Home' Position : Position Oct Nov 2015 Contents The disaster relief for the
Nepalese Earthquakes has
been enhanced through
crowdsourcing sites such as
Tomnod and Quakemap. This
makes the caring and sharing
have deeper ramifications,
writes Alister Clark.
Crowd-sourced crisis mapping
has powerful potential to supply
post-disaster information for
response efforts. Questions about who
should exercise and gain from that
power are highlighted by comparing
two applications for the recent Nepal
earthquakes, Tomnod and Quakemap.
Both use online interactive mapping
platforms to enlist volunteers and to
crowd-source geo-information. Which is
worthy of our attention, as surely disaster
victims will benefit from volunteers' time
and expertise either way?
While similar, closer examination of the
ownership, presentation and governance
of each platform reveals important
distinctions that illuminate wider concerns
about disruptive digital technology.
Position magazine's recent article
Many eyes make light work (April-
May issue, pages 16-18) highlighted
When I went online I was able to
quickly begin assessing satellite imagery
for earthquake damage without the need
to register, or read a lengthy disclaimer
and how to guide. The interface is easy
to use and you are guided by hints and
encouraged by messages.
Tomnod expertly engages volunteers
and uses their time efficiently. The Position
article (p.18) cites Tomnod's crowd co-
ordinator as saying that they have engaged
over 2,000,000 volunteers worldwide. The
article then estimates the equivalent effort
of a professional cartographer at maybe
$50/hour. At just one volunteer hour per
person, this equates to 10 years of a full
time equivalent and $100 million worth of
effort. The article author Simon Chester
quotes Shay Harnoy, CEO and founder of
Tomnod: "Sometimes we might provide
the data for free for the people responding
to the event, but for enterprise users we
have another curation layer of data that's
packaged up for their needs." (p.18).
There is much to be saved and made
through such volunteer efforts, but is it
completely clear who gains and loses?
Tomnod is now owned by Digital Globe,
an American commercial vendor of space
imagery and geospatial content.
Quakemap, on the other hand, is
created by the Nepal-based not-for-profit
organisation Living Labs.
The urgency and human suffering
of disasters breaks down barriers to
openness and sharing, and challenges
slower due processes and encourages
deeper consideration. We are motivated
to contribute by the obvious public good
and chastened to not waste time on
Disasters are situations ripe for potential
exploitation, those affected are extremely
vulnerable. The governance arrangements
of not-for-profit of organisations provide
some protection. The entrance of
commercial organisations in such situations
makes it difficult to raise questions of
the legitimacy of engaging volunteers in
potential profit-making enterprises.
Is it politically incorrect to ask
now about the livelihood of displaced
professional cartographers? Boundaries
are being crossed and blurred.
Transparency is important. Quakemap is
transparent about who they are, to where
the information relates, and what is
happening on the ground.
With the Tomnod satellite imagery, on
the other hand, there are no references
such as co-ordinates or place names
included, and we cannot tell if we are
volunteering information relating to
Nepal's earthquake or some other area
of (possibly commercial) interest. As, the
infamous quote says: "on the internet,
nobody knows you are really a dog".
What is to stop those with less altruistic
intent from harnessing the technology
and pushing the same psychological
buttons to engage erstwhile volunteers
to assess and disclose information about
people they know nothing about? Should
we be demanding close accounting from
Tomnod and Digital Globe, as to how
much volunteer effort is used, from whom,
and where the results go?
Developed countries such as Australia
we are not immune to such use of
the GeoWeb 2.0. Recent media have
highlighted how applications that utilise
the same underlying technology, such
as Airbnb and Uber, are challenging
local hospitality and taxi industries. The
economic argument emphasises the gains
in efficiency and new enterprise. But these
gains mostly flow to the owners of these
platforms, who are mostly overseas, and
mostly in the technology hubs of North
America. It is local businesses, workers
and communities who lose.
Such technologies are called disruptors
that unleash creative destruction,
whereby the old is destroyed and replaced
by the new, presumably where the latter
is better than the former. But who decides
this, and why should we care that the jobs
of inefficient taxi drivers and hospitality
workers are lost? We all get cheaper rides
and places to stay when we get there. But
what will be there -- those taxi drivers and
hospitality workers are also fathers and
mothers who raise families, volunteers
who coach football teams and lead scout
packs, look after that sick, elderly - in
short, they constitute our communities.
At GeoNext 2015, Serene Ho asked if
the spatial and surveying sciences sector
is ready for the creative destruction
by disruptive spatial technologies that
create new industries, but in the process
displace the incumbents and their jobs.
Is Tomnod's crowdsourcing of cartography
a tolling of the bell, and how vulnerable
is the industry to displacement by its own
Alister Clark is a PhD candidate in
the Discipline of Geography and Spatial
Science, School of Land and Food,
University of Tasmania. You can read
Simon Chester's original article on the
web: visit http://position.realviewdigital.
com/, sign up (free), select "Browse
issues" at the bottom of the screen, and
select the April/May 2015 issue. Then
select "All pages" and click on page 16. ■
Caring and sharing
Quakemap crowdsourcing interface.
16 position October/November 2015
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