This is a profile of Digital Democracy, a member of Mozilla’s Data Futures Lab 2022. In conversation with Rudo Kemper, Program Lead at Digital Democracy
Land: It roots a community’s identity and culture, and geographically it provides access to resources critical for survival. In the depths of the Eastern Ecuadorian Amazon where the Indigenous Waorani nation lives, land rights are a hotly contested issue. In a classic David and Goliath setting, over twenty Waorani communities defended their territory in the Pastaza region, against the imposition of devastating oil exploration proposed by the government. Only this time, the slingshot was an app.
The open-access Mapeo app by Digital Democracy is a monitoring and mapping tool designed with and for marginalized communities. The app collects territorial data and evidence of human rights or environmental violations, supporting the defense of their land rights. Digital Democracy tools have also been used by the ECA Amarakaeri in Peru, the Open Development Initiative in Southeast Asia, and the Ogiek in Kenya. The Waorani used Mapeo for over four years to record territorial data ...and maps, which they used as evidence against the Ecuadorian government in opposition to the oil developments. They won!
Digital Democracy started its work in 2008 at the epicenter of global economic and political uprisings, heightened by internet access and social media use. “Across the world at that time, more and more people were trying to use technology for social justice causes. Digital Democracy was initially founded to help communities use those existing tools, but the team quickly started to see persistent technological gaps that weren't being met by corporate technologies. For example, off-the-shelf mapping tools have a high learning curve and could take years to train, and are really not designed for remote communities like the Waorani. That led to the creation of Mapeo.” says Kemper.
Despite the organization’s name suggesting a political ideology and inspiration, Kemper affirms that “Democracy” is synonymous with its inclusive approach to making digital tools accessible to the marginalized. “Instead of it being about democracy in a political sense, it's more so about democratizing digital rights and access to technology,” he explains.
While our values are rooted in social and environmental justice, we ourselves are not in the frontline of advocacy work and instead play a small but pivotal role in supporting communities to use digital tools to better achieve their advocacy goals
Rudo Kemper - Program Lead, Digital Democracy
Community members can download the app and use it offline while tracking remote terrains. The interface is available in local languages, and also has an in-built translation feature. It records location points and captures dated photographs of landmarks or events. This data can be presented as tangible evidence, with every change recorded on a data ledger. The data is decentralized, allowing peer-to-peer synchronization and sharing.
Data ownership and accessibility is a core issue in the data economy debate, a matter Digital Democracy incorporates in its tool design. “A lot of the tools that are available for capturing or presenting such data are dependent on centralized databases and on internet access,” remarks Kemper. “The most central problem that we're trying to solve is ensuring that communities have complete control and sovereignty over their data, and making decisions around who has access to that data.”
Digital Democracy also prepares and publishes The Earth Defenders Toolkit. The platform provides hands-on guides, community case studies, and practical information about other tools. For example, Terrastories, an app that allows communities to document place-based oral histories. And Community Lands, an offline-compatible website management tool.
While their work is deeply rooted in advocacy, Kemper is hesitant to carry the title directly. “While our values are rooted in social and environmental justice, we ourselves are not in the frontline of advocacy work and instead play a small but pivotal role in supporting communities to use digital tools to better achieve their advocacy goals,” he explains. Kemper is also careful about oversimplifying the complexities of reclaiming land rights, as a click away from ownership. Rather, he consistently approaches their product as a tool that has to function amidst other interventions to produce desired outcomes.
In doing so, his team is eager to find solutions to some of their pressing challenges such as: How can Mapeo be used by remote and marginalized communities despite divergent contexts and needs? What are the common obstacles of these communities in using technologies, and how might they overcome them?
Although these questions keep Kemper’s team awake, he is excited that their work with Mozilla will introduce their organization to a vibrant network of builders and new methodologies of imagining data management and ownership, enabling mutual learning and sharing by technologists across the globe.