Passive Humanitarianism – Active Apathy

Reflecting on participation in the Humanitarian Open Street Map (HOTOSM) and Mapswipe projects in the crowdsourcing of geographical, spatial data from satellite imagery for humanitarian projects worldwide. I have found the task morally challenging, and have considered both projects in the context of negative possibilities and potential future use of harvested geodata.

The MapSwipe app presents a simple, attractive interface with three photographs chosen to represent active campaigns. I am presented with Evil Mosquito, Poverty Stricken Tribesman and Bleak Township. I’m instantly sceptical, the pictures are unnecessarily emotive and there is sparse information about the campaigns. This is, however, the nature of the thing; quick to get involved, easily digestible and visually compelling. Swiping through the maps, I do as I am asked, but find some maps are missing, there is vision-obscuring cloud cover, or there are simply unexplained blank tiles, so I end up visiting all three of the active campaigns to get a feel for the application.

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Using Mapswipe makes me feel uneasy. It really doesn’t seem like I’ve been given enough information to make an informed choice about what I’m doing and why I should be doing it. I see a building, it looks like it has a group of people gathering near it. This makes me feel uncomfortable and conflicted. I tap the square, then I untap it, then I think about the other people who will probably tap it, and that even if I decide to pretend this building isn’t there, someone else (probably without the same ethical dilemma), will most likely do as they have been asked and highlight the building. I decide to leave it untapped, feeling like I’m being a bit rebellious and hoping that my small dissent will be positive in some way.

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This app is too much like a game, it distances the user from the reality of what they are doing and as such could be seen to trivialise the serious. A screen proclaims I am at level three, that I need 100 more swipes to get to the next level. I can feel the compulsion to continue with the task for the repetitive nature of it and for the little satisfactory boosters it gives me, even though I am locked in a moral quandary. I need to take a step back and ask why. Why would the developers choose to do this? In trying to make the app more attractive and compelling, the life and death of real people has become a frivolity on a screen; a game to be played.

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Participants who are engaging in this project without critical thought are actively yet subconsciously endorsing specific narratives and belief systems and assimilating them into their worldview through their participation. The use of emotive words like “vulnerable” and “stricken”, reinforce a sense of division between ‘haves’ (those using the app) and ‘have-nots’ (those in need of help from those using the app). I don’t think this is positive, it supports an “us” and “them” mentality through the victimisation and dehumanisation of those in need, and the elevation and empowerment of the benevolent app-user. This division and dehumanisation then makes it far easier to endorse (consciously or not) actions which take away the power of those who are passive “victims” by perceived benevolent forces (now subconsciously associated with app-users) who do things for the “greater good”.

I did not find HOTOSM straightforward to use, it didn’t work for me to start with even after spending a considerable amount of time on tutorials and watching videos and walkthroughs. I had to mess around with different editors and layers and even after that had to abandon the first project because I simply couldn’t see what I was supposed to be looking at. There didn’t seem to be a facility for highlighting this issue.

The maps often aren’t clear due to cloud cover or just poor quality imagery which, for me, created frustration and apathy about participating. I spent some time mapping roads and buildings on a few different projects. The roads were quite fiddly to plot, and I often felt unsure if I was doing it correctly. I didn’t find the user experience particularly interesting or rewarding and felt preoccupied by my moral reservations. It felt as if I was endorsing something which could be used for sinister and unethical ends, and that even in the knowledge that the tool itself is neutral, there is still a need to question the gathering of the data, and what it could potentially be used for.

I have similar feelings about the moral dubiousness of HOTOSM as I do about MapSwipe. HOTOSM does seem more official, more professional, you invest time in the learning process so naturally want to use that investment and contribute to the project. It makes sense to me that this kind of mapping would aid in hurricane relief, or in a refugee camp, to help people on the ground to get aid to specific areas quickly, but many of the projects have huge red flags for me.

Mapping with a view to aiding in mass vaccination programmes in Nigeria raises a personal ethical concern. It brings to mind the Quipu project, where “272,000 women and 21,000 men were sterilised in the 90’s in Peru. Thousands have claimed this happened without their consent, but until now they have been repeatedly silenced and denied justice” (“The Quipu Project,” n.d.). These people were sterilised by injection, they were misinformed about what was happening, were dehumanised and had their autonomy taken away. In an article written about Mapswipe, the telling words, “data collected, which will show where settlements and roads exist, can also be used in its raw form for planning mass vaccination campaigns in rural areas (MacSwan, 2016). This quote was referring to a campaign with no stated plan to provide data for that purpose. This brings to mind the bizarre and dubious “philanthropy” of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, currently being sued by the Indian government for unethical practice involving human experimentation via mass vaccination (Khan, 2016). This exemplifies my concern; that tools like this can serve the idea of technology, prosperity and progress over people by placing perceived scientific advancement above human choice, awareness and autonomy. This constitutes a dehumanisation of the poor, presenting the notion of something being “for their own good” and the subsequent tacit acceptance of the removal of choice, “The lives of the poor have no value, especially if they are from the third world countries. The dark decisions of human testing are carried on without much fuss, and authorities prefer to look the other way when there are billions of dollars involved” (Khan, 2016).

Bing and Google searches yielded no critical analysis of either tool, even in the depths of the third page of results. If people are thinking critically about these projects they certainly aren’t talking about it online. This makes me question my own ideas, am I just being paranoid and engaging in hyper-criticism, or is it the case that people want so much to feel like they are doing good that they are prepared to buy into an idea without thinking critically about it? Is the type of person likely to engage with this kind of tool someone who genuinely believes that governments and NGO’s mean what they say and have unquestionable ethical motivations? Or is it just another facile time-wasting electronic distraction?

As far as I am concerned each and every person has a responsibility to think critically about what they are doing and why, to seek out their own truths and to peer beneath the facade of the mainstream narrative. Being open to discovering uncomfortable truths and engaging in constant critical thinking could help humanity to be saved from its own passivity. The epidemic apathy of the age of information is blocking the prevention of man-made disaster and atrocity before or during the event, even though humans are more informed and aware than ever before.

To take a step back from the reflection and consider my own bias, I can see that I am incredibly negative about these projects. Is this because I function so much within my own personal bubble? My social environment and cultural bias has led to these viewpoints and therefore my echo chamber acts as it should, making me consider the darkest aspects of humanity, my distrust for these organisations and analysis of their true aims. Perhaps I am too suspicious, too quick to assume the worst, too critical? Perhaps that is why I can’t envisage utilising this kind of tool in terms of my own research. I could possibly use this kind of technology to identify community areas or to create hubs for the sharing of resources, but in all honesty I would not. I don’t feel comfortable with it, I feel it is intrusive and I question its neutrality.

In conclusion, it is true that asking difficult questions does not always yield comfortable answers, and as such I think people have become so afraid of the harshness of truth that they hide inside the safety of the mainstream narrative, “this looks like a good cause, it’s associated with this (insert “good” organisation) and an ethical ideal, I believe in it”. Humanity is dangerously apathetic about the realities of the modern world, and so many are ready to attack those who question, because to question is to shake the foundations of moral safety on which our society is grounded, to question is to challenge the echo-chamber bubble of modern life, to question makes people very, very uncomfortable, and that discomfort makes them angry. Cognitive dissonance is rife, and people will fight to protect the warmth and safety of their mainstream “keep calm and carry on” (“Keep Calm and Carry On – Wikipedia,” n.d.) spoon-fed, passive, propagandised life-bubble. Thankfully, it is possible for these bubbles to be burst open through open-minded learning and engaging in constant critical thinking.

Bibliography

Keep Calm and Carry On – Wikipedia [WWW Document], n.d. URL https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keep_Calm_and_Carry_On (accessed 2.22.17).

Khan, A., 2016. Dark side of Bill Gates’ philanthropy: 30,000 Indian girls were used as guinea pigs to test cervical cancer vaccine. The Voice Of Nation.

MacSwan, A., 2016. App that helps aid workers: “I watched TV while mapping 100km of Nigeria” [WWW Document]. the Guardian. URL http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/aug/05/app-that-helps-aid-workers-i-watched-tv-while-mapping-100km-of-nigeria (accessed 2.22.17).

The Quipu Project [WWW Document], n.d. . Quipu Project. URL http://interactive.quipu-project.com (accessed 2.22.17).

 

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