Crowdsourced Humanitarianism

Many hands make light work, so the saying goes, and crowdsourcing is the digital era’s manifestation of this adage.

Humanitarian Openstreetmap and Mapswipe are two related platforms that enable online volunteering and ‘crowdsource’ mapping for humanitarian projects.

Mapswipe, an app for mobile devices, is the easier to use of the two platforms and provides entry level engagement. It supports the work of the Humanitarian Openstreetmap Team (HOT), whose online ‘Tasking Manager’ requires a little more technical engagement and the use of a computer.

Since cooperation and participation are inherent features, essential to the functionality of our global digital information and communication technologies’ architecture, it is useful to review what defines crowdsourcing.

Dunn and Hedges examine this and identify four factors that characterise crowdsourcing as a methodology for the Humanities, that make it distinct from crowd sourcing as a business model or a collective decision-making process. (Dunn and Hedges, 2013). Based on my experience of the process involved in participating with these platforms, I suggest that these characteristics can be usefully applied to the context of crowdsourcing for humanitarian efforts, namely;

  1. The existence of a clearly-defined humanities direction and/or research question.
  2. The potential for a group with open membership to transform or add value to the primary material or the interpretation of this material.
  3. There needs to be a definable task, or some meaningful and replicable way of breaking the workflow down into sets of definable tasks.
  4. The activity should be scalable, both to different volumes of data and different levels of participation.

(Dunn and Hedges, 2013)

These characteristics can be clearly identified for both Mapswipe and Humanitarian Openstreetmap. Both tools have clearly defined projects, campaigns or missions that the user can choose to engage with.

By signing up to use the platforms, you become a member and can start mapping. In the case of Mapswipe, this involves simply identifying which map grids contain features such as buildings. The more technical participation in Humanitarian Openstreetmap involves identifying and marking up features such as buildings or roads, using the Openstreetmap drawing and editing tools. Both add value to satellite imagery, to the workflow of creating digital maps for previously ‘unmapped’ territory.

Presenting members with map grids to work within, large scale and complex mapping is broken down into sets of discrete tasks for the volunteer. As a member your progress is tracked and recognised. The two platforms complement each other, allowing for different levels of engagement, whilst Humanitarian Openstreetmap further allows volunteers to participate at a beginner, intermediate or advanced mapping level.

I borrow from Dunn and Hedges’ characteristics to consider  the implications of crowdsourcing humanitarian efforts.

Oxford dictionary definition of humanitarian

 (“humanitarian | Definition of humanitarian in English by Oxford Dictionaries,” accessed 18/02/2018)

A clearly defined direction and/or objective…

Many of the organisations involved in these platforms are globally recognised humanitarian organisations, such as the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières, public agencies or third level institutions.  This lends a significant degree of trust and credibility to the platforms’ and project specific objectives. There are also clear, although not extensively detailed, descriptions of the purpose of each mapping project. Although the project options on Mapswipe are limited, the Humanitarian Openstreetmap has hundreds to choose from. This allows volunteers to self-select what initiative they would like to support. This is importance since users may have different political or ethical stances on the projects. The Mapswipe mission to eliminate malaria in Angola through Indoor Residual Spray campaigns, for example, could conflict with a user’s environmental concerns about the use of insecticides.

Another aspect of the clearly defined objective of these platforms is the core task of mapping. In another post I have noted some of the critiques of the use of GIS and Openstreetmap within the digital humanities. These highlight the colonial cartesian world view they represent.

With this in mind, I can’t help but note the use of the word ‘missions’ in the Mapswipe app. Historically, ‘missions’ were ideologically driven endeavours that perpetuated certain ontological leanings. Their humanitarian efforts were deeply entrenched in colonial projects and the spread of a religious and moral order.

Our ‘third sector’ are involved in civic organisation and addressing welfare gaps and needs not met by public and private sectors (Salamon, 1994). It is a social order that emerges from the enlightenment, the rise of individualism, liberalism and concepts of civic and human rights. These platforms use new digital technologies to advance humanitarian objectives within this context.

To my mind, the digital age presents us with an opportunity for a more radical re-imagining of how we promote human welfare. Digital technologies already are and will continue to significantly transform capitalism, democracy, civic engagement and other mechanisms of social cooperation.  Lessig for example talks about ‘How the Net destroyed democracy’ (TEDx Talks, 2017) and Lanier warns us of the implications of a free information society that increasingly absorbs the free labour of its users without devising a sustainable alternative economic model. For Lanier, in all instances, it is always human input that creates the real value of digital technologies. (The Agenda with Steve Paikin, 2013)

The potential for a group to add value to the primary material…

The rate and extent to which we can now computationally process vast and extensive volumes of data on our collective human activity is unprecedented.  As has already been discussed in another post, who is sharing what data (implicitly or explicitly), who has access, or how that data is organised and used, is a core concern for digital humanists.

Along with the third sector organisations involved in these platforms, there are also powerful public policy and private sector technology companies.  Such close relationships with private sector and political interests means there is a real risk that the information being ‘mapped’ could be employed for less humanitarian purposes.

screen shot of humanitarian open street map project detail

The imagery for this Humanitarian Openstreetmap project, #4141, is copyright of DigitalGlobe – a major commercial vendor of space imagery and geospatial content. Their customers include the United States Department of Defense’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), Google Earth and Google Maps. In 2014 their assets were valued at US $3,095.2 million. (“DigitalGlobe,” 2018)

It is worth taking a closer look at the licence agreement.screenshot of licence agreement

It explicitly permits the sharing of the data by the US Government (USG) for any purpose considered to be “directly beneficial” to them. There is nothing to suggest that this could not be used for military purposes or in a conflict situation. On the other hand, you, the volunteer, can only use the imagery for humanitarian purposes.

Volunteers are certainly adding value to the original material (satellite imagery) and yes, both humanitarian organisations and project recipients are benefiting from these voluntary contributions. However, most of the created value rests in the extensive data banks left in the hands of private sector tech companies and state agencies. Is this type of crowdsourced humanitarianism providing aid or further concentrating wealth and power?

A definable task, or some meaningful and replicable way of breaking the workflow down into sets of definable tasks…

However, it need not be a deliberate misuse of the data to some sinister purpose that poses the only risk.  As we apply digital technologies and algorithms to diverse areas of human practice we transform the practice itself. Algorithms collect and process data on human activity in real-time and their outputs inform and shape our behaviour and future engagement. They make suggestions (for example, what to read next on your Kindle, what groceries you want to buy this week) and determinations (for example, what information shows up in your social media news feeds or what your insurance policy will cost you).

Written into the math of algorithms and digital platforms are a number of editorial and design decisions. In crowdsourcing, these editorial and design decisions aim to create a user experience that secures participation in discrete tasks and workflow.

The platforms provide useful tutorials and guides, making it easy for new users to get started. The tutorials are clear, simple and short, ensuring volunteers don’t lose interest and are best able to contribute value. The level of ‘engagement’ is minimal, reduced to simple repeatable tasks. There are also processes to ensure each tile on the map is reviewed by multiple people. In Humanitarian Openstreetmap volunteers also verify mapped tiles. Even then the editorial input remains restricted to the clearly defined task and objective of identifying buildings, roads and other mappable features.

The ‘gamification’, of the Mapswipe app in particular, becomes a key design feature to maintain user engagement.

In the vein of Schelle’s vision, ‘When Games Invade Real Life’ (Schell, 2010), game design becomes a critical feature in how we are imagining ‘engagement’. What will this mean for civic engagement and cooperation?

When we consider China’s proposals for a social credit system (“Inside China’s plan to give every citizen a character score,” 2015) or Ast’s Crowdjury proposals as, “a starting point for discussion on how to leverage the new technologies of collaboration for the construction of a new justice system addressing the problems of our age” (Ast, 2015), we see that these are not design questions for the future, but questions for today.

Scalable, both to different volumes of data and different levels of participation…

The scale of the shift from print to digital has been described as quantum (McGann, 2004).

Mapswipe and Humanitarian Openstreetmap are positive initiatives that provide practical ways for people to contribute to humanitarian efforts, but for me, they don’t make the quantum leap needed to address the real scale of challenges that humanitarianism in a digital era will require.

We are designing and terraforming our world based on maths and algorithms, “we’re writing these things we can no longer read” (Slavin, 2011). Compiling the data to feed the algorithms is in many ways the easy half of the process. As O’Neill discusses, the tricky part is our definition of success. She suggests that data scientists “should be translators of ethical discussions that happen in larger society.”(O’Neil, 2017)

Going forward…

I’ll close by sharing summarising what I have taken from engaging with and examining these tools – the learning I take away and would hope to apply if considering crowdsourcing in my own work:

  1. Challenge myself to think deeply, from the outset, about what will be the measure of success and ask, have I got the right objective?
  2. To seek to ensure there is equitable shared value arising from the activity, considering the ownership, copyright and licence arrangements of the original and derivative content and data.
  3. To employ creative and informed design thinking and practice in the development of the ‘workflow’, process and experience of engagement.
  4. To inspire and promote experimental and innovative thinking that seeks to take a ‘quantum leap’ in re-imagining what human, humanities and humanitarianism might mean in the digital age.



Ast, F., 2015. The Crowdjury, a Crowdsourced Judicial System for the Collaboration Era [WWW Document]. Medium. URL (accessed 2.5.18).

DigitalGlobe, 2018. . Wikipedia.

Dunn, S., Hedges, M., 2013. Crowd-Sourcing Scoping Study – Engaging the Crowd with Humanities Research.

humanitarian | Definition of humanitarian in English by Oxford Dictionaries [WWW Document], n.d. URL (accessed 2.18.18).

Inside China’s plan to give every citizen a character score [WWW Document], 2015. URL (accessed 2.18.18).

McGann, J., 2004. A Note on the Current State of Humanities Scholarship on JSTOR. Crit. Inq., Winter 2004 30, 409–413.

News, C.H.B., Beijing, n.d. China sets up huge “social credit” system [WWW Document]. BBC News. URL (accessed 2.5.18).

O’Neil, C., 2017. The era of blind faith in big data must end.

Salamon, L.M., 1994. The Rise of the Nonprofit Sector. Foreign Aff. Publ. Counc. Foreign Relat. 73, 109–122.

Schell, J., 2010. When games invade real life, DICE Summit.

Slavin, K., 2011. How algorithms shape our world.

TEDx Talks, 2017. How the Net destroyed democracy | Lawrence Lessig | TEDxBerlinSalon.

The Agenda with Steve Paikin, 2013. Jaron Lanier: Who Owns the Future?