Once built, dams tend to stay put. But there are gaps in the data and CPWF’s milestone map on hydroelectric dams could be improved. The print version will have to wait but the electronic version can be updated rather more easily. Could ‘crowdmapping’ be the way to go?
Penny Beams and I discussed crowdmapping over dinner at the Cio Gau restaurant in Hanoi last night (Thai chicken curry and Nasi Goreng, very tasty and less than USD 15.00 for two people). Penny and colleagues have started a company in Toronto called Confluvium and would like to see more people using maps to improve decision making.
Penny believes, “A map, particularly a dynamic map, can bring in social, political, and physical information and make it digestible in ways that reports and papers just can’t. If you present an engineer with a dynamic map, he/she can point out possible new build sites, and you can use the map to inform them about things like water quality conditions in the area, socioeconomic attributes, and how alterations to flow may impact transboundary water agreements. It’s not to say that a map will automatically make decision-making easier, but it will definitely make the process more informed, and may help improve outcomes or mitigate adverse impacts.”
A little browsing reveals some exciting crowdmapping initiatives.
For example, HarassMap was born as a response to the persistent problem of sexual harassment on the streets of Egypt, to which society had become increasingly tolerant. The starting point was to use the onlinereporting and mapping technology to support an offline community mobilization effort to break stereotypes, stop making excuses for perpetrators, and to convince people to speak out and act against harassment. As a result, sexual harassment has evolved from being a taboo topic to one that is being widely discussed and tackled by a new crop of independent initiatives.
Then there is OpenStreetMap, a collaborative project to create a free editable map of the world. Two major driving forces behind the establishment and growth of OSM have been restrictions on use or availability of map information across much of the world and the advent of inexpensive portable navigation devices. Created by Steve Coast in the UK in 2004, it was inspired by the success of Wikipedia and preponderance of proprietary map data in the UK and elsewhere. Since then, it has grown to over 1 million registered users who can collect data using GPS devices, aerial photography, and other free sources. Street Mappers provided invaluable, sometimes life-saving services to humanitarian aid organisations responding to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Mappers and developers scoured satellite images to identify collapsed and damaged buildings/bridges, spontaneous refugee camps, landslides, blocked roads and other damaged infrastructure.
Penny lives for maps and had more to say on the matter of crowdmapping.
“I think it’s imperative that the map be a living document that citizens can invest themselves in. Not only does it help maintain and grow the map, it gives basin inhabitants a platform on which they can build trust and a sense of sharing around dams and data regardless of which basin country they live in. Turning the map loose is a wonderful idea — but with some caveats.
“If you build it, they will come” is not enough for something like this. Some of the world’s most successful crowdmaps require consistent support for citizens who live within the map’s territory to stay engaged (see http://harassmap.org/en/). Crowdmaps that aren’t designed to facilitate a finite event (e.g. an election, recovery from a natural disaster) require nurturing in the form of network-building and on-the-ground promotion to thrive. Something akin to the thaibaan project would be required to really keep the Mekong map going. Thus, the map provides a wonderful opportunity to work with different community groups, build capacity around citizen science and data collection, and promote the idea of maps as powerful knowledge repositories and communication tools.”
So what would it take to mobilize a crowdmapping initiative around dams in the Mekong?
Some of the basic requirements:
- A separate website with heavy duty servers that can handle dynamic data.
- A list of skills that volunteers would need to participate and possibly some training.
- A set of criteria for data that would help define the required accuracy and relevance.
- People willing to dedicate long hours to maintaining the site, working with volunteers, and checking the data.
- A fairly precise definition of the kind of data needed (e.g. GPS coordinates, official name of the dam, min and max capacity).
“Some of this would clearly require funding, but it wouldn’t take a large team to keep it going. Given the right connections to community groups, a team of one or two could probably keep this little gem running” says Penny.
Could it work?
The main requirement is an idea that inspires. Look at Harassmap and you get it immediately. See what Open Street Mappers did in Haiti and you get it immediately. Hydroelectric dams? People who participate in citizen science and crowdmapping initiatives are motivated almost entirely by intrinsic rewards such as pure interest, the camaraderie of a community or social status. Until someone comes up with that inspiring idea, I don’t see people flocking to the cause.
Explore CPWF’s map of hydropower in the Mekong.