Ana submits her thesis


Community Development Crowdmapped and Texted

Ana Brandusescu

Abstract: In this thesis I investigate the use of mobile technology and an online crisis mapping platform for community development practices. Mobile technology has been widely used to facilitate communication and build social structures for communities. Online mapping platforms allow non-experts to create, organize, and visualize a dialogue about events like earthquakes, fires, or floods. Crisis mapping has been used in the information and communications technology for development (ICT4D) movement as a method of connecting and empowering citizens during emergency events. Ushahidi is the best-known example of a mapping platform used for crises, which integrates mobile technologies by allowing for texting/SMS (a.k.a. Short Message Service) to collect citizen reports. I used Crowdmap, Ushahidi’s cloud-based mapping platform to investigate whether citizens would text/SMS and send online messages such as email, web-based, tweets and smartphone application submissions for community development; to determine what is being said about local places. What places are considered community assets and/or improvements? Moreover, I question the utility of crisis-driven platforms for persistent conditions within a community and discover the acute (crisis) and chronic (persistent, long-term) issues in communities. I critically examine developer issues, participant (i.e., community organization) use, amidst the context of local communities.

I repurpose the crisis mapping platform to develop five applications for community development initiatives in four communities (case studies) in Canada: McGill University (one application) and Lachine (two applications) in Montreal; Acadia Park (one application) and Grandview-Woodland (one application) in Vancouver.

The methodology consists of five steps. First, I created the five applications on Crowdmap. Second, I acquired and unlocked a GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) USB modem to receive text messages sent by participants. Third, I installed FrontlineSMS to collect SMSs from the modem and forward them to Crowdmap. Fourth, I met with the communities and used storyboards to communicate and propose the applications to non-technical, multilingual audiences. In Crowdmap, SMSs must be manually geo-located, and so I explained the need to sufficiently describe location in the content of contributed SMSs. I attended local meetings and developed each application after consultations with the communities. There were numerous iterations of application development following discussions with community members. I co-designed and distributed multilingual posters, flyers, and user manuals with community organizers in an effort to increase participation. Fifth, I administered the applications by geo-locating, uploading and parsing incoming messages, and managing technical difficulties. I collected data by receiving, approving and crowdmapping messages. I analyzed data by using Crowdmap’s ‘Statistics Report’ function and MS Excel to determine patterns in spatial distribution, categories and content.

There are four trends in the findings: (1) the technical challenges of the platform, (2) the use of information communication technologies (ICTs) by community organizations, (3) the use of ICTs by participants, and (4) the issues of temporality and small data. The four findings together contributed to an inconsistent adoption and use of the applications, producing an uneven spread of the 254 total messages among the five communities. In the two applications, adoption and use was low: only 56 messages were submitted to these applications. Additionally, one of the five applications was never launched. In these cases where adoption and use were low or not at all, technologies and/or non-technologies were already existing and effective in communities; this made the adoption and diffusion of new ICTs less attractive to community based organizations and activists. In the two high-adoption applications, communities embraced new technologies, and the mapping component was well received. This included 137 and 61 messages respectively for these two applications.

I conclude by discussing broader implications and prospects of mobile and web-enabled mapping for community development. Considering how different ICT practices are in comparison to traditional community development, further studies should include developing more participatory technologies according to existing community development frameworks. There is a need to adapt behavior on the developer end, in order for successful ICT adoption. ICTs and open source software combine to create innovative possibilities for community development practices and self-organization. However, there is much work ahead in order for ICT mapping platforms to ensure community participation and long-term use before we can spark meaningful and lasting neighbourhood dialogues about local places.