Digital Mapping as a Tool for Social Transformation

In 1854, John Snow plotted cholera deaths on a map of London’s Soho district to diagnose the cause of a deadly outbreak that was ravaging the community. By mapping the geography of cholera incidence Snow was able to locate the local source of the outbreak and determine its root cause. The handle was removed from an infected water pump and it was revealed that the offending water company was drawing its supply just downstream of a major sewage outlet. His actions led to important changes in public health and epidemiology, but not before hundreds of people had died horrible deaths.


If the same Soho community were to be hit by a disease outbreak today they could set up an online map themselves and within an hour be crowdsourcing incident reports submitted by community members themselves. Texts and tweets could be used to plot incidents directly onto the map. Free and open source tools such asCrowdMap and Open Street Map now mean that anyone can quickly create an online map to visualise the issue they most care about and use it to build a compelling case for action. The availability and ease of use of the software means that we all have the ability to map the issues that we most care about and promote the change that we wish to see in the world.


Maps are extremely popular with news media as they provide a quick and effective way to depict complex issues visually. CrowdMaps are used during tsunamis and earthquakes to guide emergency services to the location of vulnerable populations and functioning healthcare facilities. Community groups are making increasing use of crowd-mapping to monitor issues like election fraud or racist attacks; in order to spotlight issues and to collect evidence of the need for change. Crowdsourcing is used to build up a graphical representation of the issue on a map, data is crowdsourced from the public in the form of text messages or tweets indicating where incidents are happening and the map effectively illustrates events unfolding on the ground.

Community generated maps can be powerful tools to monitor issues of real public concern and can provide graphic evidence to support a case for social change. CrowdMaps are most effective when used by existing organisations as part of a broader strategy, as in the cases of or the stop-the-shootings siteCeasefire Chicago. When used well crowdsourcing can help build communities of shared interest. Mapping projects can provide a focus around which to stimulate debate and provide a platform for otherwise voiceless communities.


Recently I attended the Free Elections Hackathon in London where activists from professional election monitoring organisations teamed up with coders and experts from Ushahidi and One World UK. Their objective was to improve existing software previously used in Senegal and Zambia to better enable citizen monitors to report and map fraud and intimidation at polling stations, to communicate incidents to official observer missions and the media.


In the case of electoral fraud, citizen election monitors are not necessarily able to rely on the independence of their government or police – think Zimbabwe or Russia – and foreign observers may not be best attuned to local dynamics. Whether communities are monitoring elections or racist attacks, mapping provides a way to actively resist, gather credible evidence and build a compelling case for justice and social change. Building self-reliance and local resilience in this way is a key benefit of CrowdMapping.


What I like about crowdsourced mapping is that, when done well, it builds on the active participation of community members who themselves monitor and report information. People who may have been feeling powerless in the face of incidents, are empowered to take action around an issue and work toward producing the change they want to see. The evidence collected in maps can add substantial weight to a campaign; an interactive and visually attractive graphic can be worth a thousand words.


An important way of judging whether technology has played an important role in social change is whether the process left people with greater or less capacity for self-determination, i.e. how well equipped are they to deal with the next thing that life throws at them. While flying in external experts might be designed to deliver quick results, it can also be disempowering for local people, who may learn to view themselves as incapable of looking after themselves.


In 1854 community members in Soho died horrible deaths while waiting for the external intervention of an expert like John Snow. Today communities have the ability to create their own maps and produce evidence to support their calls for social change. The availability of CrowdMap and other free and open source tools provide valuable new opportunities for communities to reduce external dependence and to act together to produce the change they want to see in the world.


This article was first published in my column in Computer Weekly in June 2012