Reuniting people and maps: Participative Mapping 2017 at Cal Poly

Maps have changed the world. If you’ve visited Madrid’s Naval Museum, you will have seen a map drawn by an amalgamation of Christopher Columbus’ cartographers. The map includes, for the first time to Europeans, a partial outline of the Americas; the emptiness within the outline was ‘undiscovered’ no-mans land, ripe for the claiming by Europeans. Little did Columbus know, this land, and indeed every other, has been mapped continuously for thousands of years and in more detail than he could ever know. Indigenous peoples have been accumulating traditional ecological knowledge for time immemorial and in forms surpassing geography: myths, stories, memories, experiences, emotions.

Participative Mapping & GIS 2017 at California Polytechnic State University had the aim of exploring and sharing ways to put local and indigenous knowledge onto maps. The sessions were divided into urban, community/indigenous, and conservation mapping, as well as sessions on theoretical ideas, technology, and applications of participative mapping. This layout was criticised by some who argued that this separation of mapping types only enforces a separation of techniques and ideas, when a more collaborative environment is needed. In any case, the conference was very valuable.

‘Participative mapping’ sounds like a grand term but it’s aim is to be the exact opposite: a bottom-up process of communities co-designing maps alongside facilitators to address issues facing such communities (from plotting indigenous hunting grounds to emotion maps of how happy citizens feel in different neighbourhoods).

Marketta Kyttä and team’s work in Helsinki includes an ’emotion map’ (also conducted by ExCiteS’ Christian Nold in London) whereby community members recorded how they felt in various different areas around the city. This Urban Happiness Project revealed that the green areas of Helsinki correlate with feelings of happiness – perhaps not surprising – but also that the closer to public services residents are, the less positive they feel! Demonstrating the plasticity of participative mapping methods, Elicia Ratajczyk (Arizona State University) passionately spoke of her work in rural Nepal empowering local communities with GPS handsets to map irrigation channels that are depended upon for their livelihoods. Community management of such resources is paramount: in rural Nepal, community-managed irrigation systems outperform those managed by the government, an occurrence seen across the world with community resource-management.

However, to me the most exciting use of participatory map techniques is with indigenous communities; these are some of the most abused, marginalised, and silenced peoples, yet they often possess unparalleled knowledge of landscapes through rich cultural diversity. Transferring this knowledge onto interactive maps is key to begin claiming land rights, especially if created independently by community members. This is the work of Gregor MacLennan (Digital Democracy), engaging with several indigenous groups in Peru, Guyana, and other countries in the Amazon Basin. Whilst he has been successful training community members to map their lands and resources, and indeed training future trainers, he acknowledges: “How do you attach the sort of stories about each individual tree to a map?”. This highlights an important limit to the ability of participatory maps to truly represent the depth of knowledge forest peoples have accumulated. The limit to a free, prior, and informed consent process are also brought to the forefront through Gregor’s work, as they are through mine: it’s all well and good talking about ownership of data, but in reality the data is on my computer, or online.


Cameron Ellis (Rainforest Foundation US) has seemingly taken this local training one step further and recruited a team of indigenous drone mappers in Panama’s densely-forested Darien Gap. His work here has revealed that the majority of deforestation is occurring not on indigenous lands, but those managed by the government; whilst this may be attributed to ministerial corruption and naturally built-in safe-guards, this result joins a growing mound of reports evidencing the effectiveness of indigenous peoples to protect their land.

Rudo Kemper from Amazon Conservation Team stressed the importance of sharing data back with the communities in order to build trust and get as far as possible with ‘community ownership’. Rudo’s work uses participatory mapping in yet another way, documenting oral histories of elders within Suriname’s escaped slaves. A particularly important mission in the current times of mass urbanisation and cultural degradation. In Africa, at least, the primary cause behind cultural destruction is corruption; inviting important stakeholders to directly experience projects can aid with such work being taken seriously, and with the often negative views of governmental elites towards indigenous groups changing. Kelly Dunning (Rainforest Foundation UK) is doing this in south-west Cameroon, where their land-use planning mapping communities have been visited by 15 government officials. An issue Kelly reiterated was that of how to define success; in projects attempting to improve biodiversity through community engagement, the lack of wildlife survey data in such areas as the Congo Basin present a barrier to testing the impact of such implementations.

A workshop run by Rohan Fisher (Charles Darwin University) on GIS software introduced me to SAGA, which you should really have a look at. For free GIS software it’s very powerful and will allow you to carryout complex analyses in no time – including clicking anywhere on land and seeing the path water takes. He also shared two great tools for finding satellite imagery, SRTM Tile Grabber, and Remote Pixel Satellite Search.

As often experienced at events such as this, despite the multitude of ecological, developmental, and human-rights issues raised that can become overwhelming, the incredible array of projects being carried out by researchers and facilitators is certainly a reason to remain hopeful.

Thanks to Muki Haklay for making this happen, and to Greg Brown for organising

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