Geo-Hack Space

Inspite of the grand narrative of our so-called “information age” the praxis of hacking has persistently attempted to capture certain spaces where hackers can re-configure the value of information and re-think the normative assumptions of our times. First, a caveat, hacking here does not refer to the media-construction of hacker as cyber-criminal. It refers more closely, to an older tradition of tinkering with technologies to find innovative solutions to problems. This tradition has further given rise to a well-defined ideological commitment to openness of information and freedom to modify technologies. The hackers’ narrative of the “information age” views our historical conjuncture as one of limitless possibility. According to them, Free and Open-source applications of information technology have effectively re-oriented the relationship between power and knowledge. While earlier, access to knowledge could be restricted these new technologies go a long way in breaking down those barriers and offer potentially unrestricted access. The development of hacker culture over the past two decades has been a process of experimenting with novel forms of democratic organization to work with free and open-source technologies. In recent times, there has been an explosion of activity among hackers to mobilize their technical tools in the pursuit of solving the social problems around them. However, alongside this techno-centric account there are several other developments that have occurred. There has been a pressing demand for greater transparency in the functioning of the government. The Right to Information act has empowered social and political activists to undertake a non-virtual kind of “de-bugging”. It can be argued that the hacker attitude towards information is no longer exclusive to the realm of technology, but has pervaded the entire social development realm. The geo-hack space at Do Din was imagined as the site for a crucial encounter between these two groups that can be designated as “technologists” and “activists”.

The space brought together designers, software & map-making enthusiasts, social scientists and activists working on specific urban issues. Of course, these are all general categories. In fact, several participants belonged to more than one of these categories. But the focus of interaction was on the power of data and particularly maps to both interpret and change the city. Dr. Anant Maringanti, executive director of Hyderabad Urban Lab (HUL), stresses that it is important to recognize data as an artefact. The quantity and quality of existing data is entirely dependent on the investigative initiatives of certain people and further dependent on the specific procedures used for investigation. The case with most cities is that there is an abundance of data about the city, but it is virtually useless owing to the fact that it is completely aspatial. For example, the municipal corporation would be able to provide information on the number of public toilets, but not their precise location. Knowing the location of these public toilets would aid us to understand whom the public toilets cater to, to identify where they are most needed and how they can be sustainably managed. Dr. Maringanti thus explains the term geo-hacking as a practice dedicated to spatializing urban data in new ways. The most powerful tool available to achieve this is open-source mapping platforms like Open Street Maps (OSM). It is hard to believe that small teams can cover the entire city and provide reliable information for those who don’t know that applications like OSM depend on a crowd of contributors adding all the information they possess. The accuracy of this information is cemented by a kind of perennial audit. Any misinformation can be corrected by any individual at any time. Thus, the construction of data using OSM itself becomes a kind of democratic political praxis. Arun Ganesh, a map-enthusiast says that: “If we look historically, control over maps has always meant control over the land”. The crowd-sourcing of map data essentially allows citizens to hold their government accountable for programme implementation. No social campaign can succeed without the claims being substantiated with hard data. It can also allow citizens to identify gaps in services and utilities and design their own entrepreneurial solutions. The broad objective of the workshops and discussions in the geo-hack space, therefore, was to seek “creativity in diversity” through the encounter between individuals and groups, both of “technologist” and “activist” persuasions.

The sessions in this space were organized under the title Maps & Activism