Blog Post

FHI's Borderwork(s) Lab: Mapping Borders, Drawing Lines, Breaching Walls

Last week my colleagues and I had the wonderful opportunity to have a working lunch with Professors Erika Weinthal and Claudia Koonz--two of the Co-Directors for the new Borderwork(s) humantities lab that will be launching here at Duke's Franklin Humanities Institute in the Fall. Just check out this description:

BorderWork(s) draws together critical perspectives from the humanities, social sciences, and policy studies to explore the acts of division and demarcation cartographic and representational, material and physical, political and economic, social and culturalthat have parceled up the inhabited world into bounded communities. [The lab will explore the]interconnected interests in the making and unmaking of borders and their boundless effects on our understanding of state, imperial, and corporate power, environmental rights and engagement with the natural world, the mobility or immobility of human communities (such as refugees), and their creative expression in a variety of artistic and visual media. 

The three courses that will launch in the fall follow the three themes of the Lab: mapping borders, drawing lines, and breaching walls/crossing lines. Interdisciplenary courses will have students mapping the world's refugees and displaced persons and exploring how displacement and exile affect the construction of collective identities; studying the environment, conflict and peacebuilding, asking how the environment and natural resources affect conflicts between and within state; and--using Belfast, Ireland and Durham, N.C. as two examples--examine the ways in which walls, borders, and partitions shape, redirect, connect and interrupt flows of people, goods, ideas, resources, information, and even our imaginations.

On a personal note, as someone who has a background in international development and geography, this lab is near and dear to my heart.  The last several years have seen the remarkable ways that new technologies and digital/social media are changing the world, providing voice to displaced or marginalized groups, playing a key role in revolutions the world over, providing new ways for citizens to engage civically, enabling a whole new level to grassroots environmental activism,  the list goes on and on. And of course, the conversation around borders and partitions necessarily brings up issues of digital access, whether it is simply not having access to a computer or smartphone or not having the digital literacies required to engage with social media or an internet firewall that prevents access altogether.

I'm excited to have the opportunity to be "embedded" in the Lab in the Fall, reporting on the work that is happening there and also bringing a social and digital media perspective.  I realized immediately the synergy between the work in the lab and many of the game changing digital/social media projects that I have been following with keen interest the last few years--from open source mapping tools, to citizen journalist projects, to SMS platforms.

The following is a sampling of some of the most groundbreaking and important digital projects in this area. Check them out!  I suspect that the next project that changes the world might just be one from our own Lab!

Ushahidi has been a game changer over the last couple of years. The platform has been leveraged for many, many uses--from collecting eyewitness reports in Cairo to mapping the Snowpocalypse in NY. (From Wikipedia) . . . Ushahidi is a non-profit software company that develops free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping. Ushahidi (Swahili for "testimony" or "witness") created a website ( in the aftermath of Kenya's disputed 2007 presidential election  that collected eyewitness reports of violence sent in by email and text-message and placed them on a Google map. The organization uses the concept of crowdsourcing for social activism and public accountability, serving as an initial model for what has been coined as 'activist mapping' - the combination of social activism, citizen journalism and geospatial information. Ushahidi offers products that enable local observers to submit reports using their mobile phones or the internet, while simultaneously creating a temporal and geospatial archive of events.

Take a look at the Haiti Ushahidi map (, it was reported that it was the most reliable source of information post-quake, saving countless lives and helping with the rescue efforts:

FrontlineSMS is award-winning free, open source software that turns a laptop and a mobile phone into a central communications hub. Once installed, the program enables users to send and receive text messages with groups of people through mobile phones. What you communicate is up to you, making FrontlineSMS useful in many different ways. Frontline SMS has been used in a staggering number of ways, from helping the International Organization for Migration communicate with and support people returning to their homes after being displaced by conflict, to coordinating peace building efforts during election violence prevention programs in Burundi, to linking students around the world through school partner programs, to helping unemployed Nairobi youth find jobs through employment alerts, to communicating market prices to farmers prior to deciding whether to take produce to market.

Recently, a group used the Ushahidi platform and Frontline SMS (see below) to create Harassmap ( Harassmap provides a place for women and other victims of sexual harassment to report instances of harassment on the streets of Cairo anonymously via a text message. This tool will give women a way to anonymously report incidences of sexual harassment as soon as they happen, using a simple text message from their mobile phone. By mapping these reports online, the entire system will act as an advocacy, prevention, and response tool, highlighting the severity and pervasiveness of the problem.

Map Kibera and Voice of Kibera  and htto://
Located in Nairobi, Kenya, Kibera is one of the largest slums in the world with over a million residents, yet it appeared on no official maps, essentially rendered invisible geographically and politically. Enter the Map Kibera project (, an open source citizen mapping project that empowers residents to map their own communities, provide data required to deal with authorities and government agencies, and raises awareness of Kibera, its residents, and their problems in hopes of bringing positive change.  An outgrowth of this project is the Voice of Kibera ( project, a citizen media and journalist project leveraging the Ushahidi platform that "aims to give collective global voice to Kibera residents by aggregating local citizen reports, Kibera community media and other relevant news and information."  See this great article in the Change Observer for more information:
Tiziano Project/360 Kurdistan
The Tiziano Project/360 Kurdistan just won the SXSW Interactive Award for Activism.  It is a powerful citizen journalism project in which Iraqi citizens living in the Kurdish north are being mentored and trained to use new media tools to create their own powerful personal multimedia narratives of their own realities in conflict/post-conflict regions.

HyperCities is a digital research and educational platform for exploring, learning about, and interacting with the layered histories of city and global spaces.  Developed though collaboration between UCLA and USC, the fundamental idea behind HyperCities is that all stories take place somewhere and sometime; they become meaningful when they interact and intersect with other stories.  Using Google Maps and Google Earth, HyperCities essentially allows users to go back in time to create and explore the historical layers of city spaces in an interactive, hypermedia environment. A HyperCity is a real city overlaid with a rich array of geo-temporal information, ranging from urban cartographies and media representations to family genealogies and the stories of the people and diverse communities who live and lived there. 

They recently received a lot of coverage for their Cairo social media coverage: They also happen to be a DML Competition award winner (the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition that HASTAC administers).

Crisis Mappers
And more on crisis-mapping here:
Leverages mobile platforms, computational and statistical models, geospatial technologies, and visual analytics to power effective early warning for rapid response to complex humanitarian emergencies.
OpenStreetMap creates and provides free geographic data such as street maps to anyone who wants them. The project was started because most maps you think of as free actually have legal or technical restrictions on their use, holding back people from using them in creative, productive, or unexpected ways. OpenStreetMap is a map of the whole world that can be used and improved by anyone. Using an open community process, thousands of people from around the world collect geodata in a central database. Mapping projects are collaborative and use generated.

For an example of the project in action, take a look at the work they are doing in Haiti post-quake:


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