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News — 13 July, 2023

RightsCon 2023: Looking for the intersection of human rights and maps

RightsCon, the global event that brings together activists and organizations working for human rights, took place last June, and the LAC Hub was present in search of maps and mappers!

Some time ago, when I was an editor for a global citizen platform, I was invited to do remote Twitter coverage of a human rights event. I enjoyed the experience, and above all, I learned a lot about the different struggles that take place in different parts of the world to defend human (and digital) rights. That was my first contact with RightsCon.

From June 5 to 8, a new edition of RightsCon was held in San José, Costa Rica. This edition was highly anticipated, as it had been announced for 2020 but had to be postponed due to the pandemic. With its subsidence, the event could finally be held in person and online this year.

Since an event of this magnitude was hosted in the region, in the Open Mapping Hub of Latin America and the Caribbean, we estimated that the assistance of organizations and activists from the region would be considerable, so it was important to attend as well and take stock of the event from our own “cartographic” perspective.

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Brett Solomon, ED of Access Now, gives the keynote address and mentions Alaa Abd El Fattah, the currently jailed Egyptian blogger who gave the keynote speech in RightsCon 2011.

At this point, it is worth mentioning that although the relationship between maps and human rights might not seem clear at first glance, it does exist. Maps are linked to various rights, such as:

  • Right to life. Life happens in a territory.
  • Right to a territory/nationality.
  • Right to free transit.
  • Right to information (for example: of the offer that exists in the territory inhabited)
  • Right to representativeness (that is, to act and make decisions based on the life that happens on that map). And the most important:
  • The right to be on the map.

Being a really big event, RightsCon was attended by hundreds of people from hundreds of digital and human rights organizations from all over the world. To give you an idea, there were more than 600 face-to-face, hybrid, and online events. Despite such a size, the production was up to the task, and everything generally went very well.

From my side, I attended as many talks as possible, which was less than half of those that interested me professionally and personally. For example, I attended the talks “Weaving community solutions for communication needs through training processes”, “Community generated data, Indigenous data sovereignty, and defending Indigenous peoples’ rights”, and “Free social networks: uses, scope and challenges for our organizations”, to name a few.

However, something that struck me was that of all those 600 scheduled events, only one (yes, one) was directly related to digital mapping or cartography. I know that it was not exactly the place to find mapping projects as such, but I expected a few more projects that linked human rights with open cartography, given the existing possibilities.

What I did find was various people interested in mapping projects: organizations and individuals wanting to map surveillance cameras in the region, feminisms, communities made invisible on official maps, rights, territories, and above all, I found former and expert collaborators of the Central American OSM community that are eager to get back together and contribute to common projects.


Various talks at RightsCon

Talking and exchanging ideas with all these people was very inspiring. I believe that the future of work around mapping and digital and human rights is bright and offers many opportunities for social impact. As we move towards a society that is increasingly connected and in need of geospatial information, we should include some key actions in our mapping projects to achieve that impact:

  1. Promote collaboration and inclusive participation in the creation and use of maps. In other words, engage local communities, digital and human rights organizations, and mapping experts to ensure that maps reflect a diversity of experiences and needs. In addition, it is essential to promote a gender perspective in mapping to ensure that the voices and realities of women and other groups are considered in cartographic representation.

  2. Strengthen technical capacities and access to collaborative mapping tools. That is, provide training and resources for individuals and organizations to use and contribute to open platforms such as OpenStreetMap. Thus, the autonomy and capacity of communities to map and visualize their local realities are fostered, thereby increasing their capacity to advocate for their rights.

  3. Address ethical and privacy issues related to digital and human rights mapping. Clear safeguards must be established to protect personal information and ensure that its use is consistent with the principles of transparency and accountability. Furthermore, it is important to consider informed consent and the protection of sensitive data when mapping areas that may be vulnerable or conflictive.

  4. Foster interdisciplinary collaboration and knowledge sharing among human rights experts, technologists, and mapping professionals. Combining diverse perspectives and skills can lead to innovative solutions and broaden understanding of the challenges and opportunities at this knowledge intersection.

Applying these guiding ideas will allow us to fully harness the potential of maps as tools to promote equity, social justice, and respect for fundamental rights, and thus better serve the communities with which we work.

Finally, I tried to record some of the conversations I had -and that inspired in me the ideas outlined in this post- so I’m sharing the links so you can listen to the ideas and proposals from those involved.