Home Articles The socio-ethical dimensions of spatial information technology

The socio-ethical dimensions of spatial information technology

Jefferson Fox, Peter Hershock
East West Center, Honolulu, USA

Krisnawati Suryanata, Albertus Hadi Pramono
Deparmtnet of Geography,
University of Hawaii at Manoa, USA

The growth in geospatial technologies has enabled communities to make maps of their lands and resource uses, and to bolster the legitimacy of their customary claims to resources.

Yet, the impacts of widespread adoption of SIT at the local level are not limited to intended objectives. Some scholars argue that mapping technologies simultaneously empower and disadvantage indigenous communities; others suggest that GIS technology privileges ‘particular conceptions and forms of knowledge, knowing, and language’ and engenders unequal access to information; still others view GIS as incompatible with indigenous knowledge systems and as separating the community that has knowledge from information. Tensions thus exist between new patterns of empowerment yielded through SIT and broader social, political, economic, and ethical ramifications of the technology.

This article and the research project on which it is based emerged out of common and yet distinct concerns among the authors that spatial information technologies-at least in certain contexts and at certain scales-alter the complexion and distribution of power with respect to land and resources, as well as the ways in which small-scale communities think about power and its relationship to natural systems and human interests. In order to test and refine our ideas about the socio-ethical implications of SIT and the possibility of its ironic effects, we conducted a year-long project involving representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), project staff members, and university researchers from Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States. This article summarizes the project’s outcomes.

Critically assessing the impacts of SIT requires us to clarify the relationship between tools and technologies. Tools are products of technological processes, used by individuals, which are evaluated on their task-specific utility. In contrast, technologies consist of widespread patterns of material and conceptual practices that embody and deploy particular strategic values and meanings.

The system of SIT include: collection of base data using GPS units; their storage in databases; the advertising and marketing of these tools; and a reframing of the politics of development. As a technology, SIT transforms discourses about land and resources, the meaning of geographic knowledge, the work practices of mapping and legal professionals, and, ultimately, the very meaning of space itself.

There are two major implications of the tool/technology distinction. First, while we can refuse to use a tool, there are no clear “exit rights” from the effects of heavily deployed technologies, even for individuals electing not to use the tools produced by those technologies. Indeed, critical histories of technology suggest that beyond certain levels of intensity and scales of deployment, technologies begin generating problems of the type that they are suited to solving, producing distinctive patterns of ironic effects that ramify well outside the technology sector. Second, critical evaluation of a technology must go beyond assessing how well relevant tools perform, to examining the changes that a technology brings about within and among societal systems, and how they affect the values structuring the dynamics of such systems.


Why map?
The motivations for community-based mapping include: better planning resource management; monitoring development projects; and resolving resource conflicts within their own communities. Maps often afford community members greater or more detailed knowledge about their resources, improving their ability to respond to resource use and conservation problems. In some cases, the opening of new political spaces (e.g., by Socio-ethical dimensions of s information tec Ethics decentralization policies in Indonesia or the recognition of indigenous rights in the Philippines), provide a context in which mapping becomes a critical tool for negotiation with other groups, including neighboring communities and the state.

Mapping can re-insert user communities’ existences onto “empty” state maps, strengthening their claims to lands & other resources. Case study writers noted that the complexity of the processes by which empowerment occurred and who was empowered. Mapping enhanced tenure security in Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines, yet it also benefited local governments by providing them with free information. In Sarawak, a community map was instrumental in the legal victory of an Iban village against a tree plantation corporation; but this rights-throughmapping legal power was quickly curbed as the 2001 Land Surveyors law was passed to regulate community mapping. Significantly, several cautioned difficulties arise in relation to who “owns” the maps and the information they contain. If local people do not have control of their maps, mapping may afford little if any advantage and may even leave communities worse off than before mapping occurred.

Even when communities do control the maps, mapping can reveal or exacerbate tensions among the multiple interests and actors found within communities, the processes by which decisions are made within communities, and the political and economic relationships between communities and other social actors.

The case study writer from Sarawak provided an example in which entrusted community leaders colluded with a corporation, using community maps to support the corporation’s plan to lease customary lands for an oil palm plantation. Other writers also noted that NGOs which initiate or sponsor community mapping projects often play key roles in influencing which actors benefit from the adoption of SIT through deciding, whether to revitalize traditional customary institutions (adat) and entrust them with control of the maps or to bypass traditional leaders and support a functional committee on forest conservation. The implications of these decisions can be far reaching in the restructuring of power relations & property institutions that govern resource access and utilization. Impacts on Communities’ Values For many indigenous groups in Asia, the use of SIT in participatory mapping is intended to “re-insert” their existence onto maps-to claim rights that had not been acknowledged by the state. When resource rights have not previously been recognized, mapping activities have greater impact on traditional ways of governing human/environment interactions and seeing the world, than they do in communities where legal rights exist.

For example, if villagers engage in mapping to increase the security of their land claims, they need to follow through with land titling. But the land titling process is controlled by outside authorities, and has significant implications for the villagers’ relations to the land, their neighbors, and their community. Mapping efforts initiated to recognize collective rights to land resources can lead to land privatization that is in practice exclusive rather than inclusive. Researches from Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand reported that customary boundaries were traditionally flexible, responded to changing needs within the community, and extended across administrative boundaries as well as the boundaries of neighboring communities. Participants observed that f spatial echnology boundaries are now less flexible & often cause disputes when overlap with those established by neighbors, noting as well that it is hard to tell to what degree alterations in the sense of place and boundary conceptions are a function of mapping activities & how much a function of changes in the political economic context through the expansion of roads, markets, decentralization policies, land tenure, and so on.

SIT and NGOs

Participants noted the crucial role played by non-government organizations (NGO) in community-based mapping, and how external factors were at least as important as internal ones in the decisions of NGOs to adopt SIT as an important component of their activities. Donors, and how NGOs perceive donors’ priorities, have a relatively large influence on many NGOs. Two case study writers described, for example, how consultants from international organizations proved to be instrumental in how NGOs in Indonesia selected mapping strategies.

Success in using maps as tools for negotiating land rights in Indonesia and Malaysia has led to increased demand for mapping by neighboring communities. Case study writers from both countries argued that this has created a shortage of technically trained people, and that it is difficult to acquire and keep trained staff.

There is also a gap in expectations and work culture between staff members trained in SIT sciences and those trained in social sciences that could lead to the separation of participatory mapping activities from the broader objective of NGOs.

Recognizing the potential socio-ethical impacts of SIT, the participants agreed that advocates of participatory mapping need a clear protocol to follow when introducing SIT into a village. This protocol should require outside actors to communicate clearly with each community prior to the mapping project. The NGO must clarify the purpose/ objectives of collecting information, agree with villagers on what information can be mapped, and explain potential consequences of recording the community’s spatial information on maps that can then be copied and distributed outside the community.

Most importantly, outside facilitators must communicate to villagers that they can agree to accept or reject the mapping exercise.

Finally, participants felt that unlike in North America, the use of SIT at the community level in Asia has largely been limited to producing one-time maps and neglecting the reality that working with spatial information is a process requiring revisions and changes. Thus far, too little attention has been given to building local capacity to revise and remap as circumstances change.

The results of our study do not encourage a general discrediting of the use of spatial information technology in community- based management. But they do establish a need to expose, understand, and critically assess the degree to which SIT is not value-neutral and how, because of this, it may disproportionately benefit certain users. Fuller understanding of the social and ethical implications of SIT are needed to insure that those who chose to employ it to meet social objectives can do so wisely and with awareness of unintended consequences that may accompany its use.

Reflections by practitioners in the project case studies identified several ironic effects of mapping that could undermine the goals of communitybased management.

First, it is important to understand as well that SIT comes in a variety of forms, and its conceptual and technical accessibility to participating communities could be uneven, with the adopting of technologically complex SIT ironically serving to marginalize many of the targeted communities.

Secondly, while mapping is useful for bounding and staking claims to ancestral or traditional territories, it also facilitates a shift toward exclusive property rights, providing outsiders a legal means to gain access to common property resources and potentially weakening existing common property management systems.

Finally, mapping generally promotes practices that shift attention and concern away from a fluid human/environment relationship to a relationship with quantifiable limits implied by boundaries. Newly acquired authority to define and exert control over the use of space may thus compromise the customary uses and governance systems it was intended to protect.

Unlike in North America, the use of SIT at the community level in Asia has largely been limited to producing one-time maps.