Digital Humanitarian Technology and Knowledge Politics

Technologies are usually developed to accomplish a handful of tasks, while mapping technologies are usually made to represent only a limited number of things. While they are being developed, and afterward when they evolve,developers make decisions to allow some things to be mapped — and, by consequence, others to be excluded. These decisions are usually made after some deliberation. These are knowledge politics: The struggle for how knowledge will come to be included or excluded in technologies. This line of thinking has a long tradition that shows how values, biases and norms come to be embedded in technologies.

In my article in the January issue of Geoforum, “Moments of Closure in the Knowledge Politics of Digital Humanitarianism,” I examine four moments when digital humanitarian technologies took one such development path over any others. I explore when there was a deliberation about how digital humanitarian technology should develop/evolve and look at the possible effects of those decisions.

These moments often occur in passing, without people considering the full impacts of such everyday decisions. After looking at these four moments, I argue that digital humanitarian technologies right now privilege a particular worldview that reflects the contexts in which the technologies evolve. This inclusion/exclusion is contested by those seeking more comprehensive inclusion of knowledge.

There are many practical implications for policymakers and the digital humanitarian community:

  • Since digital humanitarian technologies are often “marketed” by saying that they are open to all, the digital humanitarian community needs to seriously reflect on what kinds of knowledge — and, therefore, who — are excluded from their technologies.
  • Policymakers should not be distracted by questions of how “accurate” digital humanitarian data are, rather they should ask about the uses to which data — of any given level of “accuracy” — may be purposed. In other words, instead of asking, “How accurate is digital humanitarian data,” policymakers could ask, “Given how accurate or inaccurate this data is, how can we use it?”
  • Policymakers, crisis responders and the digital humanitarian community would do well to think about how the knowledge politics of these technologies impacts the ways the technologies are used in crises. Who is left out? Whose knowledge is prioritized? What impact does this have on operations?
  • Ongoing debates about privacy have incredible impacts on responders’, victims’ and digital humanitarians’ security. These debates need to continue, and recognize that knowledge politics are at the heart of how these debates unfold. Recognizing this may balance the scales, so to speak, toward those whose knowledge has in the past been marginalized.

About the author

Ryan Burns is a doctoral candidate in geography at University of Washington-Seattle and was formerly a research assistant with the Commons Lab of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is studying the social and political implications of geographic technologies, particularly the ways new mapping and social media technologies are being integrated into disaster management strategies.

You can find Ryan’s full length article in Geoforum titled, “Moments of Closure in the Knowledge Politics of Digital Humanitarianism,” Volume 53:

Ryan Burns co-authored a Wilson Center publication titled, “Tweeting up a Storm:
The Promise and Perils of Crisis Mapping” which you can read in full by following this link:


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