

I thus argued that neogeography platforms ought to be as easy to use (and yes hack) as simple as computer games, which is why I was excited to see the latest user interface (UI) developments for OpenStreetMap (image below). Of course, as Muki has ably demonstrated, UI design is just the tip of the iceberg vis-a-vis democratization effects. But democratization is both relative and a process, and neogeography platforms are unlikely to become less democratizing over time, for instance. While some platforms still have a long road ahead with respect to reaching their perceived potential (if ever), a few instances may already have made in-roads in terms of their local political effects as argued here and in my doctoral dissertation.


Truly hackable technology, however, needs to go beyond the adventure story and Fischer Price analogies described above. The readers should have the choice of becoming authors before they even have a story in mind, while gamers should have the option of creating their own games in the first place. In other words, as Muki argues, “the artful alteration of technology beyond the goals of its original design or intent,” enables “Deep Democratization.” To this end, “Freely pro-viding the hackable building blocks for DIY Innovation is one way to let go of control and democratize [neogeography platforms],” not least if the creators can make a business out of their buildings. 

Muki concludes by noting that, “the main error in the core argument of those who promote [neogeography] as a democratic force is the assumption that, by increasing the number of people who utilise geographic information in different ways and gain access to geographic technology, these users have been em-powered and gained more political and social control. As demonstrated in this paper, neogeography has merely opened up the collection and use of this information to a larger section of the affluent, educated, and powerful part of society.”  What’s more, “The control over the information is kept, by and large, by major corporations and the participant’s labor is enrolled in the service of these corporations, leaving the issue of payback for this effort a moot point. Significantly, the primary intention of the providers of the tools is not to empower communities or to include marginalized groups, as they do not re-present a major source of revenue.” I argued this exact point here a year ago.


8 responses to “Crisis Mapping, Neogeography and the Delusion of Democratization

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  2. I think this post would have been more interesting if it had less academic-speak.

  3. If you say everything at least once, it is easy to retrospectively look smart.

    Muki and you do a disservice to humanity by having a discussion that overlooks technology that humanity Does use, in favor of neogeo tools that have been used in one-off social ‘experiments’. The famous Patrick, has not been using this bully pulpit to demand that governments seek to encourage citizen autonomy (despite the response blog link(s) that indicate you talked about it). Looking at how people actually communicate in the developing world and using that knowledge to put their needs on a silver plate in front of others who will do something about it – is “democratizing”. Instead, we have western adults talking about incapacity, and hopelessness that it will be too long before 4g reaches the Congo.

    Local governments and national agencies should be bending backwards to serve citizen-identified needs. Instead we have arcane discussion about download speeds and lamenting that tribes cannot crunch big data, so therefore democratization doesn’t exist. Bollocks! The toolmakers could provide and the Ph.D.’s could advise means to get citizen’s needs in front of anyone who will listen. Oh, and obviously, Open Source does emphatically not mean “easily hackable”. Yes, easier than closed source, but the legal ownership of technology patents is meaningless in the field. So proprietary software will not get hacked, per se, but ingenious unplanned uses will emerge.

    Right now, there is a severely crippled version of the possible future and it has been hamstrung by those wandering the halls of academia and playing slavishly to the arrogance of big money agencies who literally can’t afford to allow a world run by citizens. As long as a few ‘educated’ folks think that they know what’s best for anyone else, democratization can’t happen anyway.

    Oh BTW, “Fisher-Price Technology” is demeaning to anyone who is non literate and literally proves the argument that top-down, Western style “aid” access is all too often decided by out of touch dilettantes. The major bulk of humanity has a richer emotional life and can survive in ways that every computer owner likely could not. Is it that they are powerless without technology? Or that the real obstacle is private interests using citizens as grease for their machine. No amount of tech will circumvent an arseh*le with an army and unspoken permission from a guy with an even bigger army. It is up to ‘the rest of us’ to bridge that gap and point out murderous hypocrites wherever they exist.

    Don’t you think it is time that technologists themselves walk that ‘last mile’ then, looking outward, seek to improve information flow from citizens to anyone who will help? This does not mean digitization of a marginalized life in hopes that a blog post will sway sentiment, it means actively outing governments and organizations who are not responsive to citizen needs; actively putting self declared citizen needs in a platform that will be seen by any interested parties and then hooking up everything that will help, from petitions to kickstarter to 311, even craig’s list for lord’s sake. Whatever will get Western eyes trained on the real goal, not some namby pamby excuse about how long it takes governments to respond, or how powerless academics and UN are to make change. That’s crap. Lead and the people you all give advice to will be forced to follow.

    You and your cohorts ought to examine how you perpetuate the failing notion of elitist ‘Democracy’ and ‘prove’ the limitations of citizen capacity by even entertaining impossible tech like Natural Language Processing.

    • New Troll, lol, glad you’ve got all the answers. Just careful with language and tone, I don’t accept trolls on my blog. I’m open to conversation but not with the kind of attitude your comment promotes. I welcome engagement but keep it civil or don’t be surprised if I don’t publish your comment.

      • New Troll:

        I was responding to an academic paper focusing on a specific question. I am not about to write another dissertation in order to address all the challenges in the ICT4D space. This means that much of your negativity is misplaced. You are addressing a related but different issue. Just because I have not addressed the issue of direct interest to you does not mean I think that issue is moot or uninteresting. You’re taking “The Fischer Price Theory” language way too seriously and thus fail to realize I am applying that first and foremost to myself and professional humanitarian responders.

        Ok, I was going to write a lot more, but just re-reading your derisive tone and attitude is simply not the type of conversation I want to be involved in. Again, please don’t be surprised if I don’t publish any more of your personal attacks. I prefer to engage in more civil discourse that does not involve name-calling and personal ridicule.

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