Whither the Wikimap?


This post is complimentary to my identically-named conference talk for NACIS, the slideshow for which is above. I have tried to distill the content of the talk as best I could here.

I did my master’s thesis project on creating a wikimap to be a form of “online participatory mapping” that could hopefully empower people living in an area facing the possibility of a large-scale open-pit mining project to visualize the resources and values that could be impacted. The project taught me several things, the key one being, don’t try to do participatory mapping on your own as a master’s thesis. Beyond reinforcing the knowledge that I tend to bite off more than I can chew, it made me question some of the hypotheses and outright assumptions of those who herald the ‘democratization’ supposedly wrought by web mapping technologies and VGI as perhaps a bit over-enthusiastic. Here is my attempt to put into words, in brief, what came out of my project and some new angles from which to look at wikimaps as they are studied further.

1. Ideas

You might say this all started with the diametric opposite of a free, open-source, open-data project: the UK Ordinance Survey. Back in 2004, a bloke named Steve Coast got frustrated that he had to pay for OS data and got a group of people together to drag GPS units around London and upload the data to a public website. Thus was born OpenStreetMap, which is now the oldest and biggest wikimap of them all. The ‘crowdsource’ movement inspired by Wikipedia found geographic expression in 2006 with Wikimapia, the first attempt to map literally anything and everything on the internet. A year later, people started bludgeoning each other in Kenya over the outcome of a tense election, and Ushahidi was born to map eyewitness accounts of the violence. The organization has since spun off its wikimap platform as Crowdmap, which has been used to assist responders in several high-profile calamities.

2. Hypotheses

To observers of Web 2.0, the common thread of these kind of maps seems to be empowerment. Even before OSM hit the web, some cartographers and geographic information scientists were predicting that increased interactivity would drive people-powered mapping on the internet. In 2003, Michael Wood wrote for The Cartographic Journal that mapping was being restored to its rightful position as universal birthright because “now [the user] can truly interact with the map (and with its data sources) and become, in the process, a map-maker also.” Four years later, Michael Goodchild rocked the GIS world by inventing the dubious term “Volunteered Geographic Information” and rebranding humanity as “six billion sensors.” For their part, social scientists have declared that web maps with local knowledge can help Indigenous and other marginalized groups “facilitate the reappropriation of contested places” when used in concert with participatory methods.

3. Applications

Because I wanted to do something neat and helpful for my thesis, and because I was just bull-headed enough to believe I could learn enough code to pull it off, I centered my project around creating a wikimap of a rural watershed in northern Wisconsin, with the goal of allowing users to add stories and multimedia and tag landscape values on the map. The design process involved sitting down with local community members to explore the uses they saw in such an application and seeking feedback from the participants on multiple prototypes. I held a few workshops that were not as well attended as I had hoped but nonetheless produced the bulk of the data that ultimately ended up on the map. I wrote into the code functions to track types of interactions that users were engaging in, which formed the backbone of my analysis. I had no real way to gauge how effective the map was at creating dialogue in the area, but I did garner some valuable insights into how users used the map.

Based on what I learned during my thesis project, I started working on a second wikimap, this one covering a hot resource extraction issue in a different part of the state. I sought to modify and improve the interface and symbolization strategies, vary the tools on offer for different levels of user commitment, and connect with social media. As it stands, this can generously be called a work in progress. Truthfully, I ran out of motivation to finish it over the summer, but still hope to pick it back up by the end of the year and have it out before spring.

4. Findings

How do people use wikimaps? Of all the questions I had hoped my thesis to answer, this one got the best results—and not what I expected given all the talk about user empowerment. Most of those who visited the map did one or both of two things: they engaged with the basemap, exploring by panning and zooming and changing layers, or they engaged with the volunteered data by looking at the names, content, and characteristics of the marked sites. In fact, only thirteen percent of my users did any contributing to the map whatsoever, and of those only half made it their primary task when they visited the site.

Now, one might chalk this up to my little project being on the wrong side of the adoption chasm, but it turns out to be not too far off the mark of what other research says about the biggest, oldest, most well-used of wikimaps. UIUC grad Nama Budhathoki did a dissertation on OpenStreetMap in 2010 and found that only 30% of registered users had ever contributed a single thing (to say nothing of all the guest visits), and of those, less than two-thirds contributed more than once. Further, those who contribute are mostly “educated and tech savvy males with some prior experience in geospatial technology… predominantly from Europe and North America.” Clearly, this falls short of the expectation that wikimaps will bring about an egalitarian mapping paradise.

One possible bright spot may be the use of web maps along with in-person guidance by a facilitator in a process that is monitored and controlled from within the community they are specialized for. A colleague of mine at UW-Madison has been doing participatory mapping in the same area where I located my thesis, but with a more exclusive focus on supporting residents of the local Native American community (mine included the surrounding, predominantly White communities). Using her preexisting status as a leader of a program for tribal youth, Jessie Conaway had the kids interview elders on the reservation about places that were important to them, then added these stories to a simple web map as well as physical maps that could be conversation pieces for presentations by tribal members. The process fostered intergenerational understanding as well as gorgeous maps. This project seems to have been a success—although thanks to old-fashioned cooperation and relationship-building, not so much to shiny Web 2.0 technology.

5. Questions

So where do we go from here? In academia, we seem to focus on building upon our specialty, with ample disincentive to critique the founding principles of our own research, however much we might critique its current state. I’ll go out on a limb and argue this is probably what’s going on with the title and conclusion of the paper Budhathoki co-published with Zorica Nedovic-Budic: “How to motivate different players in VGI?” This is one question, and it may be legitimate. The easiest possible answer, if it were true, would be by tweaking the design of future wikimaps so as to have an easier-to-use interface, better UI controls, nicer symbols, etc. Perhaps implementing user rating systems would lend trust to the volunteered data while connecting to social media might give the map a chance to “go viral.” I aim to play with these variables as I work toward completing my ongoing project.

But at a deeper level, this all seems like fiddling around with the shell and missing the nut of the problem. My critique of the aforementioned question-title, if I might offer one, is that assumes that the cause of low participation lies with the motivation (or lack thereof) of non-White non-GIS professional non-European-or-North-Americans, and further implies that simply motivating these players is the right goal to have. I’m not convinced of this. I’d rather we mapping professionals back up a step and ask whether wikimaps ever can be universalized. That is, might we come to recognize that our emancipating projects will never appeal to everyone? Doing so does not inherently remove the worth of wikimaps, but it could allow us to explore their limitations and boundaries so as to recognize just who our projects are serving and how, and thus act more honestly in their creation.

Looking at wikimaps this way allows us to be similarly critical of the data they seek to visualize. Can we really call this data “democratizing?” Many of the bold claims about VGI and democracy have yet to be tested scientifically. With recent revelations that mobile device users tend to unwittingly contribute locational data to commercial and government actors with dubious interests, VGI may walk a thin line between empowerment and surveillance. Wikimaps and other VGI applications may actually inherently reinforce power imbalances, since anyone may contribute but the tech-savvy professionals are still ultimately in control of the uses to which the data are put.


I hope that this post (and talk) do not dissuade more people from making wikimaps. In fact, we need more wikimaps to test whether and where and when they are actually a good thing, and how to make them better for these situations. Clearly, people get something out of OpenStreetMap, Wikimapia, and Ushihidi. Clearly, users were interested in seeing what my thesis wikimap could teach them. But let’s not go in with the assumption that our projects are going to appeal to everyone we want them to, or that we can create a level playing field for all users to contribute equally. And I think that for honesty’s sake, we need to stop the talk of democracy and empowerment coming from Web 2.0 until we have something actual to show for it.

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