Misconceptions and Objections to Gaza Mapping: My Response

Over the past week, the response to OpenStreetMap in Gaza has been overwhelmingly supportive. There have been a few exceptional objections, and some common misconceptions, and I want to respond to from my perspective, and perhaps the “OpenStreetMap perspective”. Some of these objections have come from people familiar with operations in Gaza, so I take their perspectives very seriously. Please consider this part of a discussion .. I’m very interested to hear from your perspective.

Gazans are in no position to contribute to a map now. Let me just clearly say, we have no expectation of working with anyone inside Gaza right now, and are not actively seeking their involvement. However, if people familiar with Gaza geography are available outside Gaza, we’d love to talk to you. Gazan’s priority is plain and simply survival during this crisis. They have all our support, and our map hopes to assist in any small way. Some exceptional bloggers are getting communications out to the world, at great personal risk, Ushahidi is providing a medium for reporting incidents, but I think OSM won’t get to this point without significant development work. When the crisis subsides, and Gaza becomes a safe place to work in again, we will be looking to collaborate with Gazans, remotely or similarly to JumpStart’s work in the West Bank.

Maps are already available. This objection goes right to the heart of OpenStreetMap. Yes, there are various maps available, from authorities like the UN, Palestinian govt, from international media. The presumption that these authorities have complete, accurate, consistent, and verified data is unfortunately incorrect. They do a fantastic job, and the maps serve many useful purposes. But just for instance, the roads layer from the European Commission that underlies all the UN maps is missing road names, and at even a quick look has inaccuracies. These sources disagree with each other on place names and locations.

I’ve had the privilege of working with and discussing issues with all of these entities, but like many institutions, they are struggling to effectively collect, update, and share geographic information effectively. Just take a look at the OSM discussion page for Gaza to get a sense of what’s possible when discussion and sharing happens in an open transparent environment — we are very rapidly getting to an accurate interpretation of geographic reality, it’s wonderful to see.

And what is “available” is not mapping data, but rendered maps. AidWorkerDaily has an excellent critique of this situation, in response to the very good UNOSAT maps (which are derived from the same Digital Globe imagery we are looking to purchase). If you happen to know the right person, they haven’t transferred to a new job, and you represent the right entity, you might get a hold of the actual data, in which you can make your own map or application. I’m all for ad-hoc networks, but any sort of closed access makes them totally inefficient, especially in a crisis. When you do get data, there are likely with provisions on what you can do with it .. that’s the case with the EC roads data (which is available, but non-commercial, non-modifiable).

Maps can endanger Gazans This is honestly one of the most preposterous and disheartening things I’ve heard. The argument is that by providing maps in the open, we are potentially aiding the Israeli invasion. I guess such paranoia is an understandable response within this emergency, but it’s frankly the same security through obscurity argument peddled for centuries, brought out most recently in Mumbai, a strategy on the verge of finally dissolving in a world of openness and transparency. The IDF access to much better intelligence and imagery than we’d ever have, they fly drones over Gaza, there’s a 2m resolution commercial limit in all satellite imagery over Israel — guess who gets to see the sub-meter imagery? Gazans have nothing to gain by trying keep secrets, the asymmetry of that game is overwhelmingly not in their favor.

Some of this fear is based on the misinterpretation of statements that UNRWA gave coordinates of their schools in Gaza to the IDF. The insinuation is that the IDF specifically targetted these facilities, based on that information. The intention of UNRWA was to help protect their schools; it’s possible we’ll never know what happened, but can anyone honestly think that the GPS coordinates were used to base attacks?

Is there a level of detail OpenStreetMap should not pass? I have a hard time thinking of what OSM can feasibly do that would be a problem. Put the question another way — rather than what should be mapped .. what kinds of things shouldn’t be mapped?

Gaza is a small place This is the argument I’m most open to .. but still disagree. Gaza is small, smaller than the San Francisco peninsula. People living in Gaza know it well. People who have operated in Gaza know it well. They don’t need maps?

Imagine a large earthquake in San Francisco. How effectively could aid be coordinated if there was no current map of San Francisco? Firefighters could possibly arrive from throughout California, and further. Is it better use of SF firefighters’ time to explain the geography of SF to all the newcomers, or to hand them a good map?

There’s a again an presumption of insider knowledge here, that anyone who is operating in Gaza is going to know what’s up. I don’t believe that.

There are better things for you to do for Gazans. Don’t do this. Most of us can’t do anything directly. Actually no one from anywhere can get into Gaza to help. Why discourage a contribution? Please read Clay Shirky


I probably haven’t adequately addressed these concerns, but I think this is a good start. Maybe there are more objections. Let me know what you think.

OSM Gaza, end of week one

Still working on two tasks .. getting imagery in North Gaza, and bringing on Gazans living abroad to help fill in the details. We’re getting close on both counts. It’s taking a few days longer, but that’s life, not everything operates on internet time.

With imagery, we’re trying to pin down the legal rights and restrictions on using imagery. We’re pretty sure we can derive vectors, just need absolutely clarity. There are probably restrictions on who can have access to the data .. this is commercial imagery after all. Not ideal, but we’ll see what’s possible. In amazing timing, the DigitalGlobe sales team is on a retreat this week, meaning we can’t get answers right away.

There are several promising contacts for help with place names. Takes a little time to bring people up to speed on the OSM tools; often best to be sitting at the same desk. Tomorrow, there are protests scheduled all over the US, and here in SF. I’m going out to try and meet some folks to contribute to the map. Feel free to do the same.

At the same time, we’ve collected a tremendous resource of existing geographic information and discussion on the wiki. I am really blown away by the quality and volume of data. Honestly, wow.

The European Commission offered to contribute their roads data. This is the data set that underlies UN-OCHA’s maps. However, the EC restricts use of this data to non-commercial, and doesn’t permit modification. I’m unsure about modification, since that’s exactly what OCHA does. But certainly non-commercial prevents use in OpenStreetMap. Commercial use is extremely unlikely in Gaza; if there was any commerce in Gaza, we should be happy. Anyhow, this data is now available non-commercial, non-modifiable. If anyone thinks this is useful, let me know, and I’ll arrange to host it somewhere.

Thanks everyone who’s emailed, blogged and tweeted in the past few days. Phenomenal response. Really, it doesn’t take much work individually for us to collectively do something awesome.

Gaza OpenStreetMap Update

Work has been proceeding rapidly. Quick update.

* The southwest has been traced pretty extensively. Incredible work from OpenStreetMap mappers.
* We’re looking into purchasing satellite imagery for the north or the entirety of Gaza. There’s actually B/W imagery available from yesterday! This may require a fund raiser, depending on the quote we get.
* JumpStart International has offered to host that imagery on the server, for tracing into OSM.
* We’re getting closer to bringing on Gazans living abroad, to add street names, place names, map features.
* AlertNet ran a story on the effort yesterday.

Thanks to all the blog posts and tweets to get the word out.

If you want to help, the OSM Gaza wiki is the place to start. It’s probably the most comprehensive listing on Gazan mapping generally. Or get in touch direct with me by email. Thanks.

Gaza OpenStreetMap

We’re making a push to get up to date maps of Gaza in OpenStreetMap. UN agencies, NGOs, web sites are requesting better maps of the crisis. For one, we are looking to re-activate the partnerships and routing services developed in Haiti last year. AidWorkerDaily has a quick survey of mapping API coverage right now.

Anyone interested in assisting with OpenStreetMap work in Gaza, please get in touch. Using the OSM wiki to coordinate: OpenStreetMap WikiProject Palestine Gaza.

Gaza in Yahoo

Yahoo aerial imagery covers the southwest portion of Gaza, strangely not Gaza City. There’s been active tracing in the area by the international OpenStreetMap community. We need and seek contacts with people familiar with Gaza’s street names, features, etc, to enhance the bare geometries of OSM. If you know of Gazan bloggers, photographers from flickr, wikipedians, anyone interested in contributing open data, introductions are welcome.

UN OCHA oPt has the best source for humanitarian maps of Gaza. Some of these are of uncertain copyright status, need to investigate whether we can derive data from this source. The New York Times has an excellent summary map of the military actions, derived in part from OCHA. Ushahidi has been deployed in Gaza by al Jazeera, and they’re using msft maps.

Information is our most powerful tool towards peace and understanding. Let’s work towards openness and freedom.