The Public Lab Blog

stories from the Public Lab community

About the blog | Research | Methods

Tool for Stalling: Mapping

by mlamadrid | about 9 years ago | 5 | 8

If the official world of maps has mutated into an insane apparatus of surveillance and control, why should communities use maps to make land tenure claims?

Maps historically have been used as instruments of the state. Through counter-mapping, communities can appeal to the state's values. By doing so, they hijack cartography to make themselves visible and more difficult to dismiss.

Using these principles, The Craft Market in Nsambya (pseudo name to protect the community) and I collaborated to build a map that would serve to stall eviction by the state. The end goal was to gain time so the community could organize their next steps, while creating a dialogue around urban planning and the displacement of communities in the developing context.


Geographic Information Systems (GIS) display geographical data in a manner which allows people to trace patterns and reveal trends. With the advent of Digital Media, search-engine-based GIS like Google Maps have proliferated for its ability to pinpoint commercial establishments and its user-friendly interface.

"Google Maps offers live, shifting representations of a complex interplay between utility and constantly changing contexts, content and commercial ambitions in one of the world's fastest growing, most lucrative markets. More than a map, it is a kind of 'macroscope'; a tool set that makes sense of a system we are using on the outside while changing from within"(Schulze).

I personally have multiple critiques regarding the Google Maps platform and the way it shapes a person's experience in a space, but my biggest concern is what information is being displayed, not how the information is accessed.

Google Maps oozes an aura of authenticity and credibility that makes it hard to question the information it displays. Partly because the photographic elements seem to be miniature pieces of reality anyone can make (Sontag) and partly because of the companies' emphasis on data collection.

Information is shaped by the company's intended commercial goal. Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible. In "Ten things we know to be true" they acknowledge this is to be a monumental task. They state that researchers at Google continue looking into ways of providing all the world's information to people seeking answers; they are working hard to consistently incorporate information that was not readily accessible before. But when your core interests are companies, what information becomes important and how does it get prioritized?

Google's position is that they are a business first. Their revenue comes from the sale of highly targeted text ads displayed along the searched query. Another source of revenue is offering their enterprise solutions (Google Apps, Google Earth & Maps, and the Google Search Appliance) to companies and to different government agencies around the world.


Google's image of The Craft Market. It is not tagged.

If Google thrives to make information accessible and Google Maps is a kind of 'macroscope' that helps consult places in a space, then what happens to the places and people that are not business? How can mapping be free from the tyranny of the state and from big corporations to bring visibility to small business and communities that do not fall in line with the macro scale?

This is where counter-mapping in the form of Indigenous Mapping and "Community Satellites" come in.

Indigenous Mapping allows a community to ensure that their geographic qualities and boundaries are visible, especially in disputes of land tenure by engaging the community in the map-making process.

Bernard Nietschmann, an advocate of Indigenous Mapping, in the text "Defending the Miskito Reefs with Maps and GPS: Mapping With Sail, Scuba, and Satellite" suggests that Indigenous Mapping "...helps authenticate traditional territory, calls into questions a central government's assertion that indigenous people don't have a land or a sea territory, and serves internationally to promote greater self-determination" (Nietschmann). They help to apply social force to the government against disputes over land tenure.


The Craft Market's hand-drawn map

When I met The Craft Market in October 2012, they had already decided that mapping was the best tool to make claims on their space and document other areas already evicted in Nsambya. Using their expertise, they created hand drawn maps of the Craft Market and surrounding areas. But even though their hand drawn map was geographically correct and documented their placement, it failed to document the 800-person workforce in the market. Similarly, Google Map's satellite image of the area did show the market, but there were only images captured when it was empty. In addition, it was not tagged as The Craft Market.

This is when appealing to the state's values by using photographic evidence became key. By amplifying the resolution of their map we could question both the state claims on The Craft Market's importance while subverting the Google Maps representation of the space. Groups like Grassroots Mapping (The Public Laboratory) have set out to develop open-source tools like the 'community satellite' that invert the traditional power structure of cartography.


PLOT's (formerly Grassroots Mapping) balloon mapping kit

'Community satellites' are built by combining helium balloons, household items and inexpensive digital cameras in order to achieve high-resolution aerial photography. By lowering the access cost of aerial photography, 'community satellites' can be used by communities question the subjective nature of mapping as a medium of state control.

Using their kit, The Craft Market and I set out to amplify the resolution of their map to make their claims more sound. The goal was to combine the bird's-eye view of aerial mapping with the bottom-up approach of community stories to enable multiple narratives of place to be visible and relevant.


Resulting photographic map with the middle stalls.

Users of Google Maps are not able to actively shape the maps displayed. Instead, we release the photographic map to the public domain through an open-source GIS, OpenStreetMaps. Google Maps sometimes takes information from OpenStreetMaps of areas they are not able to constantly update. This way The Craft Market and I were hoping to affect Google Maps while shaping their online presence in a method that was relevant to them.


The Craft Market in OpenStreetMap

The Craft Market's agency and the aerial mapping managed to stall the eviction through different structures. It stalled the eviction legally for a month when the community, using the map, acquire a court injunction. Also, they sent letters to several different government agencies. The map proved to the Ministry of Tourism that they played an important role in the tourism industry. The Ministry of Tourism sent a team to evaluate their work and wrote a letter to the Ministry of Land pleading their case. This stalled the eviction, bureaucratically, for two extra weeks.


Ministry of Tourism's letter.

In the end, the community was evicted on February 25, 2013. We decided to do a second map in hopes of recording the progress of the clearing. We also wanted to document how the lack of support during the eviction had displaced the previously flourishing market to a side street and create a stark contrast between the before-and-after. Using this new map, The Craft Market wanted to advocate their case and get support to relocate to a better location.


Map displaying the before-and-after.


After revising this tool for stalling, I realized that while useful to make counter arguments, it failed to recognize the community's collaboration or expertise. By being a polished and finished photographic map, it used a representational value that the state can acknowledge, but left no space to present their own hand drawn map or a systematic investigation.


Different resolutions of The Craft Market

This image is a personal exercise of me as an outsider creating the graphic and is not a graphic created collaboratively. The layered image is a first attempt at incorporating their contribution in the graphic-map aspect of the research.

Corporate Level: The first layer is the Google maps image and represents the market with only the aluminum stalls. Google, as a foreign global institution, is shaping our perception of the actual size and impact of the market. Google is making claims on the geographic boundaries of the space by naming buildings and marking roads. The ideas behind the credibility of photographic representations and the prestige of the institution render this map as the most important source to what was physically in the space.

Community Level: The second layer is the hand drawn map done by the community. By being the experts on the ground, they mark on the map what was relevant to them.

Collaborative Counter State Level: Through a workshop of balloon mapping, The Craft Market and I amplified the resolution of their hand-drawn map to level the playing field.

Counter-Corporate Level: Feeding the map back into an open source GIS, the community was able to shape the way they were being represented and made their own boundary claims online.

Erasure Level: Stripping the land suggests the presence of the new owner and the new owner's workers who are making preparations for a new phase in that space. Dismantling the stalls behind hidden tall metal fences hints to the erasure of the previous occupants. Nothing is left of their presence, their memories, or of how they had impacted that space.

For more information on the project Tools for Stalling and The Craft Market feel free to visit

This piece is republished from

Thanks and hope you enjoyed!

Read more Follow

balloon-mapping uganda eviction tenure

Why Collaborative Development Works in a Proprietary World

by warren | over 10 years ago | 0 | 2

This was re-posted from PBS's IdeaLab blog

Public Laboratory is made up of a diverse group of contributors, some working from their homes or garages, some from their workplaces or even university labs. What brings us together is the idea that open-source, collaborative development can result in inexpensive and accessible environmental sensing.

But to many, the way our community operates can be disorienting. We've approached these unique challenges in several ways.

Most people are familiar with collaborative development of textual works, such as co-authorship, or even mass co-authorship in projects such as Wikipedia. Software development is textual as well, and such communities are made possible by carefully tailored open-source licenses, which effectively stop any individual or organization from controlling the whole project.

By contributing to these works -- say, an open-source web browser or an article on gumdrops -- authors are assured attribution but cannot stop others from building upon their work, improving or adapting it for new uses. This works in part because each time programmers or Wikipedians contribute, their name is explicitly entered in a registry of sorts. By publishing their contributions, they give up a certain amount of control -- of course, they'd almost certainly built upon the prior contributions of others who made the same choice.

Now imagine applying that system to non-textual works, such as a new kind of camera or a tool for detecting air pollution. The way Public Laboratory works, these designs are developed, tested and improved slowly through dozens of meet-ups, workshops, field events, and brainstorming sessions. At each meeting, participants agree to share their contributions in an open-source manner -- but there is typically no explicit record of every contribution.

To compound this, journalists (not to mention partners and even funders) prefer hierarchical organizations so they can say things like "developed at MIT," and they really love citing individuals, not nebulous groups of "contributors." We've often had to insist on group attribution in the media, and developing a so-called "attribution infrastructure" is a major focus on our website.

Design for attribution

We recently launched a small set of new features on our website,, to address these challenges. While many people make use of our tools, as a community we'd like to highlight those who contribute improvements and share their knowledge with others. With that in mind, we've come up with some ways to track when Public Laboratory contributors actually post about their work on the PLOTS website.


Taking a cue from socially oriented open-source website, we've posted small graphs of the amount of activity on a given project over the past year. A quick look at these graphs shows how much activity they've seen in recent weeks, and gives visitors a sense of how dynamic a research community is involved in a particular project.

contributors.jpgThis box is shown on every Public Laboratory tool page or place page.

Above that graph, we've listed contributors and the number of posts they've made (which are tagged with the tool, i.e. "thermal-photography". The intent here is not to make things competitive (though that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing) but to give people a sense of satisfaction that they've been a part of a communal effort, and a glimpse (to outsiders) of the number of people who have made the project happen.

By placing emphasis on the posting of content, we hope to highlight attribution for those who do good documentation and share it in a public venue -- though anyone is welcome to use, adapt, repurpose, and improve upon Public Laboratory projects.

In order to be an active participant in our grassroots research efforts, you've got to reach out to others and share your work. This may not be natural for many people; contributors from many backgrounds are often accustomed to sole authorship credit, while others wonder who will care whether they publish or not. In a collaborative effort such as ours, however, success is gauged by how many others are able to leverage your work and reproduce or improve upon a set of tools you have contributed to. In an open-source context, seeing someone else replicate or adapt your work is a gratifying affirmation that your documentation and development work have resulted in legibility and accessibility for a potential collaborator, not an instance of plagiarism or infringement.

openstreet.jpg A network graph for the OpenStreetMap project shows the complex web of distributed contributions to a typical open-source project.

ShareAlike and Free Hardware

"Open source" means different things to different people, and with the above challenges in mind, it's important to make some distinctions. Strictly speaking, open source just means that you publish the source files of your work -- and in the case of hardware, the associated design files. A good open-source project will provide legible documentation and support for others who wish to read and understand those files. If you've heard of "free software" (we'll invoke the refrain "free as in freedom, not as in beer" here), you might be familiar with its more stringent requirement that users have the right to "run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve" the software. This is the basis of our approach to open source, public, civic science -- and it underlies our community's aversion to proprietary non-free (in both senses of the word) software such as Photoshop or Google Earth.

The noted lack of such freedoms in the area of scientific equipment and instrumentation -- and the barriers that creates for a more legible and participatory approach to science -- is a major motivation for our work.

Finally (for now) there is the idea of requiring anyone who takes advantage of these freedoms (by downloading, adapting, modifying and improving) to share their work in turn, under the same license. This requirement, known variously as a "sharealike" or "copyleft" clause, can be controversial, as it explicitly requires people (and companies) to become producers, and not just users, of open-source works. With some exceptions for datasets and privacy considerations, we have adopted sharealike licenses across all Public Laboratory content, and are in the process of releasing even our hardware designs under a sharealike license, the CERN Open Hardware License.

While these ideas may be unfamiliar for many, they make it possible for diverse communities such as ours to develop complex technical systems in a way which attributes and protects contributors' work, and ensures that these shared efforts remain public, accountable, and open to newcomers. They allow anyone to use PLOTS tools and techniques without needing to seek permission, while encouraging newcomers to contribute just as they benefit. They offer a public and grassroots alternative to closed, expensive, and proprietary systems of technology production which have resulted in a science that serves powerful and wealthy corporations above local communities and the underprivileged.

Such considerations are an important part of the PLOTS approach to building participatory environmental science collaborations. Ideally, our community's works will inspire readers or viewers to apply civic science ideas to their own lives -- adapting tools to local issues -- and with luck, they will become active participants in our research community by sharing their work publicly. In time, some may go on to organize local civic science groups, further the development of PLOTS' open-source tools, innovate new technologies or approaches to environmental monitoring, and challenge and refigure the very structure of participation.

Read more Follow

collaboration licensing idealab blog