The Power of Mapping Networks

The Networked Era marks a period of change in many aspects of life. In this paper, we explore changes relating to the usage of a new form of visualizing information called crowdsourced mapping. Here we understand this to refer to the development and usage of digital tools that collect and display location-based data from many sources in real time. In other words, crowdsourced maps are applications that show information from many places very quickly. We will examine two deployments of a platform called Ushahidi, which is an open source tool used for creating custom crowdsourced mapping projects. The first deployment is in the sector of governance: the 2012 Obama Campaign technical team’s in-house deployment of Ushahidi for election monitoring. The second deployment is within the sector of human rights: a project called Syria Tracker that is used for citizen reporting in a conflict zone. Analysis of these digital artifacts reveals that the implications of their usage depends on who uses them, for what purpose, and based on whose data. Crowdsourced maps offer the potential of immediate context-sensitive knowledge to those able to deploy them.

Monitoring and Winning Elections

Election monitoring serves a crucial role in contemporary practices of governance, and like many practices it is undergoing rapid change in the Networked Era. The crowdsourcing platform Ushahidi was developed in the context of the 2007 Kenyan general election, and as such is representative of the digital tools being used in this sector. The election was heavily contested and marked by intercommunal violence, especially after incumbent Mwai Kibaki was once again declared president of the country. Ethnic strife escalated and continued into the following year, and it was in this context that Ushahidi was developed to facilitate on-the-ground reports of violence by any and all citizens. The goal of this crowdsourced mapping platform was “making elections more open, honest, and peaceful” (Ushahidi Staff). From the beginning, Ushahidi was designed to improve election transparency through the amplification of citizens’ voices. Visualizing and sharing information about reported incidents through the platform equipped Kenyans caught in the crisis with knowledge useful for ensuring the safety of them and their communities. Since then, the platform has grown to many sectors as it has been used to create over 100,000 crowdsourced mapping projects in 160 countries (Bright). The implications of using Ushahidi are varied, because the deployments themselves are project-specific and fulfil a wide assortment of goals and missions. Let us now look more closely at how the technical team working for Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign applied the technology to their own ends.

To understand why the Obama team used Ushahidi for their 2012 U.S. presidential election campaign, it is useful to first look at how they accomplished similar goals without the platform during the 2008 U.S. election. According to the CEO of Ushahidi, an election is essentially the logistical task of coordinating a large number of people to take the same action in a limited amount of time: to vote on election day (Manning). In 2008, the Obama campaign prepared a technological tool to coordinate their volunteers–the same logistical purpose they would deploy Ushahidi for in four years’ time–but within the first hour of election day the tool went down. The team had to use pre-digital tactics instead: good ol’ pen, paper, and phone. It is for this reason that in 2012 the Obama team selected a proven platform like Ushahidi instead of developing their own tools from scratch. We see here that digital logistical tools can be less robust than their analog counterparts. Unlike prior strategies though, crowdsourced mapping offers immediate streams of information and can visualize the voices of networks in strategic ways. The potential effectiveness of these tools seems quite potent for the present age.

Crowdmapping and other digital logistical tools are significant for the Networked Era, because they provide the means to program and switch networks. Sociologist Manuel Castells describes these as the two basic mechanisms of commanding networks: programming networks’ goals and modes of operation, as well as switching which networks are connecting and cooperating (Castells). The nature of the 2012 Obama campaign technical team’s in-house deployment of Ushahidi demonstrates an emerging trend with implications for life in the Networked Era. Namely, open crowdsouring tools are increasingly being used for “contained private” purposes based on limited networks instead of general populations. Ushahidi was designed to make elections open for everyone, and yet the goal of Obama’s team was to win an election. Their maps were based only on verified volunteers, and were only seen as effective when providing legally actionable evidence to keep particular voting booths open longer. The benefit of the digital tool shrank from public to private. The containment of open source begins with its re-appropriation by powers already enmeshed in the status quo.

Visualizing Violence

Switching gears from governance to humanitarianism, let us shift our gaze from Northern America over to Western Asia. Syria Tracker is another deployment of Ushahidi, this time in the sector of human rights in relation to the issue of citizen reporting. Since 2011, this crowdmapping deployment has been used for reporting on and visualizing violations of human rights occuring in the ongoing war described by Humanitarian Tracker as the Syrian Conflict (Kass-Hout). Eye-witness reports from social media, news, and official sources are continuously listed and mapped along with associated media content. Through analysis and automatic arrangement of atrocities, Syria Tracker paints a picture of a people victimized by an authoritarian regime. At first glance, this deployment of Ushahidi seems to look a lot more like the platform’s original model centering citizens’ reports of violence. On closer inspection though, we see the implications are quite different due to the political context of the conflict depicted.

Unlike the Obama team’s in-house crowdmapping tool, Syria Tracker is being deployed by people from outside of the region being mapped. The project is owned by a consulting firm based in California, quite a comfortable distance away from the war zone. Both tools are operated from hardware in the United States, but whereas the Obama team mapped the U.S. itself the Syria Tracker application maps the territory of what appears to be a political foe. The United States ‘government’ has regularly denounced the Syrian ‘regime,’ both before and after the end of Obama’s presidential terms. The political function of Syria Tracker fits a pattern with a long history: selectively reporting the mistreatment of your enemies’ populations while simultaneously ignoring similar occurrences closer to home. Consider how the United States ‘regime’ denounces chemical attacks in Syria, while attacking migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border with its own chemical weapons (Barnard & Gordon; Grinberg & Castillo). In this view, we see that Syria Tracker depicts human rights violations in a way that is politically convenient for U.S. interests in the Syrian Conflict. Here we see crowdmapping used as a new digital form of distant witnessing, a form of human rights activism that encourages emotional responses while subduing rational analysis (Gregory). Syria Tracker depicts Syrians as victims, producing a subjectivity that justifies armed intervention. Our strong-affect reactions to war atrocities encourages us to share the reports online without ever necessarily evaluating the implications of that action. This re-purposing of crowdmapping demonstrates the significance of digital tools deployed for logistical purposes, making visible that the power of logistics is equivalent to a form of political power (Neilson). Whether a crowdsourced map can be used to support or oppose an established political group depends on the goals of the deployment’s developers and their relationship to the depicted crowd itself.


In this paper, we looked at two deployments of the crowdsourced mapping platform Ushahid. The first deployment was used for private election monitoring in the sector of governance by the Barack Obama campaign’s technical team in the 2012 United States presidential election. The second deployment was used for citizen reporting in the sector of human rights by the Syria Tracker. The above analysis shows that crowdsourced maps share the same risks revealed by digital sociologist Deborah Lupton’s analysis of big data:

Each step of the process in the generation of big data relies on a number of human decisions relating to selection, judgement, interpretation, and action. Therefore, the data that we will have at hand are always configured via beliefs, values, and choices that “cook” the data from the very beginning so that they are never in a “raw” state (Lupton).

Both deployments were developed with goals and implications that diverged significantly from the original purpose of Ushahidi. This “cooking” process is why one crowdsourced map helped its users win an election and another map is used to justify foreign intervention halfway across the globe. The in-house technological tool used by the Obama team demonstrates the utility of crowdsourced maps for programming and switching networks. The humanitarian reporting of atrocities in Syria demonstrates that crowdsourced maps are also used for distant witnessing in a way that resonates with emotional factors that motivate social media content dissemination. The crowdsourced mapping platform Ushahidi offers a new kind of logistical power to those able to deploy it, but its consequences for the Networked Era depend on who is mapping who.