From Bieber to Dylan: Mapping the (Crowd)Maps

From Bieber to Dylan: Mapping the (Crowd)Maps

Internews' Crowdglobe Project recently published a report on Ushahidi and Crowdmap. Crowdglobe surveyed the (at the time) 12,795 publicly hosted users of Crowdmap, the hosted Ushahidi platform, to get a better quantitiative picture of what is being mapped. The report found, noticeably, that the "long tail" distribution was indeed long indeed with "93% of the 12,000+ Crowdmaps analyzed...containing fewer than 10 reports." A few highlights from the report: 

  • 93% of Crowdmaps had fewer than 10 reports.
  • 61% of Crowdmaps had absolutely no customization at all, i.e., they still had the four default categories and the default report.
  • 89% of Crowdmaps had four categories, including those with the four default categories.
  • 13% of Crowdmaps had 5-10 categories.
  • 94% of Crowdmaps had only one user.

These numbers are not entirely shocking; the issue of unused Ushahidi maps had previously crossed the radar with the release of the "Dead Ushahidi" maps, igniting interesting questions about sustainability and viability. It is noteworthy that the Crowdworld report covers only the maps hosted on Crowdmap that are easy to set up and thus may often be used for experimentation but never deleted. Many of the maps that are full-fledged Ushahidi installations hosted by organizations directly seem to have fared better in terms of the quality and numbers of submissions, but those were not surveyed.  

The Crowdglobe report is a reminder, however,  of the allure of technology in development that may not always pan out. This is eloquently described in a recent report on security incident mapping in Nigeria that is well worth a read. To quote one of the lessons the project learned: "Fundamentally, the project was supposed to be about the information captured. Not the technology. And we had it backwards."

Crowdmap provides individuals and organizations with an easy opportunity to access bottom--up data mapping tools with nary a barrier to entry.  That is a good thing, by and large. The ease of access and universal appeal of the program has provided the initial "Bieber Fever." However, arguably, just like Bieber, many of the crowdmaps are shallow, short term, and with limited ability to change. 

Ushahidi has already taken steps to address the issues raised by the report.  The organization has partnered with TechChange to provide specifically training on the crowd maps through the TechChange platform.  Additionally, 

the Crowdmap platform now includes a set-up wizard that guides first-time users through the customization of their platform. In addition, Ushahidi has recruited a full time Community Manager who has held more user-group meet-up's in 2012 than in all four previous years combined.

With this step, crowd source mapping can move into its "Bob Dylan Stage", deeper, more complex, and maybe containing the possibility to create data that can be used in actual change campaigns. Hopefully, the future of crowdsourced mapping learns from the lessons of the past to become the tool that can map it to change it. 

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