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.
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.
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.
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.
Schriebman looks at the whole placement of the digital text and the context in which it is set. Unlike the printed format, the covers and tactile nature of the media set the scene for what the text should be. Much like the judging of the book by the cover. Schreibman looks at how the placement in the digital impacts the reader’s perception of the text and how it may be experienced differently to the printed version.
Much like the way in which the text is displayed digitally, Schreibman shows the evolution of a common format and structure. A structure that not only allows the reader to view the texts onscreen digitally, but also how the computer or device reads the texts. Machine-readable languages such as HTML and XML allow for further investigation of the content within the text themselves. The reader can search specific terms or tags within the text, like an inbuilt footer note system. Greatly moving away from the flat, PDF like format where no interaction or search functionality can take place. This evolution also gave a new home to the layering of multiple text editions and formats. No longer are we provided with the format chosen by the text digitizer, now we can chose from the many editions of that piece of text, where huge variations can be found.
Schreibman is cautious in her review of the digitising of the texts and believes that the means by which it happens can be subjective on the part of the participant conducting the exercise. It is as if we as human conducting the task of digitization, should in fact remove all human emotions or considerations and ourselves apply a mechanical almost robotic approach to the activity. We must strip back the action of digitizing to be a mechanical one, to allow for the deep human interaction, which will take place after the task is completed. Consideration must be given to after avoid any subjectification.
We can draw parallels with the creation of the web where a single formatting would allow many people to come together and share information and engage. Tim Berners-Lee knew the high importance of having a single language for all to communication. On the digitizing of texts, Schreibman knew that there needed to be a single format and approach for all digitizing to have one approach. Remove the human or individual approach and have a more mechanical one.
The Text Coding Initiative gives structure and guidelines to how the digitization should happen. Not only does it give one encoding format for all users to use, it also allows the work completed, to be further experienced by the bigger public arena through the many platforms that use this same formatting: Libraries, Museums, Publishers and Individual Contributors and Readers.
by Miriam Posner
Miriam Posner raises the concept of data visualization, data extraction and audience consideration in her keynote address at the Digital Humanities Conference (University of Pennsylvania in 2015). While she talk discusses the broadening of gender and race categories when it comes to the digital humanities, I was more taken with the ideas that she addresses with regard to data rich information and how we may use it. The example that Posner gave discusses the photographer Curtis, who has photographed the decline in Native American culture through his photographs. The writer David Kim, investigating Curtis’ work decided to flip the data available from the photographs and instead used Curtis own categorization of the information to visualize the information. The result spoke more to the ideals and understandings that Curtis had of the Native American tribes that he photographed, over the information he collected in his images.
In a similar way we too document our daily life through photography. This data that we naively believe to be simple and unobtrusive, has richness and value far beyond it’s simple image. Our current digital environment is constantly collecting and correlating information about us. Photographs that we now take on our phones are data rich. They can determine the identities of people within the photo using facial recognition software. Something we may have considered quite futuristic when watching Star trek 15 years ago. The problem with this idea is that again it is the corporations that are collecting this information and documenting it. They effectively own the data. To those predisposed to conspiracy theories this is a nightmare. Will this facial recognition software, location tagging and collected data be used against us in the future by rogue governments or corporations looking to manipulate us and relieve us of our hard earned money?
The old adage ‘that knowledge is power’ has never been truer. Us social media consumers happily divulge all aspects of our day, employment, likes and dislikes to a faceless entity that collects and sells this marketing gold to businesses. Social Media is free, but what is the price of free? We are happy to feed into the madness as long as we can continue to share how great our lives are on social media. In return we strive for peer approval in the form of Likes, Hearts etc. We are selling our souls to an unknown while we build online personas for people that we possibly walk past in the street.
Posner also discusses the need for information to be user friendly and readily available. Social Media sites have mastered the ease of use approach to broaden their demographic of users. Now grandparents in there 80’s and 90’s are active members on Facebook. This age group may not have previously have had their information so rigorously collected. Their age and lifestyle in society would most likely not be seen as worth collecting. Companies may have felt that their sedated lifestyle and set income was not worth targeting. Now, however in their virtual setting online their information suddenly has the same value applied and it is collected at the same rate as their family and friends.
I watched a sci-fi series ((Black Mirror see link below) recently. The first episode that I saw both worried and intrigued me. The concept was that your social and professional standing within your physical community was based on a ranking system. Your peers actively ranked your every interaction with them as well as your social media presence. The sole goal was to achieve the highest possible ranking out of 5. This was only achievable by living a full yet very pure lifestyle, where negative emotions, and poor relationships were not tolerated. In fact, showing negative emotions resulted in the person being actively rated in a negative way when in turn reduced their overall rating. Service sector worker ratings received, while welcomed would never allow the ratings seeker to achieve a high overall rating. This higher rating could only be achieved by interacting with high rated members of society, receiving a 5 star rating from them. But those high ranking members in turn were not so willing to rank those of lower ranking as it reduced their ranking marginally and they were seen to be socializing with a lower class of society. The new society class system basically required popularity to take over from wealth or status. It was amusing to watch, but in a dark way. It was so relevant to how our present world is now operating. ‘Instagramers’ with more followers receive payment for advertising and promotion of product. They have a fan base enviable by their peers and they stand as a new high society. As I mentioned above, we now look to like and hearts to measure our friendship s and relationships’ value. Our self worth is impacted when that photo or article that we have posted doesn’t get sufficient peer approval and we feel less as a person because of it. This sci-fi episode while far fetched really hits home the direction in which we are going and how far along that road we actually are.
Black Mirror – Nosedive Season 3 Episode 1