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A review of Terrastories, a mapping app that promotes Indigenous storytelling, designed by Digital Democracy

Published onOct 30, 2023


Project Director
Rudo Kemper

A list of all team members is available on the Terrastories website.

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Niiyokamigaabaw Deondre Smiles (Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe), University of Victoria

Project Overview

Rudo Kemper

Terrastories is a free, open-source participatory mapping and storytelling application that enables Indigenous and other communities to map, protect, and share stories about their land. It can be used by individuals or communities who want to connect audio or video content to places on a map. It is designed to be user-friendly and interactive, letting community members freely explore and engage with information contained in the map without needing any technical background.

The creation of Terrastories began when a team of geographers and software developers identified the need to digitally map a community’s place-based oral histories. Located in South America, the Matawai Maroons of Suriname, a community of formerly enslaved Africans who fled into the forests over three centuries ago and reside there today, wanted to map oral histories about when their ancestors first arrived in these lands. The community leaders were interested in having a tool that helps the young people get to know these places, their history, their culture, and who they are as a people. Terrastories was built to accommodate that need. While Terrastories was built with Indigenous communities and values in mind, it can be used by any community — or any person — who wishes to map their own place-based oral histories to document their cultural, family, or personal heritage.

At its core, Terrastories consists of an interactive map and a sidebar with stories. On the map, lace markers associated with one or more stories, shown in the sidebar. Users can either activate place markers to see a popup with more information and stories about the place or they can see where the story took place on the map after viewing the story. Stories and places can also be filtered by Indigenous taxonomy terms or speakers. The entire user interface of Terrastories works in desktop as well as mobile. The interface can also be translated to any language, including commonly spoken ones, and translations for lesser-known languages provided by the user.

Users with editing permissions can access the Terrastories dashboard to add content to the map, customize the interactive map content, and set thematic properties for their community’s Terrastories instance. They can also set stories as restricted, meaning that one needs to have the right level of access in their credentials to view those stories. Without that level of access, neither stories nor places associated with those stories, will show for that user.

Terrastories is an open-source progressive web app. It is built entirely with Ruby on Rails, Mapbox GL JS v1, React, and a Postgres database. Docker provides Terrastories as a service for both online and offline installations on all operating systems (Linux, Windows, macOS). For offline usage, it uses the TileServer-GL library to serve map tiles. For online usage, it uses Heroku as a hosting platform. Terrastories can be hosted entirely offline or online, depending on the user’s needs and resources. Terrastories is built to be multi-instance, meaning that more than one community can access a singular Terrastories server, but each has their own dedicated space, stories, and map that is only accessible by them.

Terrastories has been used by communities in Suriname, Brazil, Colombia, Guyana, Canada, the United States, and Uganda. Currently, Terrastories is supported by a volunteer team of programmatic and technology stewards, and by the non-profit organization Digital Democracy.

Project Review

Niiyokamigaabaw Deondre Smiles (Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe)

Terrastories is an application that assists Indigenous and other communities with mapping places and spaces that are deeply important to them and their traditions. The application has its roots in work done with a community in Suriname who wished to map oral histories passed down from their ancestors. From there, the research team developed a digital mapping tool that evolved into Terrastories. 

The creators of Terrastories describe the app as being in line with two of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically “Quality Education” and “Sustainable Cities and Communities.” The website also describes the app as upholding principles of data sovereignty and being opensource and open access. In addition, the app is available to communities without access to the Internet. With regard to the SDG of “Quality Education,” the app delivers on what is promised, as it provides a way for communities to represent spaces that are important to them in a way that is accessible and controlled by the communities themselves. This is an important consideration given histories of data (spatial or otherwise) being taken out of Indigenous communities without their consent or knowledge.

Technologically, the app is user-friendly and accessible. I had access to a demo of the app, which featured stories represented by icons on the map, as well as a sidebar with the same stories listed. The map is based on data from Mapbox and OpenStreetMap, two well-known sources of geospatial data. In particular, the ability to use the app offline is exciting, as this allows a broader range of access to communities and can increase the accessibility of community-sourced data for representation on a community’s maps. The website provides easy to access and read guides on how to use the app.

Most map- and story-based work is based around Esri’s ArcGIS architecture, which is widespread, but is often criticized on grounds of data ethics and its inaccessibility to people and communities outside of formal academic, corporate, or geospatial institutions. Terrastories represents another potential path for communities and individuals who want to map spaces that are important to them and their (oral) histories but do not want to worry about the legitimate concern of who has access to the data and how that data is used.

Although it promotes itself as being open access, currently users or communities must contact the project team to get an account or access to the app. This runs the risk of an Esri-like model, where an organization controls an app that holds information deeply important to Indigenous and other marginalized communities. This does not fully fit within the open-access model. Despite this, Terrastories represents a refreshing and relevant tool for Indigenous mapping going forward, and it is a tool that I hope to see adopted more widely in Indigenous circles.

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