Archive for January, 2010

How to improve our work in Haiti? MapMaker and OSM thoughts too.

This is a question I’m considering a lot … filtered through the brief rushes of reading the amazing crisismappers list, diving into OSM on the wiki and IRC channel … Are we doing everything we possibly can in serving the responders? Can we coordinate our mapping work better? And once aid starts flowing and the immediate response turns to long term recovery and reconstruction, how will our process and community change, when more and more data to synchronize will be coming from the ground in Haiti? How do we operate better in the next disaster? Big questions, and glad that many folks are already compiling ideas. Please add ideas and needs there.

One immediate point that has been raised in private discussion, and now publicly, are the separate efforts of OSM and Google MapMaker in Haiti, separated by incompatible licenses. As Sean Wohltman points out, a crisis like this is hardly the time for discussions on licenses and community models, and whatever can be done for the best benefit to the crisis response should be done. All I can simply say with restraint is that I disagree with the assumption of Google’s position that the OSM license prevents community use of this data … rather it only prevents Google participating in that community, by their own choice. That shouldn’t stop OSM from considering doing everything possible.

There is likely much to be gained by everyone working in the commons. Muki Hakley has performed an analysis of OSM and MapMaker coverage in Haiti, and it shows complementary coverage. The analysis makes no assumption of correctness, time frame, size of community/number of sources, and only considers geometries not names and tags, but still shows that each have built up in different regions. The problem of how to potentially use these two together needs quite a lot of work.

Sean Gorman suggests a time and geography limited CC-0 license on geodata, in order to move things forward. I’m not taking a personal view on this possibility, actually undecided, though I would at least suggest attribution would be a courtesy, and impose no considered constraint. Instead, I would suggest the OSM community consider this matter, and if there’s a general consensus it would be valuable, perhaps by determined vote, then build a quick process of getting time and geography limited dual-licensing approval from the couple hundred active Haiti contributors so far. There would also need to be a way to get such approval from new Haiti editors.

Important I think to consider is the time and effort involved in discussing this, and the process of dual licensing, vs the potential benefit. This question shouldn’t distract us from the very real effort of mapping and producing amazing data products.

What do you think?

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Haiti OpenStreetMap Response

The have been at least 400 OpenStreetMap editing sessions in Haiti since the quake hit. Mostly tracing Yahoo imagery, and gleaning information from old CIA maps. We also just received permission to use GeoEye imagery acquired post-event … that will allow us to tag collapsed buildings. Many relief groups are deploying now, many checking in with the CrisisMappers list (the main locus of the wider humanitarian tech community), and they are making inquiries into OSM data and requests for particular features. Dozens of mappers and developers are lending a hand, coordinating on the OSM Haiti WikiProject and IRC and the OSM talk list … standing up services, including 5 minute extracts in Shapefile and Garmin formats, and maps with hill-shading. Just the start to relief and reconstruction effort we hope to contribute to.

Two images to show how we’ve progressed … the first OSM Port au Prince just now, the second OSM before the earthquake.



I’ll be on twitter with updates … though I’m due to fly tonight to Ireland.

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Some notes on Map Kibera mapping

Just yesterday, I imported the Map Kibera data into OpenStreetMap. I thought I’d take the opportunity to review how the data collection went in this entirely unique process, allude to a few of the mind-changing map features of Kibera that I’ve yet to fully comprehend, and provide some guidelines for further data clean up. I’ve been spending spare time over the last few weeks in Chicago working on the data, but realize this needs the help and energy of the entire community. If you’re interested to help, please get in touch.

In short, a pretty map geeky post! Divided into ways and nodes. This may excite you, or not 😉


Ways in Kibera encompass roads, paths, streams, sewer lines (sometimes hard to tell the difference between those two), village boundaries, the railroad line, walls, permanent buildings (there are many, yes), open grounds/playing fields, and markets. So far. An incredibly dense, informal area, there is a challenge to the uninitiated to simply decide what constitutes a public road in Kibera. As it turns out, Kibera has a complex structure well known to its residents. Collecting these ways required a combination of GPS surveying, which worked reasonably well even in a dense area of corrugated iron roofs, and satellite imagery, notes written on Walking Papers and in conversation. Both introduce their own accuracies and inaccuracies, so there’s also an element of artistry involved, as usual with cartography.

Tally of mapping day 2

These were initially traced by [User:Harry Wood|Harry Wood], from purchased DigitalGlobe satellite imagery collected in February 2009. Harry did a phenomenal job locating paths in this new terrain, which for the most part were later verified by GPS tracks. During and after the surveying phase, myself and other mappers traced from GPS tracklogs uploaded to the Map Kibera site, and from higher resolution GeoEye satellite imagery collected in July 2009 arranged by Lars Bromley of the [ AAAS Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights program]. The GeoEye imagery was higher resolution (50cm, vs 60 cm for DG), brighter with a better color balance, but didn’t match the rectification of the February imagery, or of the GPS tracks. What followed was a series of tweaks and feedback between a very patient Lars and myself of re-rectifying the imagery; we finally got something which matched the GPS tracks more or less, and both learned that satellite imagery has shades of accuracy, subject to shakes in orbit, different angles of acquisition and lighting, that mean any correction in one direction results in a mistake in another region.

Besides the July imagery, the AAAS very generously donated purchase of another 5 satellite images from over the past three years in Kibera. We are very eager to explore the possibilities of automated and manual change detection and story telling using this resource; Kibera, like slums everywhere, changes rapidly, due to improvements by residents, resettlement by the government, acquisition and construction on private plots (mostly churches), and conflict on small and large scale. Imagery will help inform our understanding of these dynamics. For the moement, we have simply posted the layers to [], and you are free to browse and select a slice of time. Particularly interesting are the Toi Market area, completely destroyed in the post-election violence and re-built in a new planned model, and the east side of Soweto East, the site of the first relocations and road construction. From these images is possible to date the Google imagery over Nairobi as pre-2006. For mappers, there are still a few permanent structures and walls that could use more tracing .. get in touch, and I can give you the JOSM or Potlatch settings for using the imagery.

Nearly all traced paths in OSM had GPS tracks associated, but not all, and in very dense areas, some artistic judgment was required to trace where a narrow path might really be going (these can of course be improved as more data is collected by other mappers). Road classification is still a challenge. In the formal villages, Olympic, Karanja, and Ayani, the roads are wide enough for vehicles, unpaved or in bad enough repair to qualify as unpaved, and very clearly evident in satellite and GPS, so highway=unclassfied or highway=residential. In the rest of Kibera, the situation is more interesting; for a place with no official centralized planning, there has definitely evolved a hierarchy of roads, branching fractal patterns intimately influenced by Kibera’s rugged topography. Some are wider, full of commerce, and obvious “main” roads; these have been tagged as highway=track. There are narrower paths, that are still very “public”, with significant commerce and foot traffic. These have been tagged as highway=footway. Also tagged as highway=footway are public paths through primarily residential areas. There are also even more narrow paths, nothing more than spaces between buildings, but still public; and paths that are practically private, through private plots. These all need differentiation, possibly though use of abutters=residential/commercial and private=yes tags. Complicating matters, the railway is the main thoroughfare of the area, so should be also indicated as a pedestrian area, and many of the creeks/sewers sometimes serve similar functions.

Three weeks of GPS tracks in Kibera

The village boundaries were initially roughly drawn from a [ map commissioned by Carolina for Kibera 7 years ago]. These were tweaked by mappers physically walking village boundaries when possible. Often these boundaries follow streams/sewers, or particular roads, and everyone is aware of precisely where they lie.


Points of interest were the primary survey and editing activity of the Map Kibera mappers. They marked waypoints on the Garmin eTrex Legend HCx GPS, and made marks and notes on Walking Papers. They very quickly got hang of this, though there were particular subtleties, and sometimes not so subtleties, which we are still working to master.

One error that crept up occasionally were waypoints placed in an location different from where the mapper was standing. This occurs when the joystick on the GPS was moved, and quickly depressed, which the units interprets as intentionally placing a point in a different spot; vs holding the button down for 2 seconds to mark the present location. I have to say, that joystick is too clever, a persistent usability problem that has a steep body learning curve, especially for people who haven’t grown up with game controllers. Most of these errors were picked up immediately and resurveyed later; they were obviously misplaced, either in absurd locations or mappers in the wrong village, but certainly there is possibility that a few slipped through.

Each mapper definitely had their own style. In the intense density of Kibera, selecting which features are “important” is a judgment call and a matter of interest. There’s a baseline of water and sanitation features, clinics, religious and community buildings, etc. Some folks found m-pesa points important to collect, others not. Some folks picked every water collection point or water tank, even if private. Both of these things still need consistent, new tagging. Features like posho mills, battery charging stations .. entirely non-existent on any other maps. Is a movie theater in Kibera a movie theater, when it consists of a small dark room, a TV, and a DVD playing pirated movies? How to tag a witch doctor’s clinic, which these days are called “herbalists”? Most of the details on all these new features are simply in the NOTE or even name tag, all POI need some review.

Caution is needed. Even a name may not be a name. The use of a structure changes more rapidly than the availability of money to repaint a sign. So the sign might show a beauty parlor, but it’s currently used as a tailor, and everyone knows that and calls it by it’s “spoken name”. How can the map reflect both what residents already know, and what an outsider might need to know to navigate.

Some villages have much higher density of collection … as some places do have higher density of commerce, while others may be primarily residential, due to their placement peripherally to Kibera. Some are quite small, like Soweto West, so possible to comprehensively collect all. Others large places, like Makina, required additional surveyors in addition to the primary mapper, and it shows — occasionally I saw duplicate features. Capitalization never seemed to sink in with everyone … they just don’t use computers enough to care. Also, there was little care for which side of the “road” a feature sat on … something we can also improve with error checking days.

The density of features is really going to require moving to abutters and ways for many commercial areas. For web interfaces, we’ll need to separate things out into thematic, toggle-able layers. For print, we’re going to do a series of maps, atlas style, each focus on a different theme, with more narrative and photos.


Chickens, goats, dogs, movie theaters, hardware stores, pubs, kerosene, charging stations, butchers, trees, sewers, rocks, mud

mapkibera twitter

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Holidays, in Snow and in Kibera

The snow has been falling steadily outside in Chicago, bringing the pleasures of snow shoveling: a little Sisyphean circulation in an overfed and over-rested body. That body has too gladly fell into near hibernation on our holiday return from Kenya. I can’t help thinking of Kenyans here, this unimaginable climate, people who even turn down iced drinks on hot days in fear of catching cold. Their relationship with holiday foods is a lot more healthy and real than what’s happened here, unless you’re a vegetarian like me (again nearly inconceivable back in Kenya).

For me, the icey temperature and the holidays have forced us to do absolutely nothing, after two of the most intense, rewarding, difficult, successful, frustrating months ever. I’ve been so tired I’ve totally missed the pleasure of reverse culture shock; it’s been just like a dream. There’s hardly been time for reflection and writing. Erica somehow managed to record her experiences and thoughts, the dedication of a professional. I hope I can recapture this incredible time in retrospect. Time to rejuvenate in 2010. We feel the strong pull to get back there, and we’re landing in Nairobi towards the end of the month.


Two weeks ago we left Nairobi. And we had to squeeze in one more conference before leaving, TedXKibera #2, very much the best meeting of the entire trip. Every presentation and conversation was lit with such excitement and optimism … of doing some genuinely innovative and impactful and astonishing.

Our friends from the Kibera Film School presented, their positive attitude, technical mastery, and connection to the wider world, an inspiration in the toughest moments of mapping in November. Organic farms are harvesting right in Kibera, built on the site of old dumping grounds, building local food security … the kind of land reuse and consumption issues challenging the status quo everywhere. PeePoople are introducing innovation to water and sanitation, a flying toilet that actually breaks down waste to safe fertilizer, and considering work on green roofs to harvest rain water and reduce heat in metal roofed homes … in addition to other group’s incredible work in sanitation, like the biolatrines. The excellent venue for TedXKibera, Mchanganyiko Women Self-Help Group, was itself built on a former dumping site, and entirely driven by women empowering themselves.

All these things need mapping … the organic farms are already on the map, and the map can be used to locate more. The stories of Togetherness Supreme, the locations where it was shot, those can be mapped for promotion and for advising on locations with Hot Sun clients. Sanitation facilities, of course are mapped … some mappers even complaining that toilets are littering the map (a good thing!). The Map Kibera group, they fully represented at TedX, and have been meeting in our absence to plan how to institutionalize the work we’ve started.

Working in Kibera is important to innovation everywhere. Working in Africa is important to innovation. Necessities are driving incredible creativity, a creativity the rest of the world needs to pay attention to for tomorrow’s challenges in urban and rural living … sanitation, food, water, and how to peacefully live together. Even the design challenges tomorrow’s technologies, augmented reality, have everything to learn from how space is negotiated in off the grid, on the edge places. Kibera is innovation.

That’s why I’m very excited about the TedXKibera Fellowship program, announced last month … there are so many enthusiastic people, that only need advice and connections and pathways. Before I get back, I’ll practice clearing paths on the snowy Chicago sidewalks.

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