Mapeo Co-Design: A Powerful Learning Journey

Jen Castro
June 28, 2023

Co-authored by Jen Castro & María Alvarez Malvido

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 the second in this series:

  1. Mapeo: The next chapter (this post)
  2. Mapeo Co-Deisng: A Powerful Learning Journey (this post)
  3. Lessons from building a decentralized app
  4. How peer-to-peer works and why it is important
  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
Co-Designing Mapeo

When the design and development of digital tools is undertaken as a collective aim for social justice, it becomes a relational, dynamic and creative process. So has been the journey to create and improve Mapeo, a tool whose relevance relies on its users’ grounded experiences,  and their willingness to share their as communities and Earth defenders.

This process has sculpted all areas of Digital Democracy’s work as an NGO collaborating in solidarity with frontline communities. Prior to starting our partnership with diverse Indigenous Peoples defending their territories through mapping processes within the Amazon rainforest, Mexico and Guyana, we did not do software development. But in 2013 we made the intentional decision to begin building technology tools with partners from threatened ecosystems in these regions after identifying that existing tools did not meet their needs.

As we dove into the world of software development, we learned that co-designing from the ground up is a conversation and a process with its own rhythm and scale. We have had the privilege to work alongside partners including Alianza Ceibo, ECA Amarakaeri, PUINAMUDT and the South Rupununi District Council while on this journey. It is clear for us that technology co-development needs to be a process of understanding local ways of organizing, monitoring and taking care of the land, while acknowledging the diverse layers of threats they face in the process.  

From left to right: Blog post author & Dd CoDirector Jen Castro conducting user-research as part of the Mapeo co-design process, with Nayap (Wampis) and Evila (Kichwa) at the Earth Defenders Toolkit gathering in Tena, Ecuador, May 2023.

What we mean by “Co”

Over the years we have learned to define what co-designing and co-developing means to us and our partnerships, and how it looks when it is done in genuine collaboration and conversation with users. The “co” in these words is mainly informed by honoring relationships, listening, sharing and engaging in conversations that have inspired diverse imaginations of the use and improvement of Mapeo.

Every step of the process has been nurtured by enthusiasm and support from funders, partners and community members to help us build tools driven by the priorities they find in their territories. However, materializing dreams and expectations into technical features is never an easy task, especially when the diversity of territories and their safety requirements require innovation, and developments that are unique to offline contexts.

“Offline” challenges

Building innovative offline peer-2-peer tech has a huge set of challenges that make our design and development very different from other web based tools. These kinds of innovations open the door for other possibilities, and with those come challenging decisions. For example, questions around the management of local servers, their login policies and data access management, or decisions over updates and data synchronization. 

The offline requirement we built into Mapeo affirms that internet access is not a default possibility in many places in the world. At the same time, it decenters technology from the Internet, and places decisions, agency and safety back into the users. The fact that it’s designed for use offline places a heavier responsibility on design and development. Communication about user issues depends on proactive engagement by users to communicate directly with our technical accompaniment team, as well as our capacity to get a full understanding of the user context that is difficult to replicate. Moreover, the stakes are higher for many Mapeo users who invest time and resources to reach deep corners of their territories to gather community information. When installed on any device, Mapeo needs to be ready to go on the land. 

In this sense, over the past 8 years, our dedicated partners have been piloting Mapeo, and several of them are formally incorporating it into their long term technology plans. In this process, we have learned how Mapeo is performing on the land. The feedback we get comes in the form of stories about what works and what could make Mapeo a better tool for different cases.

Offering more

Over time, we learned that the current architecture does not support all of the possible functionality that partners and users requested. The initial stages of exploratory development were powerful for our co-design process with partners, and we have pushed current architecture to its limits with just as much creativity and quick thinking. But the eventual impact of that development process was accumulated tech debt.

We have reached the point that in order to address the longevity of Mapeo as a tool, we need to prioritize work on the back end to address and give Mapeo a more resilient home for more technical possibilities. We have taken the time to do deep research and consultation to figure out the tough questions to ask ourselves in terms of who Mapeo is for, and at what point do we draw lines in terms of complexity. What we are certain of is that the new back end of Mapeo allows the potential for functionality that we have yet to dream of.  

This big change has been a focus for us over the past year. We are taking our time in planning how to roll out an update process where the majority of users are in remote areas and taking care of their data in the peer-to-peer model. 

Stay tuned to find what these co-design revelations look like in the next version of Mapeo!


Email us at

You can also find us on Discord!

Read more about Mapeo and download it at

Mapeo Mobile for Android is available on the Google Play Store 

Mapeo Mobile is also available for install by downloading the Android APK

Published by
Jen Castro
Back to the Blog