Behind the map: crises and crisis collectives in high-tech actions

[Guest post by Fiona Gedeon Achi. About: Fiona Gedeon Achi will be starting a PhD in Anthropology this Fall at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. She hopes to focus on issues related to global health and human rights. Before undertaking her doctoral studies, Fiona completed a M.A thesis in Anthropology at the University of Chicago for which she conducted research on crisis mapping and Ushahidi more specifically.]

This thesis, entitled Behind the map: crises and crisis collectives in high-tech actions, has been completed in the framework of a Master in Anthropology. My interest for Ushahidi initially arouse during my last undergraduate years. As I started to get involved in some deployments that used the Ushahidi platform—through the Standby Task Force (SBTF)—I realized how fascinating the field of crisis mapping was for a student of anthropology focusing on novel forms of humanitarianism. The self-initiated, non-centralized and collective model of Ushahidi immediately triggered my curiosity.
Broadly, my questions went into two different, yet related, directions. The first interrogated the kind of publics formed around crisis mapping projects. It asked for example: What types of connections arise among this new assemblage of actors and technological devices? Which new kinds of activism are created through this technology of crisis mapping? How do Ushahidi publics situate the crisis mapping enterprise in relation to governments and other humanitarian institutions? Second, I sought to investigate how the publics of crisis mappers, in turn, reconfigures the kinds of knowledge(s) relied upon during humanitarian interventions. For example, how does this mapping medium impact the representation of reality, particularly dimensions of space and time?
As I started this research during my Master’s studies in Chicago, I had the chance to focus my fieldwork on the 2011 DRC map — the Ushahidi map launched to monitor the 2011 presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo. As I entered into conversations with several of its participants, I soon realized that the strength and appeal, for its participants, did not reside only in the concrete transformations or results it brought forth (such as more efficient humanitarian action and better data gathered). Rather, Ushahidi’s participants seemed to value Ushahidi for all the ways of acting in and on crisis it offered and that had yet to be experimented beyond practical consequences. Surely, humanitarian aims are a central concern of the 2011 DRC team. Yet from my modest research, it appears as if Ushahidi’s potential was rather that of creating a space where people can come together, from the remoteness of their homes and without having ever met, to actually become active participants in crises that happened thousands of miles away from their homes. In fact, through Ushahidi maps, a new relationality emerges centered on the sharing of a concern for crisis.
I am aware that, although I have worked on Ushahidi for some years now, my observations are drawn from a limited sample of observations (the 2011 DRC map as well as my involvement with the SBTF). I look forward to hear and read what other researchers will find concerning other Ushahidi deployments. I am also eager to follow how crisis mapping unfolds and what it becomes in the future! Many thanks to all those, from Ushahidi, the SBTF, and outside, who helped me during this research process—I don’t name them in the fear that I might unintentionally forget a name but I am sure they will recognize themselves.
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[Ed. note: Congratulations, Fiona! To see Fiona's full research and others, hop over to our community research site].