The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Jean-Christophe Plantin, Alison Powell: Open maps, closed knowledge: what the platformisation of maps means for citizenship and society

Jean-Christophe Plantin, London School of Economics and Political Science

Alison Powell, London School of Economics and Political Science

Power and knowledge are expressed through maps, and today’s participatory cartography shows a new tension between collaborative knowledge production, platform enclosure, and citizenship. Maps have been described as closed information systems that both reflect and enforce the power of the state (Harley, 1989, Crampton, 2010). They constitute strategic information administered by knowledge infrastructures (Edwards, 2010, Edwards et al., 2013) such as the Ordnance Survey in the UK or the IGN in France. Maps act as strategic tools through which a state ‘creates a kind of national transparency through the uniformity of codes, identities, statistics, regulations, and measures’(Scott, 1998 p. 78). What happens to this entanglement of knowledge and power when maps become platforms?

In recent years, the web has provided the social, economic, and technical context for ‘opening up’maps, exemplified with the rise of web-based maps such as Openstreetmap (released in 2004) or Google Maps (2005). In this configuration, maps are not enclosed within the logic of infrastructures and states, but rather adopts the logic of social media platforms (van Dijck, Poell, 2013) to present maps as ‘open systems’: they are programmable, by relying on application programming interfaces (APIs) to provide base maps to external parties (Haklay et al., 2008); they are participatory (Plantin, 2014) by allowing users to contribute, for example by suggesting changes to the base map; they take part in peer-to-peer collaboration for knowledge production (Benkler, 2006).

In a world where new intermediaries become of greater significance than states and dedicated infrastructures for producing and organizing knowledge, we need a more a nuanced understanding of their role. Starting with the fact that existing knowledge is increasingly organized through platforms, we show in this article that new citizenships emerge in relation to platform-based ways of sharing, producing and organizing knowledge. However, this comes with a tension: on one hand, platforms promote an exercise of citizenship that revolves around notions of openness and participation. On the other hand, this open and participatory conception of citizenship run the risk of appropriation and enclosure through the same platforms that promote them, hence limiting autonomy and democracy. What does this tension mean for knowledge production and the public interest? How should we address it?

To respond to these questions, we rely on and contribute to two existing theoretical frameworks: first, the recent focus in media scholarship in a critical investigation of the ways platforms rely on user’s participation and data (Pasquale, 2015; Langlois et al., 2015) and the related problems this poses for positioning participation in relation to public interest (Powell, 2015); second, the investigation of the complex relations that digital media platforms have in relation to existing infrastructures (Sandvig, 2013; Gillespie et al., 2014; Parks, Starosielski, 2015; Plantin et al., forthcoming;).

Based on this literature and using examples of mapping platforms such as Google Maps, OpenStreetMap, Citymapper, or Waze, we provide a critical account of the openness of mapping platforms, by showing that: 1. they are never purely web objects, but leverage the properties of both infrastructures and platforms to constitute decentralized modes of geographic knowledge production 2. mapping platforms simultaneously rely on openness and participation, but also re-centralize knowledge production around their core activity through processes of enclosure 3. the rise of these new intermediaries interrogates the relation between knowledge and citizenship in society in an open dialectic, and require novel assessments of their significance for the public interest.

1. Platforms combine with existing infrastructures: Despite the rhetoric of ‘disruption’of existing institutions and their replacement by user-centric services, infrastructure- and platform-based modes of knowledge production are combined in maps: mapping platforms rely heavily on open geographic data from national institutes, but combine them with peer-to-peer production and participation to create and update base maps.

2. Platforms recentralize knowledge production while remaining open: Adding and accessing geographic knowledge is rendered easier for platform users, whose affordances allow more freedom in interpretation and use of this information. In contrast to ‘state simplifications’in the infrastructural model, that distill and constrain the types of information produced and gathered, exerting control over diverse forms of open information itself requires open and responsive intelligence.

3. Platforms alter knowledge and citizenship: Open maps and platforms remain accessible, and potentially intelligible, to a range of actors beyond the platform owner. This means that they they can be used in the public interest (for example, Google involvement in environmental crisis mapping). However, the dynamic of enclosure that is part of platform developments means that we should carefully assess the public interest implications of platform-based knowledge production. We explore this tension by contrasting the models of citizenships that emerge when either infrastructures or platforms are the central entity to organize knowledge in society.

Jean-Christophe Plantin, Alison Powell