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Participatory Methods in Open Data

Published onFeb 02, 2020
Participatory Methods in Open Data


  • Intersectional feminist approaches to participatory mapping and data collection initiatives across Asia and the Global South aim to produce data that is relevant to women and other marginalised groups.

  • Participatory mapping can be used across a variety of sectors from parliamentary data, to land use, to natural resource management.

  • One must consider the privacy and safety concerns of marginalised groups when conducting and implementing projects with this methodology. Moreover, especially with issues deeply rooted in history, such as land rights, sovereignty and ownership over one’s data should be guaranteed.

  • This tool is especially important to consider within the Asian context due to the heterogeneity of populations and communities characterising the majority of Asian countries - this tool can be helpful in democratising open data efforts.


Transparency and citizen engagement are commonly cited as fundamental goals of the open data movement. Often, citizen engagement or public participation is seen as the result of open data rather than a necessity to build open data infrastructures. Applying a feminist lens to methodologies and tools that are responsible for designing open data projects and initatives means prioritising participatory processes at the outset - particularly the participation of women and minority communities. Ideally, including the knowledge and experiences of minority communities through participatory mapping (of land and services) will shift implementation and evaluation processes in a way that affords minority communities greater access to and autonomy within public services and spaces.

In regards to mapping, feminist writers have pointed out the masculinist and positivist history of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) for what Haraway labels the “god-trick”1 - constructing boundaries with a transcendent vantage point external to the space-time of the subject being mapped. This draws on a broader critique of the “visual appropriation” of the world through colonial exercises in mapping, which aim to understand, control, and entirely consume the subject of visualisation2.. Feminist geographers have to recognise the situatedness of all knowledge, while producing knowledge from the perspective of intersectionally marginalised social groups3.

More broadly, the term participatory carries a weight in feminist open data as it determines knowledge creation, practices of consent and privacy, and thus has the potential to transofrm lived realities4. According to Maguire, participatory research has three prongs: social investigation, education, and action5. Globally, efforts to measure and meet the targets of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 1 (poverty) and 5 (gender equality) adopt a similar approach to collecting, publishing, analysing, and opening up data6. While there is a specific focus on narrowing the gender and data divide, Women Deliver works with grassroots organisations in the Global South to provide any resources necessary for advocacy, collecting, and reporting data7. Although the SDGs may not be entirely comprehensive in their approach, this allows minority communities to have a greater impact on identifying gaps, changing policy, and prioritises lived experiences over high-tech quick-fix solutions.

In Asia, the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) collaborates with activtists and feminist organisations across the region to advance policies and legislations on women’s rights regionally, nationally, and internationally8. By interrogating various public and private sectors with a feminist participatory lens, they are able to investigate systems of power that would otherwise go largely unchecked. Coupled with open data, there are several initiatives that can enhance efforts such as these by engaging with users directly, using a stakeholder approach, and ensuring greater governance over individual and group data to expand the agency of minority groups. Examples of exemplary initiatives within Asia and across a variety of sectors are listed below.

Participatory Visualisation of Land and Resource Use

Counter-mapping can be a powerful tool to visualise and clearly communicate community needs to policymakers. Participative counter-mapping projects efficiently convey local knowledge to policymakers and support advocacy through knowledge production. Counter-maps allow for knowledge to be translated across communities with differential access to power and capital.9

An important strand of work on open data and gender has focused on produced such data which is locally relevant to women and other marginalised groups using participatory data collection techniques. Participatory counter-mapping, for example, has been used by groups across the Global South to produce data from the standpoint of local community members.10

Geochicas, based in Mexico, describe themselves as a collective of feminist mappers, who ensure greater representation of women and their concerns in maps and open mapping spaces.11

A project titled Voices For Mekong Forests in Phnom Penh launched by The Centre for People and Forests (RECOFTC) looks to incorporate further gender and social inclusivity in a forest governance project from 2017-202212. With one out four objectives focused on including gendered voices, the project hopes to propose a more nuanced and coordinated information exchange on best forest governance practices across the Mekong region.

In Vietnam, gender plays an integral role in studies on water management and sustainability. Statistically, women are more likely to make the most use of public water resources and supplies in the domestic sphere13. Moreover, in the public sector, 60% of agriculturalists are women and rely heavily on water reserves for their livelihood14. Thus, water projects in Vietnam are centering gendered experiences of water use to effectively address concerns communicated by the segment of the population that must shoulder water scarcity burdens more directly than others.

In 2014, Myanmar took a step towards setting precedent for visualising challenges faced by women, particularly in conflicts with rights to land. During pre-consultations to draft a National Land Use Policy, concerns regarding the barriers that women face compared to men in holding land titles was raised. Public consultations from women, smallholder farmers, and Indigenous communities shed light on the need to democratise land policy to include all communities directly reflected by newly drafted legal and policy implications15.

Mae Hong Son province, Thailand employed participatory land-use planning (PLUP) methodologies to demarcate and map land use with GIS technologies, verify this data through consultations with community members, and collaborate with all community stakeholders in devising sustainable land management strategies16. Scaling up local projects can be a challenge, as is reported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) - along with other projects in Asia and around the world with best practices when collaboration with diverse local communities17.

Although there are several initiatives pledging to champion participation by diverse individuals, along the lines of gender, class, age, and race, a recent quantitative analysis of volunteered geographic information (VGI) tagged by Open Street Map participants finds that men continue to dominate editing and tagging contributions18. Often, this may be due to the fact that women tag their work less often than men, therefore leaving their contributions unidentified. Rather than participation of women being an issue with skills or knowledge, Gardner et al. argue that underrepresentation is more closely linked with issues around perceptions of women’s relationship with technology and the vulnerability they may exposed to with this space19.

Therefore, open data projects must take into account that simply inviting women will not guarantee their participation - in historically rooted land use conflicts especially, it is necessary to ensure that any potential risks or vulnerabilities are mitigated in order to implement an intersectional feminist approach to participatory mapping. Humanitarian Open Street Maps attempts to address this through their toolkit report on facilitating participatory mapping methods with refugee populations20. The report offers practical tips for humanitarian organisations operating within geographies where as well as foregrounding refugee experiences in a safe and consensual manner. It is important to keep a variety of factors, such as refugee status, in mind - particularly where issues of land and resource use are concerned.

Collective Efforts to Ensure a Safer City

Based in India, Safetipin is an organisation committed to making public safes more inclusive and safe for women. Through crowdsourcing, auditing, and participatory mapping (which determines variables and factors that contribute to making a city safer), Safetipin hopes to expand to creating apps and technological tools that can help women navigate public spaces while being better informed and prepared21.

A similar tool is gaining traction in Egypt: Harassmap. Since 2010, Harassmap has been scraping data for their database from public sources such as radio and police reports. Recently, they began to invite women to post (anonymously, if they wish) incidents of sexual harassment. Further, these reports and datasets are visualised on open software map platform called Ushahidi. Anonymity played a key role in getting information that was not commonly reported in the field and protecting the mental, physical, and cyber safety and autonomy of women. Taking advantage of new legislation, this organisation worked to provide information that collates public and private knowledge and experiences to create a more robust dataset created for women by women22.

To address the challenge of privacy head on is crucial, especially when actively demanding communities to disclose information. This is especially important to consider as Indigenous Data Sovereignty (IDS) movements parallel open data movements - Indigenous communities rightfully demand ownership and control over their data as well as how and when it is used23.In the case of ensuring safety through open data initiatives and in their design process, consent and risk-management are paramount.

In fact, there are several national and regional initiatives in the Mekong that are taking IDS and the inclusion of Indigineous data into their own hands. Indigenous Women Network from Thailand, Cultural Identity and Resource Use Management in Vietnam, success in Cambodia - namely land titles for 20 Indigeneous communities, are all noteworthy national initiatives that ultimately fighting for the well-being of their communities24. Regionally, Indigenous Navigator, Asian Indigenous Peoples Pact, Forest People Program and others are driving advocacy and implementation efforts forward in the Mekong25.

Measuring Various Policy Outcomes

A women-led community movement in Indonesia’s East Java province collects data about civic infrastructure, services and outcomes, with a focus on priority areas identified by women in the community.26 The data is collected by women volunteers, with one volunteer per 10 households gathering information on exposure to disaster risks, health, education, birth control, and other priority areas.27

There have also been notable, albeit fewer, intersectional initiatives that have been directed towards generating data and bringing marginalised groups into decision-making spaces. The Uruguay Action Plan 2020, for example, includes a commitment on bringing the perspective of women and young people from rural areas into policy making, and documenting their needs and priorities.28

Open Data Labs and the Web Foundation have initiated a project in Yogyakarta, Indonesia to examine the extent (or lack thereof) of gender considerations in public budgeting. Through consulting with women and minority groups, this initiative aims to identify existing gaps, understand how to address them, and qualify ways to monitor further progress29.

In India, there are several notable grassroots initiatives such as BahenBox and Transparent Chennai that work to actively involve the voices and experiences of women within politics and city building, take a gendered perspective on data collection, and aim to provide data that can inform and evaluate any steps towards progress. BahenBox, is a data-driven multimedia platform that seeks to emphasise gender discourse in all things politics - through women’s experiences and knowledges, they map the experiences of women in the public space and sector30.

Transparent Chennai is a participatory mapping initiative that aims to empower local residents across class, gender, age, and class, to identify problem areas or concerns and map out strategies for having a voice in city governance policies31. Within the space of open data, particularly open data that employs feminist participatory mapping, the results are circuitous. For example, IndiaSpend was able to report on political success disaggregated by male and female MLA’s in Bihar. The disaggregation and comprehensiveness of their accomplishments can enable participatory mapping initiatives to mark progress or identify further gaps, and this can inform policy makers and government figures on public issues that need to be addressed32.


Counter-mapping (mapping against dominant discourse) through participatory methods could be integrated into existing open data projects (or provide the foundation for new open data initiatives) for collaborative and participative knowledge production and visualisation, given the variety of stakeholders it can be used to communicate with. Further, a feminist praxis of counter-mapping would be implemented without reliance on software and data owned by multinational corporations in the global North. By using free and open source tools such as Open Street Maps, local stakeholders are enabled to take complete ownership and control over their knowledge.

Feminist participatory mapping methods are also subject to one of hte main challenges open data appraoches and projects face; simply inviting participation and providing the echnological tools to participate will not achieve the broader goals of democratisation and reality transformation that participatory mapping hopes to acheive33. Open data initiatives that integrate participatory mapping can be difficult to navigate. Several Asian (and global) organisations such as the Forest Peoples Programme34 and Namati35 have drafted reports, like the IFAD, to document best practices and strategies. Resources such as these can help policy makers to understand the significance of an intersectional feminist lens and can allow them to appreciate their role as a facilitator rather than being at the forefront of degin. \In addition to striving for autonomy, safety, and the rights of minority groups as a result of participatory mapping,it is necessary to ensure the safety (privacy, ownership) and integrity (consent) of the processes of and pathways to conducting participatory mapping.

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