Mapping to Empower Excluded Populations with Jon Corbett at University of British Columbia

Jon Corbett is an associate professor in the University of British Columbia's Community, Culture and Global Studies program and co-director of the Centre for Social, Spatial and Economic Justice.

Jon Corbett is an associate professor in the University of British Columbia’s Community, Culture and Global Studies program and co-director of the Centre for Social, Spatial and Economic Justice.

By Drew Bush

In our daily usage, most maps contain a logical representation of a city’s streets or a forest’s hiking trails that allows us to safely navigate to new locations. For many indigenous and excluded populations, maps can play a more fundamental role.

Jon Corbett, an Associate Professor in Community, Culture and Global Studies at the University of British Columbia, has spent decades investigating how cartographic processes and tools used by local communities help express their relationships to and knowledge of land and resources. Corbett has worked in Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and in British Columbia with several First Nations communities.

“Often maps, although they are powerful tools, they don’t tell the full story because a lot of indigenous knowledge and a lot of local knowledge is tied up in storytelling, and histories, and is built around specific landmarks within a particular town within a particular place,” he told Geothink last June.

To better capture this relationship with the land, Corbett and his graduate student Nicholas Blackwell first began building their Geolive platform in 2008. Geolive is an online interactive mapping interface based on the Google Maps API that allows administrators to create public maps and place user-generated information on those maps while users can add content and communicate.

In other words, users of this platform can add attributes to specific locations on the map using text, photos, video or other media to show how specific places get used by the community. As the platform has gotten more sophisticated, users have gained the ability to moderate each other, filter info with key words, and use mobile devices to contribute short videos or photos.

The most important element is that users take ownership of the place they live and contribute important local knowledge. Corbett got his start doing this type of work before programs such as Google Earth existed. In fact, he literally used sticks, sand and stones when he began thinking about how to empower often excluded communities with maps during his Ph.D. research in Borneo.

“I am really interested in how maps can become transformative agents in change, particularly social change,” he said. “So my research in the past has involved working with a lot of excluded populations, often indigenous population in different places in the world. Looking at how mapping can become a tool to express a different relationship, or a different set of experiences, or a different set of stories as it relates to that particular group and the land on which they live.”

His work has evolved from using sketch mapping where participants draw rivers, streets, and watershed boundaries from memory to scale mapping where they add or fill in locally-based information on scale maps or three-dimensional modelling where participants build a physical, tactile terrain map. Of the digital, he comments that some elements can be lost from a process that once involved using what was on the ground.

“There is this funny thing that occurs as you move from more tactile, more tangible forms of participation mapping into the digital world,” he said after enumerating the many advantages of digital mapping with communities. “In a sense, your own relationship to those types of projects diminishes as you become more virtual.”

If you have thoughts or questions about this article, get in touch with Drew Bush, Geothink’s digital journalist, at