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January 22, 2016

Crowd Mapping: A Tool for Action Research

Crowd Mapping: A Tool for Action Research

By Adrien Labaeye

Alternative forms of production and consumption are a hot topic in urban research. Cities are the breeding grounds for a wealth of bottom-up initiatives that try to establish fairer and more sustainable models. Researchers are trying to keep up with this transformation, but aside from the remarkable work of the Real Economy Lab, little has been done to obtain an overview of the movement. It is particularly difficult to grasp its geographical scope. Citizens have little to go on while trying to find the next swap shop or coop repair café in their neighbourhood.

To make these services more visible, activists have made plenty of digital maps of their initiatives. Because we at TransforMap believe they offer valuable insights, we have started to collect these digital maps in a rough wiki and have identified over 200 of them. (A similar initiative, "The Map of Maps", has been launched by a transnational working group in SEiSMiC. Ed.) Now we are working to connect the people behind those maps by curating a forum where we discuss the contours of an open infrastructure. This would connect maps into a common pool of data that citizens could visualise through a single map that presents all the alternatives. At the same time, users could provide information that is missing. It is easy to understand the value of these data for urban research or sustainability transition scholars. Prototype development will be ongoing throughout the first half of 2016.

Action research
TransforMap is a grassroots process. As an action researcher, I have contributed in a number of roles (borrowed from Wittmayer and Schaepke 2015):

  • reflective scientist: reflecting on the nature of the process through writing an academic article or something with a wider audience;
  • knowledge broker: bringing insights from existing maps by conducting interviews and writing blog posts;
  • process facilitator: initiating and writing funding applications to bring in financial resources; and
  • self-reflexive scientist: analysing my role in the process (e.g. as I'm doing in this very article).


Because researchers often have skills (e. g. writing, facilitating) and access to resources (e. g. time, IT infrastructure), they can support grassroots processes that often lack them. In doing so, they should be aware of some ethical considerations. Among other things, researchers should always be careful not to pre-empt process ownership and should be aware that the design of participation infrastructure (e. g. an online forum) strongly influences the patterns of participation.

Knowledge commons for citizen science
Citizen science was defined early on as a science that addresses the needs of concerned citizens – often in the context of environmental justice (Irwin 1995). In practice, however, the concept of citizen science generally refers to the use of citizens as cheap sensors or data crawlers who have been deprived of any agency in the process (Nascimento et al. 2014). From my experience in TransforMap, I see an opportunity for researchers to contribute to existing grassroots efforts that aim at co-producing shared knowledge resources – or commons. In this way they can contribute to a true citizen science, a science that has a direct impact on facilitating transformative change. Instead, researchers too often act as freeriders of open data while not giving back anything more than a paper published in a paywall journal.

Let’s be honest: co-creation of knowledge commons is the hard way. It’s mostly slow and can be very frustrating, and there is barely an institutional incentive. Still, it has real transformative potential! At least in terms of yourself …

If you want to know more about TransforMap, get involved in the conversation! Check in at our forum Who’s who or engage on Twitter @transformap.

Adrien Labaeye is a core contributor to the TransforMap collective and co-founder of the transition>>lab, an informal platform at the interface of transition research and practice. He is pursuing a PhD in Geography at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin.