“A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning; it forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.”
― Reif Larsen, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet
As nascent digital humanists we face new challenges on a regular basis, and such was the nature of our recent assignment. I am a scholar with a background in Classics, Celtic Civilisation and Art History and I admit that I have a somewhat conflicted relationship with maps. My concept of cartography and its value to humanity, was bound up with notions of conquest, exploration, and occasionally, beauty.
During the course of my academic work, I considered maps to be tools for the power-hungry whose cartographic efforts became essential weapons of war, artificial constructs, biased renderings of geographical information with little regard for the earthbound human populations which moved through the real spaces depicted from a quasi-godlike aerial perspective.
That’s not to say that I dislike maps personally, quite the contrary, I collect them. Ordnance Survey Maps have allowed me to explore out-of-the-way archaeological features in my region. Small foldable street maps serve as mementoes of trips to London, Paris and elsewhere. Friends and family have gifted me with others of the same type from Barcelona, Berlin, and Rome. Like many self-proclaimed geeks, I possess a map of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, as well as ones of the Martian and Lunar surfaces. And years ago, in hotel bathroom in Dún Laoghaire, where I was attending a Festival of World Cultures, I found a fascinating map of Karachi.
I enjoy the ordered representation of 3D information on a 2D plane. I appreciate the way a map can give you extra insight into a landscape. It can tell you about geology and topography, natural features such as shorelines, caves and forests. It can give you a sense of place in the world, and in this ostensibly neutral presentation of information, I thought of maps as safe, friendly and non-threatening.
I had a very slight notion that social geographers used maps to illustrate areas of disadvantage and that city planners relied on accurate maps to make projections about where new amenities should be located.
But, up to this point I didn’t consider the power of maps to affect the lot of those with access to them, except in the rather oblique way that they might help lost tourists to find their way to the British Museum, or that they might suggest likely spots where oil-companies might sink an exploratory well.
When I was tasked with participation in a number of projects which rely on a form of User-Generated Content, namely the crowdsourced compilation of spatial data for public use, this provided me with a new, humanitarian lens through which I could appreciate the magic of mapping. However, the experience was one which threw up many unexpected issues and considerations regarding the usage of my personally generated content.
My first encounter was with the Mapswipe app. It was fairly easy to use after the initial tutorial, and I commenced mapping a project in Botswana. The idea behind the project was to assist in malaria control in the region by slow examination of satellite imagery, marking anything that looked like it could be a house, village or hut.
The terrain being mapped was principally arid scrubland and I noticed many features that were very different to the familiar Irish landscape. The satellite imagery was drawn from different sources, so occasionally the resolution would change, making it at times more difficult to interpret whether I was looking at a treetop, a circular bush, or a solitary hut. I learned to look for associated markers of human inhabitation, such as trackways, herds of animals, or desire lines leading to or from nearby water sources. Sometimes I observed what may have been corrals for cattle, or some archaeological features which I was unqualified to guess at their function. I included all of these in the ‘maybe’ category. Overall, I mapped 24 km² of Botswana and discovered 99 objects. As an app, it was oddly satisfying to use. I could quite easily imagine using it to pass time in a long queue. The fact that this content would help in the fight against malaria was a bonus.
This project was being funded by the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI), a project which I decided to investigate further. It was to my dismay that I discovered that CHAI was, for all intents and purposes, an apparently defunct organisation. The last update to the blog on its website was from December of 2016.
I rummaged around CHAI’s press releases and found a statement from November 2016 which alerted the public to the decision to have the five members of the board appointed by The Clinton Foundation (including former President Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea), immediately step down in the case of then-Secretary-of-State Hilary Clinton’s election to the office of President of the United States of America.
In this eventuality, the charity would become an autonomous organisation and the Clinton name would no longer be associated with the CHAI project. The statement suggested that current management would be retained and five new board members would be instated as quickly as possible.
‘All aspects of the transition will be carried out responsibly and seamlessly, with the priority being sustaining the life-saving services upon which millions depend and the extraordinary daily work of CHAI staff who make those services possible…’
In the wake of former Secretary Clinton’s defeat by Donald Trump in the 2016 United States presidential election, what has become of the priority effort to sustain the ‘extraordinary daily work of CHAI staff?’
As yet there is no sign of any new activity on the CHAI website.
Is the old board still extant?
Is former President Clinton still involved with the provision of funding to the aforementioned ‘life-saving services’?
Has the funding dried up or has malaria somehow been eradicated from Botswana?
There are no straight answers to these questions and the most recent information I could obtain was from an article in the New York Times dated to February 2nd 2017.
Times are tough for those at CHAI in the post-Trump era and the future of many Clinton affiliated projects looks precarious.
“None of it’s resolved,” said Dr. Paul Farmer, a board member of CHAI, which has health programs in 70 countries that include promoting AIDS treatment and strengthening health systems, in a telephone interview from Haiti. “Knowing what to do in this climate is a tough call.”
Were the promised philanthropic donations which underpinned CHAI’s work only contingent on Hilary Clinton’s accession to the United States presidency?
Was true humanitarianism only the preserve of ordinary people who give their time to propel projects forward, and the day-to-day staff of NGOs who do admirable work under harsh conditions for relatively modest salaries?
So who would benefit from the mapping content I generated?
My investigations into this particular humanitarian mapping project left me cynical, and with a bad taste in my mouth.
When the time came to engage with the Humanitarian Open Street Map Team at https://hotosm.org/, I decided to continue with the mission to combat malaria, this time in Zambia. I completed the requisite tiles using ID Editor, again carefully scanning satellite images of the Zambian countryside in an attempt to identify buildings and other structures. The terrain proved very challenging, and due to my lack of local knowledge I couldn’t discern between building types as most seemed to have corrugated metal roofs. In Ireland, we usually associate this roofing material with industrial or agricultural usage, but my knowledge of Zambian building practices was non-existent.
I would have liked to have been more specific when I identified structures, as the HOTOSM user interface allows for such categories as commercial, educational, religious usage etc., but that was sadly not possible. Like Mapswipe, the satellite imagery was drawn from multiple sources, and sometimes it became too pixellated to accurately discern between circular features on the ground.
Was it a circular clearing with a tiny hut that I could see, or was it a termite mound?
Was that a reservoir of some sort, or a patch of land cleared around an electrical transformer housing?
Not being familiar with the pattern of land usage in the country was frustrating and I thought that the project could benefit from a little explanation supplemented by authenticated local knowledge, just a few examples to get one’s eyes keyed in to the landscape, and to give the HOTOSM user some idea of scale. The interface was at times confusing and unwieldy, and that is a huge potential barrier to voluntary usage. HOTOSM compared poorly with Mapswipe in this regard.
I was curious to see what organisation or agency was responsible for this Malaria Elimination Project, so once more I began to delve into the site. To my utter disbelief, I discovered that CHAI was also responsible for this initiative in Zambia. This project commenced on December 1st 2016, the very day that CHAI went dark, so-to-speak, and is scheduled to finish at the end of April of this year.
Are CHAI, as the preeminent organisation which incorporates User Generated Content for spatial mapping in its attempt to support public campaigns to eliminate malaria in sub-Saharan Africa about to crash and burn?
Are we guilty of putting all our trust in one behemoth of an organisation, whose likely impending doom will bring countless anti-malarial initiatives to a grinding halt, and thereby threatening millions of lives on the African continent?
Only time will tell.