Participatory Mapping

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Jo Guldi:

"Crowd-sourced maps actually analyze the data given to them, sorting social information into patterns of local, regional, and global patterns. The maps do not merely collect information, as a “memory hole” like Wikileaks does; rather, the maps show the community back to itself, revealing hot-spots of local corruption and pollution, giving activists the tools to target particular places with investigation or protest.

These maps are also new in another respect: they tend to foreground sites of potential community resources. A quick look around the web reveals a string of public mapping projects that has been used to identify sites for essentially restoring the commons. The Fallen Fruit Tree Maps directs pedestrians around the world to public fruit trees growing along their daily commutes. In New York City, Boston, and San Francisco, groups affiliated with Occupy have mapped the public spaces on private lands created by tax breaks over the last few decades, which include among them Zucotti Park where Occupy Wall Street camped. Maps of Community Land Trusts, Cooperatives, and other commons have already documented the virtual world of the commons. Worker Cooperatives are mapped across the U.S., too. Several coordinating networks -- Open Green Map, the Global Transition to a New Economy, the Transition Network, and Shareable -- aggregate local sustainable initiatives into a map of sustainable initiatives around the world. Assembled, these maps put together a picture of parallel political processes in the make together with the natural resources, institutions, and individuals the movement has at its disposal.

Activists have been busy mapping infringements of the commons. The nonprofit Skytruth has aggregated incidents of fracking, dumping, and flooding in North America. The Local Environmental Observer group in Alaska gathers reports of arctic pollution and other environmental incidents. History suggests that watchdog maps such as these – documenting where the commons is threatened – may be the most important of all. In India and the US, maps demonstrating a geographical pattern of disease or pollution have time and again resulted in court rulings against a polluter, tipping control over the commons back into the hands of the people.

That maps work so well to allocate resources for the community is no accident. As I outline elsewhere, crowdsourced maps didn't originate with the Internet; in India and among native peoples' movements in Canada, participatory mapping has been going on since the late 1970s. This flies in the face of the traditional logic of the map -- maps were originally disseminated across the world in the seventeenth century as a tool of privatization, in the "I-mapped-this-so-now-I-own-it" logic of Lockean property law exercised by European squire-settlers traveling the globe. Conveniently, settlers typically traveled with surveyors to make the maps, along with armies to back up the documents. So, when native peoples began making their own maps of ancestral territory in the 1970s, pooling the testimony of hundreds of inhabitants to prove to courts that they were not dead and they were, still, in fact, inhabiting the places deeded to their ancestors, those maps amounted to a reversal of the logic of colonization. Private maps made private property; they were invented for that purpose. Crowdsourced maps were invented to unmake it, and have been used successfully to that end ever since.

New tools are now allowing individuals to start exploring geographical data on their own. Google's new Maps Engine allows users to overlay charts and maps, plotting data on top of maps. Projects like WikiWatershed go even further, allowing a community to aggregate national data, local data, crowd sourced data, and community input about water-run-off into a single, deeply-informative graph of the community's relationship to its watershed." (