Maps & Activism

I. The Evolution of Hacktivism

The activities planned for the Geo-Hack Space were mostly workshops and hands-on interactive sessions to be co-ordinated by a panel of hackers – Arun Ganesh, Kaustubh Srikanth, Sajjad Anwar and Sumandro Chattopadhyay. The events were kicked-off by a presentation by Arun Ganesh on the various capabilities and limitations of mapping platforms for urban policy and practice. He gave a broad overview of his experiences with mapping. Starting out with physically going around Chennai in public transport buses and mapping out the stops, he soon realized that it required too much effort for a very small output. He then went to the concerned government department and acquired the details for bus routes and the major bus stops. This data was digitized with the help of a few engineering students he worked with. But it was still hard to verify the stops, so he turned to the open platform of Open Street Maps. He posted an appeal to others in Chennai to help him fill in an open map with the details of Chennai bus routes. Soon, a rigorously detailed bus route map took shape. Arun was one among a few people around the world who realized the vast potential of crowd-sourced data and maps to hack not just operating systems but also social systems, engendering a new, technologically-empowered urban citizen, sometimes called a hacktivist. Such crowd-sourcing was only possible over a free and open-source platform. Thus, Open Street Maps and a few others like Ushahidi, were the preferred tools of the urban hacktivist.

A favourite topic of discussion for hacktivists is the politics of data. This introductory session was therefore designated to address the issue of Maps & Activism. Besides the hacktivists, the session brought together activists of various other kinds, also scholars, artists, young professionals and others.

II. Linking Technology and Data with Action

The session progressed with technical and non-technical questions being posed to Arun regarding his work. But soon, questions of data and politics began to be raised by other urban practitioners working with data. Nitya Raman of Transparent Chennai, for instance, spoke at length about the difficulties of acquiring or gathering certain kinds of data. She also posed the question of how data can be linked with action and what kind of partnerships can be built around data? Another participant in the session brought up the case of the bus service in Bengaluru run by the BMTC which provides all the relevant information effectively on its website and through an Android App. He pointed out that these bus services are completely publicly owned and yet highly efficient and profit-making. He suggested that rather than thinking only along the lines of crowd-sourcing data from citizens, where possible, work should be undertaken collaboratively with governments.

Geo-hack Space Workshop in Session

III. Re-thinking Data

Anant Maringanti of Hyderabad Urban Lab asked the gathering to also look at information technology and maps with a more critical lens. While we talk of cities and using data to hold municipal corporations accountable, there are so many plans and promises made to the city which are periodically buried with changes of guard. There are forgotten plans for railway routes, forgotten planned neighbourhoods and similar proposals. These plans need to be rediscovered and brought into focus.

He also pointed to another political aspect of data and maps, one that is often disregarded. Taking the example of the bus-routes maps, he suggested that perhaps these can be looked at as very masculine maps. These routes service a mostly male population, predominantly white-collar workers. How do the others, women, children and the poor, travel? With this technical and critical preface, the interactive technical sessions in the Geo-Hack Space commenced.