Mapping for Change

Image: Tomnod.

Image: Tomnod.

Tomnod is a team of volunteers (like you!) who work together to identify important objects and interesting places in satellite images. Use Tomnod to explore the Earth, solve real-world problems, and view amazing images of our changing planet. With the help of millions of volunteer contributions, we fulfill our purpose of seeing a better world“. tomnod.com

The real-world problem that this quote from the Tomnod website mentions are important social and disaster response issues such as mapping damage from Hurricane Patricia in Mexico, tracking illegal fires in Indonesia, and discovering instances of child slavery in illegal fishing operations in Ghana. Users with a good internet connection can freely sign up for the website and start analysing satellite imagery in search of evidence related to whichever campaign they are partaking in, which they can ‘tag’ and compare to other people’s findings, somewhat like a game, only with potential real-world implications.

Although a great method for mobilisation and pooling massive amounts of resources and man (people?) hours, there are a couple of downsides to this scheme. First of all, it could be considered a form of ‘slacktivism‘ in which people engage in political issues in almost a superficial way and with little actual engagement with an issue, in a similar way to signing petitions online (although arguably with a little more potential impact).

Second, considering that the only language the website appears to be offered in is English, and the large amounts of bandwidth required to operate the sight properly, it’s rather apparent that many people are excluded from participating in this type of activism. Further, most English speakers, or at least first-language English speakers, live in developed countries. And considering that most of Tomnod’s campaigns are focussed on issues in developing countries, there is the risk of developing (as Lewis et al describe in their 2013 book Popular Representations of Development, page 86) the construction that
superior, benevolent donors in the North (or developed countries) are the primary source of ‘solutions’ for problems in the South (developing countries), and that those in the South are simply helpless victims. We can see this in Tomnod’s self introduction, in which it states that we can “solve real-world problems,” and that “we fulfill our purpose of seeing a better world”.

Not only does the website bill itself as a magic bullet, but all previously mentioned points considered, it could in fact help further the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

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One Response to Mapping for Change

  1. Krystle Van Hoof says:

    I’m not sure I totally agree with the idea that this platform is problematic simply by virtue of the fact that it requires high bandwidth and the ability to read and understand English. This seems to imply that people with certain privilege shouldn’t employ that privilege in productive ways to help those less fortunate. That said, there may certainly be space for the creation of some kind of supporting project, which is lower-tech and allows for self-reporting of the kinds of issues Tomnod aims to uncover. But I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.

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