LCIL Friday Lecture: ‘#HELP: Digital Humanitarian Mapping and New Cartographies of Governability’ - Prof Fleur Johns, UNSW


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Lecture summary: Like many other areas of work, international humanitarian practice and thinking are being transformed by digital technology and associated socio-technical practices. Institutional developments within the United Nations (UN) are telling. Just over ten years ago, the UN Secretary General announced the launch of the UN Global Pulse project, dedicating to enabling, showcasing and promoting the “scaled adoption of big data innovation for sustainable development and humanitarian action”. This project has since been advanced through Pulse Labs in Jakarta, Kampala and New York and one soon to be set up in Samoa. Other, cognate initiatives have been launched throughout the UN system. Prominent, international public-private collaborations aim to harness digital technology for humanitarian ends: initiatives such as the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data. And more or less every major technology company across the world is investing in the humanitarian field: Facebook’s Data for Good initiative;’s Crisis Response work; and Alibaba’s collaboration with the World Food Program to develop Hunger Map LIVE are indicative examples. International humanitarianism is taking on new imperatives, protagonists, investments, techniques and objects of inquiry in connection with the expanding reach of the digital. Given the centrality of humanitarianism to the way that the international plane has been imagined, regulated, materialized and militarized throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, these shifts are worthy of close attention. This talk will present one chapter of a book project investigating this domain of ‘digital humanitarianism’ – a chapter concerned with maps and mapping. It focuses on recent shifts from two-dimensional mapping for humanitarian ends towards multi-dimensional, real-time mapping for the same purposes, associated with geographic information systems (GIS) and the generation and deployment of map cubes (multi-dimensional arrays of data values presenting cartographic visualization of each dimension). It offers a brief recollection of humanitarian mapping through “snapshots” from the practice in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries (Valentine Seaman’s yellow fever maps; Charles Booth’s poverty maps; Bangladesh flood mapping; and the FAO’s Food Insecurity and Vulnerability Information and Mapping Systems). Against this background, we will consider the rise of crowd-sourcing as a digitally facilitated way of making cartographic knowledge for humanitarian governance purposes, as illustrated by the Missing Maps Project (a joint project of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team – a U.S.-registered non-profit – and three other not-for-profit organizations: American Red Cross; British Red Cross; and Médecins Sans Frontières). We will explore how this affects how particular spaces are assembled, delimited, surveyed and readied for humanitarian intervention and with what implications for international legal relations and the jurisdiction of different actors on this terrain. Fleur Johns is Professor in the Faculty of Law, working in the areas of public international law, legal theory, law and development, law and society (or socio-legal studies), and law and technology. Fleur studies emergent patterns of governance on the global plane, and their social, political and economic implications, employing an interdisciplinary approach that draws on the social sciences and humanities and combines the study of public and private law. In 2021, Fleur will commence a four-year Australian Research Council Future Fellowship working on a project entitled 'Diplomatic Knowledge, Disasters and the Future of International Legal Order'. In 2021-2022, Fleur will be a Visiting Professor at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Fleur is a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

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