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Peer To Peer Mapping and Digital Democracy

The Offline Peer to Peer Mapping Solution

This week’s guest, Gregor MacLennan, is the technical director at Digital Democracy. Coming from a background of mathematics and anthropology, he first got involved with maps while working with indigenous communities in the Amazon to map their territories and land usage. He now supports indigenous communities around the world to use maps in telling a story about why the forests, rivers, and the lands they live in are so important to them; and how their lives have been affected by environmental contamination and destruction.

Is Communicating Through Maps More Effective?

An indigenous community affected by environmental contamination would usually try to communicate this to the authorities through word of mouth or in writing, but their story can easily be dismissed as incorrect or mistaken. If they use maps they add more validity to their story since maps show where something is happening, and to what extent. Tapping into these story telling capabilities in maps, gives communities the a better opportunity to effectively communicate the relationship they have with the environment around them. The maps show how various places are important to the community such as where they fish, hunt, collect medicinal plants, or their ancestors’ burial grounds, among others.

Maps that tell a story about indigenous territories and enable people to understand, as a collective, how every single part of an area is important in some way to a community. Even areas that are not actively used could where the headwaters of rivers are located or where there is high biodiversity of animals that the community relies on for food. Showing how these areas are valuable is a way for a community to protect itself and ensure its survival.

Why Most Existing Technologies Can’t Be Used In Indigenous Communities

In indigenous communities, technology has always been a barrier. For most of them who have never used a laptop or any form of tech before, it is a very steep learning curve trying to understand how to use complicated software like ArcGIS or QGIS.

Poor internet connectivity is also a major problem in indigenous communities. It is impossible to use existing online GIS tools, which despite some of them being very simple, cannot function without internet connectivity. It is also difficult to use GIS apps that can collect data offline since they usually require posting the data to an online server in order to view it in a map. Having to send data somewhere else in order to view it strips the community of control over how the data is shared or used.

There was a big gap in the available GIS tools in terms of those that are easy to use and could work offline as well. This led to the work that is ongoing at Digital Democracy. They are building tools that are easy to use, can work offline, and lets the community control what they want to share and with whom.

Mapping Done Offline

Mapeo is a peer-to-peer mapping technology that uses the devices of the users as distributed databases. The data can be synchronized and replicated among the devices so that each user has a copy of the data collected by all the other users. Mapeo avoids centralizing all the data which could lead to further complications about who should set up and maintain a centralized database especially if it is to be scaled for other communities around the world. Every user has a complete copy of the observations made by everybody else as well as their own observations. On their devices, users can only edit their own data but not other people’s data.

How Does Mapeo Synchronize Data Offline?

Mapeo uses WiFi to share data between users. A local WiFi network is set up to provide a means for devices to wirelessly connect to each other and synchronize data. When collaborating to collect data for the same project, users can bring all their data together by connecting to the same WiFi network. No internet connection is needed.

How does one view data collected in Mapeo?

Data collected in Mapeo can be viewed in its desktop version to give a better overview of all the data that has been collected. The data can as well be exported to a GIS format for more analysis in other GIS tools like QGIS. Mapeo also has a simple feature that enables users to easily publish their data on the web.

One of the most important features in Mapeo is the ability to create a PDF from the data collected and printing it out on paper. More often than not, when communities want to share information with a local government official, or political representative, they will be doing so in an office space without internet or laptops. Printing out the data puts something in their hands, which they need to support their story. The map becomes the tool they can use to get their land rights recognized in policy negotiations and discussions on important decisions that affect them.

How Maps Are Levelling Decision-Making Discussions

Some indigenous communities see themselves as victims of mapping. For most of them, the borders of the countries they ended up in were created without their awareness. They became victims of imposition of a world view since the maps gave away control of the land to the government, which is far away in the capital city.

Empowering indigenous communities to create their own maps gives them a chance to fight maps with maps and save them from being victims of mapping. If maps is the language in which decisions are made, then they can also create their own maps that represent their own view about how the world is, who the land belongs to and how it is used, and who should make decisions about it. With these, communities can enter decision-making discussions on more equal grounds. Unlike when they have to rely on word of mouth while the government or oil companies have numbers, maps, documents, and technology at their rollout. It often ended up being a very unequal conversation.

What Next For Mapeo?

With Mapeo, the emphasis is to keep everything simple and easy to use while scaling it up for more countries to use. They are actively exploring new technologies as they become available. For instance, drones which can efficiently map oil spills over large areas. However, they are still waiting for the technology to become common enough for it to be widely usable without requiring a lot of technical support from outside of financial support since drones are still very expensive.

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