Eye-opening: the politics of maps

Photo credit: Matt Sheehan

The goal of Homa Reto is to keep individuals informed, connected, and secure through our maps and community network. We keep in mind that maps are not neutral objects. Producing maps involves making political decisions about the space, geography, and cultural identities of the inhabitants of a territory. Map-making is a constant process of selection, classification, abstractions, and simplifications. For this reason, maps can empower and disempower people while potentially supporting dominant political structures. For example, mapmakers can make countries appear small, exaggerate poverty and marginalize unfavorable people and cultures. In a geopolitical context, nations can enhance map features that support their cause and suppress those that do not under the pretext of official mapping. For instance, representing the disputed territory of Crimea, the borders of Israel-Palestine, or the contested territory of Kashmir poses a special challenge for cartographers. As maps can be deceptive, map-makers need to make explicit what has and what has not been made visible on the map. To defend our inclusive, sustainable, and anti-colonial vision, we at the Human Network put democracy and crowd-sourced mapping first. Our maps are human-centered.

Firstly, Homa Reto subscribes to critical geography. This discourse aims to challenge the status quo of cartography and mapping. By pointing out the links between geographic knowledge and political power, it promotes alternative perspectives on existing mapping practices. Thus, it legitimates more diverse map-making actors and allows overlooked phenomena to be reclaimed. One example that reveals how maps can promote political agendas while marginalizing socioeconomically disadvantaged people is government-sponsored maps of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. A study uncovered that these maps hindered the visualization of street vendors in public spaces and thereby provided a ‘sanitized’ view of the city. In response to such phenomena, critical geography aims to dismantle the power structures at play created by academic and governmental map-making elites. To counter similar problems, practices such as Digital Matatus have been imagined. This project aims at mapping the informal networks of transportation in developing countries. The researchers involved in this project collected the data with their smartphones to make this informal network searchable in Google Maps as transit options. This avoids commuters the hassle of having to rely daily on word of mouth or untrustworthy sources of information.

Colonial map (Source: Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography)

Map-making plays a large role in colonialism and the dispossession of indigenous lands through mapping elements such as size, proportions, and borders. As a response, Indigenous people have for long engaged in their own mapping practices to challenge colonial rule. Today, anti-colonial mapping involves the recentering of Indigenous geographical knowledge, respect for the Indigenous protocols, and the active participation of Indigenous peoples in the mapping process. As part of critical cartography, this principle implies the necessity for the cartographer to reflect on his own position and influence on a mapping project. Homa Reto is committed to celebrating Indigenous knowledge and promotes a critical approach to map-making. 

One additional example of a practice that acknowledges the political responsibility and social position of maps is participatory mapping. This critical mapping practice applies the theories developed in critical cartography discourses. Homa Reto is a mapping software that is based on this principle. Participatory mapping refers to the creation of maps by local communities, often with the involvement of governments, NGOs, and other local actors. Our platform is powered by this local knowledge. We use this expertise to create community maps to localize disaster risk management and save lives. By using participatory mapping, we can provide fast and efficient information about local resources and needs. Our aim is thereby to connect local development actors and help provide services to people in need, before, during, and after disasters.

Participatory mapping is facilitated by GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technologies. Homa Reto uses GIS to enable engagement with society and institutions. This system connects data to maps and integrates location data as well as descriptive information. The democratization of this technology in the 1990s has facilitated local’s people abilities to make maps. Through the conversion into GIS, a community’s issues and needs can be more accurately brought to the attention of policy-makers. This allows for local communities to come out of their isolation to share their knowledge and communicate with decision-makers. With the help of this technology, our team wants to empower local communities and create a network of care and mutual support for ordinary citizens like you and me. To find out more information, visit the ‘how it works’ section of our website or contact us directly!

Participatory Mapping (Source: Cottonbro)

Author: Suzon Mazataud

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