Online Mapping: Opportunity for Development, or a “Frightening Future”?

mapsMuch of my work involves mapping, and I often turn to online mapping platforms such as Google Earth to create useful maps for the people I work with.  A couple months ago, as I was checking out TED talks online to avoid doing the work I actually needed to do, I came across a talk by Monica Stephens.  Stephens, who is a Geographer and Assistant Professor, gave a talk titled The Frightening Future of Digital Maps.  For anyone interested, the link is

In this video, Monica argues that social media and online mapping is shaping the way we see and understand the places around us.  The people who actually supply the data, and where the data comes from, can limit access to the world for certain people – even without meaning to!  In social media and online mapping, shared data is often associated with a geotag – for example, when people share an image or status update of where they are now on their phones.  This geotag is associated with a specific location somewhere in the world.  75% of all geotagged data is created in the United States and in Europe.  Similarly, 60% of all geo-referenced Google content is generated in the United States.  This means that much of the knowledge sharing on social media becomes biased toward the viewpoints of North Americans and Europeans.

In the United States, this bias further becomes an issue of class, gender and privilege.  To explain, after Hurricane Katrina, Google Maps became inundated with geo-tagged images and updates from New Orleans.  The majority of these images were located outside of the 9th Ward – the section of the city populated mostly by non-whites and people living in economic poverty.  This caused an unintentional bias toward the wealthier areas of the city – those inhabited by wealthier white individuals.

Google Map’s campaign for crowd-sourcing the places added to online maps has created this same type of bias.  Individual users are encourages to “enrich Google Maps with your local knowledge”.  Ultimately, the majority of people that are actually adding descriptions, places and features to the maps are white, wealthy North Americans.  93% of these ‘knowledge enrichers’ are male.  This means that this form of knowledge sharing does not include women, Indigenous, black or people of colour.  In the end, what we see on the maps surrounding us are pictures presented by a dominating white male culture.  Already marginalized individuals are being pushed further into the background – ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

In the end, the geo-tagged submissions we provide to Google and social media are filtered and ranked – creating a world which limits access to the places around us, based on our demographics, our status, our education, and our economic privilege.  If we are not careful, maps – rather than opening doors to greater possibilities, may limit our movement and access to the world around us.  Becoming aware of the possibility of Stephen’s “Frightening Future” can help remind of our own biases and our responsibility to everyone to ensure their knowledge is included in the decisions we make for the future – whether it be in development, social science research, policy making, or environmental sustainability decisions.  Maps can help us in these endeavors – as long as we remember to look at the ‘same’ maps!

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