Rethinking knowledge politics through digital humanitarianism

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By looking at digital humanitarianism I argue that geographers have theorized knowledge politics too narrowly. Knowledges are negotiated, contested, and enacted through processes prior to the visual map artifact, for instance through coding, data structures, and project planning. I argue that when digital humanitarianism produces digital spaces, these new spaces embody knowledge politics and enable or constrain what kinds of knowledges can be expressed and represented there.

I have made an analogous argument in my Geoforum article (http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2406156) and in a chapter of my dissertation. I blogged about the policy implications of this argument in a brief blog post for the Commons Lab of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (http://wilsoncommonslab.org/2014/04/08/digital-humanitarian-technology-and-knowledge-politics/).

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  • I want to think for a bit about one element of the research program I’m developing around digital humanitarianism.
  • natural hazard delineation
    “OpenStreetMap is usually used to map things that are visible on the ground.”
    “I see it being difficult for some types of hazards to be collected by the average person…”
    “By assuming that the 'average person' is unable to collect relevant hazard information, are we not claiming that only empirical top-down information should be considered? Shouldn't place-based knowledge systems be the most relevant systems for place-based hazards...that is "things that are on the ground"? Isn't this counter intuitive to initiatives to 'democratize' data?
    “From my experience with communities… local people know very well where the main hazard zones are located (‘There's a minor landslide on this foothill almost every year’ or ‘My father told me that once there has been a massive flood that destroyed 10 houses’)…”
  • Why is this important? What’s at stake?
    Why should we care?
    I should note that my argument is informed by principles I’m borrowing from critical, feminist, and qualitative GIS; software studies; in particular, the notions that technologies broadly speaking embody social norms, values, and relations, and that these technologies can be leveraged to enact new social relations/politics. That map artifacts exemplify knowledge politics is already well-covered; again, here, my goal is instead to focus on the knowledge politics of technological spaces prior to the map.
  • if we understand digital spaces as in some ways distinct from the “real world” we can understand how social and political processes, when they influence the development of the technologies, come in turn to influence the implications those technologies have in world-making. in this specific case, the reason this is significant is because the ways digital humanitarian technologies develop has a real, material impact on their future uses. on the one hand, I’m taking a clue from Bernard Stiegler’s contributions showing that you can learn about society by investigating technology; and on the other hand, I’m concerned with the closures taking place with design, coding, and implementation practices.
  • -start with the highlights
  • Rethinking knowledge politics through digital humanitarianism

    1. 1. rethinking knowledge politics through digital humanitarianism Ryan Burns Dept. of Geography, University of Washington http://burnsr77.github.io burnsr77@gmail.com @burnsr77
    2. 2. Standby Task Force Digital Humanitarian Network Humanity Road CrisisMappers Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Network digital humanitarian organizations Ryan Bur ns Uni ver si t y of Washi ngt on ht t p: / / bur nsr 77. gi t hub. i o
    3. 3. Ryan Bur ns Uni ver si t y of Washi ngt on ht t p: / / bur nsr 77. gi t hub. i o
    4. 4. Ryan Bur ns Uni ver si t y of Washi ngt on ht t p: / / bur nsr 77. gi t hub. i o
    5. 5. “…visible on the ground…” “…average person…” “…my experience with communities… local people know very well where the main hazard zones are located… every year… ‘My father told me…” …”would you see any relevance to develop classes for natural (and man-made?) hazards to be included in HOSM framework?” Ryan Bur ns Uni ver si t y of Washi ngt on ht t p: / / bur nsr 77. gi t hub. i o “top-down information … place-based knowledge systems … counter intuitive to initiatives to 'democratize' data?” “…we should aim at a fork-project…” http://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/OpenHazardMap
    6. 6. what are the sites of negotiation and contestation in digital humanitarian technologies? displace the visual artifact (map) from the primary site of knowledge politics digital humanitarian spaces constitute a distinct space worth exploring knowledge politics occur in social processes prior to the map: coding, data structures, project planning needs collection and processing Ryan Bur ns Uni ver si t y of Washi ngt on ht t p: / / bur nsr 77. gi t hub. i o
    7. 7. significance the ways digital humanitarian technologies develop influences how they can be used in the future Ryan Bur ns Uni ver si t y of Washi ngt on ht t p: / / bur nsr 77. gi t hub. i o we can learn a lot about society by interrogating our technologies immediacy and impacts of humanitarian crises
    8. 8. seven-month research project at the Commons Lab, Wilson Center in Washington, DC participant observation data archiving 38 semi-structured in-depth interviews coding methods hackathons ICS Training transcription themes analysis notes memos (source: http://youtu.be/vAUt7h4kk0A) Ryan Bur ns Uni ver si t y of Washi ngt on ht t p: / / bur nsr 77. gi t hub. i o
    9. 9. knowledge politics mechanisms: two: “taming” needs three: responsibilization one: actionability and utility Ryan Bur ns Uni ver si t y of Washi ngt on ht t p: / / bur nsr 77. gi t hub. i o
    10. 10. one: actionability and utility Jordan: [W]here we're a little not sure where this fits in, in the crowdsourcing sense, [is in] being able to take information from the public and use it for operational decisions - that's different. How do you feel about things? What are you concerned about? The issues we need to address when we talk to the public, that's one thing. But for them to provide us, in a crowdsourcing way, with operational information is the area I'm still struggling with. … But the perception of the danger - the operational issue of where is the fire - I don't think we're at a point where we can ask the public to pin on a map where they think the fire is, because we're going to get a lot of noise in there. It's really hard, even for seasoned firefighters, to look down a mountain and tell you how far away that is. “…operational decisions…” situated knowledges “noise” Incident Command System expert vs. lay knowledges Ryan Bur ns Uni ver si t y of Washi ngt on ht t p: / / bur nsr 77. gi t hub. i o
    11. 11. Laurie Van Leuven: “…we in emergency management need to filter those out and listen specifically to actionable pieces of content. So, we’ve got some work to do in how we can build a system to receive that information.” Source: http://youtu.be/vAUt7h4kk0A Kevin: “…let it sit…” Ryan Bur ns Uni ver si t y of Washi ngt on ht t p: / / bur nsr 77. gi t hub. i o
    12. 12. two: “taming” needs paradox: digital humanitarianism derives its “value” from recruiting a potentially infinite number of knowledges, yet those knowledges but be abstracted, condensed, and categorized actionable, usable, valuable infinite knowledges and perceptions tension Ryan Bur ns Uni ver si t y of Washi ngt on ht t p: / / bur nsr 77. gi t hub. i o
    13. 13. two: “taming” needs Jeremy: “…taxonomically distort[ing] the data through categorization. … Categorization is forcing a level of pre-judgment that prevents the data from telling its own story. … You never, ever want to append or amend a primary source that's digitally collected. Because when you do that, you don't know what its significance is.” “some … misclassification was deliberate in an attempt to move critical reports into what were perceived to be more closely monitored categories in order to improve the chance that the reports would trigger a response” (Morrow et al., 2011, pp. 24–25) Ryan Bur ns Uni ver si t y of Washi ngt on ht t p: / / bur nsr 77. gi t hub. i o
    14. 14. three: responsibilization first: individual digital humanitarian collaborators second: “victims” of crises third: digital humanitarian organizations Ryan Bur ns Uni ver si t y of Washi ngt on ht t p: / / bur nsr 77. gi t hub. i o source: http://crisismappersfletcher.wordpress.com/
    15. 15. three: responsibilization first: individual digital humanitarian collaborators second: “victims” of crises third: digital humanitarian organizations Ryan Bur ns Uni ver si t y of Washi ngt on ht t p: / / bur nsr 77. gi t hub. i o source: http://irevolution.net/2011/10/02/theorizing-ushahidi/
    16. 16. three: responsibilization first: individual digital humanitarian collaborators second: “victims” of crises third: digital humanitarian organizations Ryan Bur ns Uni ver si t y of Washi ngt on ht t p: / / bur nsr 77. gi t hub. i o
    17. 17. summing up knowledge politics are enacted before the visual artifact (design, coding, data model, categorization) http://irevolution.net/2011/10/02/theorizing-ushahidi/ Ryan Bur ns Uni ver si t y of Washi ngt on ht t p: / / bur nsr 77. gi t hub. i o we can understand new soci0-political relations by interrogating digital humanitarian technologies three mechanisms of digital humanitarian knowledge politics: actionability/utility, “taming” needs, and responsibilization
    18. 18. Thank you! http://irevolution.net/2011/10/02/theorizing-ushahidi/ Ryan Bur ns Uni ver si t y of Washi ngt on ht t p: / / bur nsr 77. gi t hub. i o

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