How peer-to-peer works and why it is important

September 4, 2023

Mapeo Blog Series: a look into the process of co-developing innovative offline digital tools for social justice.

The series will highlight what’s next for Mapeo, its exciting new features, our learnings and challenges in co-designing a tool that responds to earth defender’s mapping needs in diverse territories.

This blog post is part of a series about "Mapeo Next", the major upgrade to the Mapeo Platform coming in the late fall:

  1. Mapeo: The next chapter
  2. Mapeo Co-Design: A Powerful Learning Journey
  3. Mapeo: Lessons from building a decentralized app
  4. How peer-to-peer works and why it is important (this post)
  5. Better security through projects and invites
  6. Under-the-hood: controlling access in decentralized system
  7. The new Mapeo: features and how to get started.

In this blog post, we explore the world of peer-to-peer (P2P) technology, its relevance to communities fighting for land rights, and how it's being utilized in Mapeo, our innovative tool for Earth Defenders.

Data networks, originally developed by the US military as a resilient peer-to-peer system, have evolved over the past 50 years. Today, digital technology is accessible worldwide, but it's largely centralized in "the cloud", using a "client-server" model. This model has its limitations, especially for communities with unreliable or non-existent internet connections. Let's take a closer look at the cloud and its alternatives, to better understand which model best serves the needs and aspirations of our partners on the ground.

The "cloud" is a physical structure, geolocated, and permeated by power relations. It requires a vast amount of materiality and labor, from cables, satellites, antennas, servers, computers, cell phones, mining, prospecting, programming codes, to electronic waste.

The internet is a contested territory that affects the future of our democracies and the paths towards climate and socio-environmental justice.

Data in the cloud is owned, kept, and managed by a handful of monopolies that don't prioritize community needs when it comes to data usage. This was evident in the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal, where data was used to influence elections and weaken Indigenous land rights as a consequence.

Why is peer-to-peer essential for Mapeo?

An essential aspect of Mapeo is its use of peer-to-peer (P2P) technology. This innovation presents a compelling alternative to the current state of the internet, which is dominated by Big Tech and mainly controlled by affluent white men from the global north.

P2P technology, exemplified by platforms like BitTorrent and Blockchain, operates autonomously, free from the influence of Big Tech or any other centralized authority. This decentralization allows for full control to be given to the members of the network. While this freedom introduces complexity into the system, making the development of P2P applications challenging, the potential benefits, particularly for sensitive community data, make it a worthwhile.

In this context, our work with Mapeo, a tool designed with and for Indigenous communities, becomes particularly relevant. Mapeo embodies the values of P2P technology, prioritizing autonomy, decentralization, and community control. It's aligned with the ongoing struggle of Indigenous communities to reclaim their land rights and preserve their cultural heritage, providing a secure platform that respects and safeguards their data sovereignty. Mapeo, through its P2P foundation, provides a more equitable and respectful tool for these communities, standing in contrast to the Big Tech approach of data mining its users.

Can it work offline?

Mapeo users synching data on their devices through peer-to-peer technology

As long as there are peers and paths for them to connect to each other, P2P networks continue to function. Every phone or computer running Mapeo is a peer in a project's network. So syncing data with another peer requires only a path, which can be any wifi network, with or without internet. Although routers are commonly used, it is worth noting that a smartphone with the "Access Point" feature enabled can also function as a viable alternative.

Who owns the data?

Mapeo operates on a fully distributed model, a design choice that prioritizes the security and privacy of data. This means that any information stored or generated within the system remains exclusively on local peer devices until explicit consent is given for its release. By ensuring that data never leaves local devices, these communities are empowered to manage and share their information on their own terms.

This approach not only safeguards sensitive data but also reinforces the principle of data sovereignty, a crucial aspect in our work with Indigenous communities. In the context of Indigenous communities, this could include sensitive information about land boundaries, traditional knowledge, or cultural practices.

Is data safe from being tempered or lost?


P2P networks utilize robust encryption protocols that ensure the confidentiality and integrity of information exchanged between participants. This is crucial when dealing with sensitive data related to land rights and cultural preservation.

The data in a peer-to-peer network is also stored across the network of devices. This ensures that all observations, including photos and any additional information, will be securely stored across all devices participating in the project; it is not failsafe, but guarantees redundancy of data.

Is it fast?

The local nature of data exchange ensures that data rates in Mapeo are not affected by internet bandwidth. The speed of your internet connection is determined solely by the capacity of your router. It is not affected by the complex network of global physical and political factors that make up the World Wide Web.

Can it continue working despite external failure or censorship?


The recent global internet outage in 2021 served as a stark reminder of the inherent vulnerabilities of centralized systems. In contrast, P2P applications, such as Mapeo, Manyverse and Āhau remained unaffected, allowing for uninterrupted communication, even using the internet to traffic data. This resilience is not just an advantage, but a necessity in areas where internet outages, censorship, or shutdowns are more common than we might imagine.

The distributed nature of P2P technology enables it to function autonomously, unaffected by external shortcomings or censorship. This ensures that these communities can carry out their local work without any disruptions.

Can it scale?

Peer-to-peer isn't only meant for local, offline scenarios, and it can scale. As more peers join the network, its strength, redundancy, and speed increase exponentially.

Torrent is an outstanding example of P2P networks operating on a grand scale. As more peers unite within the network, its strength, redundancy, and speed increase exponentially. 

What are the challenges?

However, P2P technology also presents challenges, such as distributing large files and ensuring user data safety as the network grows. To address these, we are dedicating our focus and resources towards updating our P2P protocol and enhancing our architecture. This update will ensure that Mapeo's synchronization becomes more stable and efficient, which has been a persistent problem some of our partners have been experiencing.

Understanding how the Internet and peer-to-peer technology work can help us make wiser choices when it comes to the technology we use. We're excited for the new version of Mapeo, which will bring stability and new features to the table. Stay tuned to learn more in our next post "Better security through projects and invites"!

Published by
Back to the Blog