Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Power of Online Social Mapping

I attended a talk yesterday that presented an inspirational model for the power of online mapping, social media, and mobile communications (much of the stuff I'm researching!).

Rebecca Chiao co-founder of HarassMap, an online sexual harassment service started in Egypt in 2010, spoke at University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs. I was struck how Rebecca provided a case for how average people can use existing, free online services to improve people's quality of life and provoke social change.

Rebecca provided the background for the origins and need for HarassMap. Over the past ten years approximately, sexual assaults and harassment of women have been growing in Egypt and social norms have become more tolerant of this.

The project is crowd-sourced and uses the open-source software Ushahidi. Here is how it works:
  1. If a person is harassed or witnesses one they can submit a report to HarassMap via their website, email, text message, or Twitter.
  2. A staff member reviews reports for veracity and specificity (i.e., a specific incident with a date and location details). People can include photos or names, although most do not.
  3. The names and identifying details of reporters and victims are removed and the report is published anonymously on the web.
  4. An online map pinpoints areas where reports have been received.
The next step is where I think the project is extraordinarily inspirational.

Using the reports collected and organized by neighbourhood, the staff of HarassMap mobilizes volunteers (men and women) to go to the worst areas and talk to the community. The map and reports provide proof of the problem. Rebecca noted that many people would previously dissmiss the problem as either not occurring in their neighbourhood or happening to only women who were not "properly" dressed. The reports and maps provide concrete evidence to community members that it is indeed happening.

For instance, the reports and another study Rebecca conducted show that most of the harassment happens to women who are veiled, despite common perceptions otherwise. Volunteers work to dispel the myths and work with people to not only change their attitudes but also provide advice on how to stop it. They are also working with vendors to launch a network of stores that are safe and will not tolerate harassment.

Since starting the project, 19 other countries have contacted the Egyptian office to start a similar service. Several countries have already launched their services and one for Canada is in the works.

I asked Rebecca about the possibility of a smartphone app using this data and whether people could use such data to learn and avoid the problem areas. Rebecca mentioned that smartphone adoption has been growing very rapidly recently in Egypt and that they are pursuing a smartphone app.

However, Rebecca cautioned that they don't want people to use their service to avoid areas (as their reports are not representative of all harassment that happens in an area ) but instead should be used to show people where safer zones and partner vendors are.

Originally funded entirely by volunteers, the project recently received funding from Canada’s International Development Research Centre.

IDRC also spoke about how projects like this can not only aid and empower people, but provide a useful research mechanism (as indicated in intro for the talk):
Such empowering technologies could overcome many of the barriers to data collection in certain countries: the reluctance of women to report or discuss such crimes; a lack of resources for data collection; and bureaucratic procedures for conducting large-scale and/or sensitive research.
Although I hadn't considered such social media and participatory mapping projects as a means of social research,  Rebecca mentioned how they have uncovered information that would not otherwise be possible considering Egypt's political climate and sensitivity of the topic. She mentioned, for example, how they were surprised at the extent of incidents of harassment against boys and men that came in anonymously.

For more information on this innovative and inspirational work, check out the project's coverage in Vancouver's

No comments: