Maps have been shown to be an incredibly important resource, especially in the environmental sector, but the costs are often prohibitive to their creation. This research is examining how publicly created online maps, rather than social media, are able to support human rights and environmental justice. It questions how we open up mapping products to enable the world’s poor and grassroots movements to be able to create maps that support their causes, and thus giving them a bigger voice. Using document and theoretical analysis, interviews, surveys, GIS and content analysis from social media, this study examines the role of social media and Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) in protest movements and to what extent increased digital connectivity can help spread knowledge about human rights and environmental issues. Results show that the use of both social media and online mapping is still embryonic and hindered by strong hierarchical power structures within social movements, meaning its effect on political mobilisation is often limited, or negative. Furthermore it is suggested that social media does not spontaneously produce non-hierarchical knowledge structures, and that social movement organisations need to further develop their knowledge dissemination strategies. The study goes on to ask whether it is then publically created online maps rather than the much lauded social media that will help legitimize knowledge around human rights and environmental abuses in a way that moves beyond documenting abuses and towards holding those responsible to account.


Doug Specht is a Reader in Cultural Geography and Communication, a Chartered Geographer (CGeog. FRGS), and Assistant Head of School in the School of Media and Communication at the University of Westminster.

His research examines how knowledge is constructed and codified through digital and cartographic artefacts, focusing on development issues in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, where he has carried out extensive fieldwork. He also writes and researches on pedagogy, and is author of the Media and Communications Student Study Guide.

He speaks and writes on topics of data ethics, development, education and mapping practices at conferences and invited lectures around the world. He is a member of the editorial board at Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, and the journal Anthropocenes – Human, Inhuman, Posthuman. He is also Chair of the Environmental Network for Central America.