Crowdsourced Spatial Project Participation

Had I been asked to complete this project at the beginning of the first semester for the MA, I am inclined to believe that I may have had less reservations and been less concerned with the final user of the data created. This has kept me asking myself if the role that I am playing in this mapping work is worthwhile to the native people of the land being documented or whether the end goal for the project is purely profit capitalist global giants seeking to use the data as tool further wealth attainment. The idea of mapping roads, residential areas and rivers may seem like it can only aid those living in the location, but there are many repercussions far beyond what I possibly wish to consider. It is easy to say at this point I am really conflicted as to my role and future prospects for the areas in which I contribute.

I have used the Humanitarian Open Street Map to take part in this crowd-sourced project. I looked at and contributed to a number of projects, the first was the Missing Maps: Zambia Malaria Elimination Project 2581. This project aims to locate and document populated areas with a goal of providing disease control and eliminating malaria. The focus of the project in this case was to highlight and detail buildings with a focus on residential buildings. While roads are evident, it would appear that these do not require documenting at this time. On this project, I was able to contribute to the project along with 47 others.

Progress to date on Zambia Malaria Elimination Project 2581

The Open Street Map tools and platform itself is quite mundane, no effort has been made to make it visually appealing. It is a simple text rich system which focuses the user to take part in the project. I would have thought that there could possibly be more information made available as a background for the project, however the small bio gives a simple reasoning and then goes straight to getting you started. I must say I found the instructions quite frustrating and unhelpful. I did what I would normally do and headed straight to youtube for an instructional video. I found quite a few and they gave me a good idea of how to proceed with selecting an area and adding the details.

Zambia Malaria Elimination Project 2581 Tile View
Zambia Malaria Elimination Project 2581 Progress
Zambia Malaria Elimination Project 2581 – Val
Zambia Malaria Elimination Project 2581 – Zoom

This project has brought out a conspiracy theorist in me and has made me somewhat skeptical of ‘humanitarian good’. While contributing I felt uneasy and I kept returning to an article I read about the Nestle CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe stating that Water is not a fundamental right to anyone. Is the work we contribute in places in Africa a simple exercise to document the future consumers who will have their lands taken from them to be used for profit, denied a human right to water and instead made pay a Corporation for it?

I cannot seem to make peace with these projects. I have always considered myself to be a optimistic person willing to help anyone in need, including those in impoverished or developing countries, but I find that this work, carried out by faceless project leaders without a defined end user ownership of data to be worrying. It is not something that I feel I could hold my head up and say: I feel that I have benefited the native people.

I wanted to look closer to home to see if there were changes that I may be able to make in my own locality. Using OpenStreetMaps.ie I was able to look at the areas documented near to my residence. I found that it was heavily edited and most things seemed correct. There were some items documented, I felt incorrectly, and when I decided to edit them I found that the classification didn’t meet the Irish criteria. I spent quite a long time trying to classify a particular road as a ‘Boreen’. The term Boreen, as you can imagine is not one of the road classifications. Therefore I was unable to edit it. What I did find that the part of that road I did reclassify as ‘pedestrian only’ was met with challenge. I was contacted by another OSM user and asked why I had made the changes and whether I felt they were correct. This contact actually gave me some reassurance that people in the area have ownership of their work (on OSM) and is willing to challenge those looking to edit it. Ireland, from what I could see is heavily documented by what looks like local OSM contributors, which is fantastic as there are elements, such as folklore areas and areas of local interest which would not otherwise be documented on a map.

Exported Data from OSM – Text format

While I found OSM a bit tedious to use, Mapswipe was somewhat more engaging. I found that using this gave an almost gaming element where you were ’Thanked’ for carrying out the work as you went, so felt that you were making a difference and also it seemed to have gaming levels encouraging you to complete more work to achieve higher grading. The process, as the name suggests was simple, you swiped and marked those areas, in my case, with buildings. I felt less pressured to doubt myself using this application. With OSM, I felt that if I made a mistake the validator would almost chastise me.

With Mapswipe it was a freer process. While I was still concerned of the final user data ownership, I felt that the ease of use gave me momentum to complete far more tiles that OSM. I took great pleasure in documenting Madagascan land, which had complete cloud cover. I felt I was contributing by marking these areas as cloud cover and yet I didn’t feel I was actively taking part in any possible future planned misuse of data. Mapswipe feeds into a far better user experience. There is an extrinsic motivation to carry out the documenting; the more you do the higher ranking you achieve.

I feel that I have taken away a very negative experience of contributing to these projects. My contribution was definitely overshadowed by the possibility of future use by evildoers. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, had this assignment taken place at the beginning of semester one I may have dived straight into the activity without much thought and feel that I was being altruistic in the role that I was playing. However, having read and taken part in many discussions surrounding the topic of data use and collection, I am less likely to take part in projects where the organization is located within countries likely to use the data compiled for invasion or profit attainment.

While conducting research into the area of crowd sourcing I did find some great material, which seemed to fit into the debate I was having internally.

A TedTalk: A New power of Collaboration by Howard Rheingold (author of Smart Mobs) looks at the concept of the ‘Prisoners Dilemma’: Two game players who do not trust each other, one has the goods, one has the money. Neither is going to be the one to make the transaction, both will be losers. I immediately made ties to this idea when completing the task of contributing data into an unknown (via Mapswipe and OSM). In my scenario I am the contributor or person with the goods, the other game player is the native people as well as fear and the unknown. I am unwilling to make the transaction happen due to the fear of the unknown (what the data could be used for in the future) and the fear is unable to provide me with any assurances. We are both losers, I lose because I have a skill and access which could possibly allow me to make the lives of those living in remote villages somewhat better, these villagers lose because I have a fear for their future and the this fear is not lessened in anyway by the project developers hiding behind very concerning terms and conditions which veto many of the laws protecting us in our home countries.

Further research into collaborative projects using crowd sourcing brought me to CAPTCHA’s creator, Luis Von Ahn’s talk on Massive-Scale online collaboration

In his presentation he talks about how a simple tool developed to prevent computer program manipulation of form submission on websites has now evolved to become so much more. Originally the CAPTCHA process saw random characters populated for the human viewer to decipher. Von Ahn and his team saw the possibilities present for a collaborative project, which would provide so much more than just a verification device. His team began to take scanned printed books and have the CAPTCHA verification software populate the characters and words which the computer software could not read. These words populated alongside random words and when a number of the same responses for the printed words returned the same answer, confirmed by human classification, the word was accepted as being a particular set of characters or word. This simple redirection to include a purpose has meant that millions f books every year are digitized. This work has happened in most cases where the human verifying the characters assumes it is just to grant access to the website their aiming to access. This is a crowd sourcing project I can whole heartedly get behind. I have considered how the data gathered (completed digital books) maybe used for wrong doing and I am yet to come up with any reason why this does not benefit humanity, by providing access to former printed materials in a digital form.