What would it take to map an entire country?

“What would it take to map an entire country?”

With the growing visibility of Map Kibera, that question is coming more frequently, especially in Africa, where both OpenStreetMap and traditional mapping are widely absent. This is a massive question, which is going to depend very much on circumstances of that country, and on who is asking that question; and in the end may be better answered by a different question. In response to a couple queries, from Liberia and Malawi, I decided to write up a few blog posts to start off those conversations, and serve as reference for any of the other 200+ countries on this planet. To start, going look at a few examples to serve as models for answering the question.

Up front, the question assumes one very important thing; the historical growth pattern of OSM isn’t happening. Traditionally, a few individuals had their minds blown by a conference presentation on OSM, or maybe a random blog post somewhere, and they start mapping their home town. And when that looks to be a big task, and they start eyeing the next town, they start recruiting others through mapping parties. A mailing list is set up. The virus starts to spread, and OSM might get the attention of a local government or two, maybe some companies, and soon, the country is well on its way to being mapped. The growth is organic. It might take years. The preconditions are important. Roughly, there has been an active community already of technically proficient people who have leisure time, perhaps already contributing to open source projects. In other countries, there may not be a technical community, or socioeconomic conditions make leisure time a valuable and scarce. Other places may be in conflict. These are places where people start to consider intentional interventions to get mapping going.

The first place I took part in an intentional effort was India. Now, India is well known for having a broad and highly skilled technical base, but at least in 2008, there was proportionally small open source community. There had been interest in mapping through the Free Map project, and Schuyler and I took the invitation to promote OSM through a slightly insane schedule of mapping parties in 7 Indian cities in one month. A wonderful experience. But it did not instantly translate into a frenzy of mapping activity. The idea gestated for a time, and slowly, individuals took up the cause, and now the OSM India community is vibrant, centered in cities. One place to note is Mumbai, despite extensive interest, is still not active, largely due to an import of AND data that turned out to be much less than accurate, discouraging further editing. An issue we’re still looking at, and generally, I’ll talk about existing data sources and imports in another post.

Palestine was a very intentional mapping, first of the entire West Bank, and then of Gaza. JumpStart International funded a project to create a complete, public domain map of all roads. We estimated a time of about 6 months, which turned out to be accurate (more on time estimates in another post). The approach taken was to hire engineering graduates, in teams based in each region, train them through mapping parties, and coordinate the incoming data. Gaza was not to be mapped, but the 2009 crisis there motivated the remote OSM community to fund raise to purchase recent satellite imagery of the entire strip, and trace remotely. After the conflict was over, JumpStart entered Gaza and built up a team to enhance that work with a combination of GPS tracing and imagery. The result is a complete road map of Palestine. However, no sustained OSM community of interested individuals, local companies, local government, and UN agencies is left. The individuals involved saw this as temporary paid work, and many of them have taken jobs outside Palestine. The wider community wasn’t engaged with an aim to build capacity. So now, even though Israeli OSM has been interested to hold joint activities with Palesinte, and Ramallah now has street names, the map isn’t being updated.

In Kenya, we haven’t set out to map the entire country, but it seems like the base we’ve built in Kibera is ready to spread throughout Nairobi and beyond. We’ve focused heavily on Kibera, but with the idea always that the group here, and the entire community, will be able to take the project forward. The impact of mapping a place that was unmapped, and considered unmappable, has made a great impression within civil society, the government, and the UN. We’ve taken a lot of time to outreach to others already working with map data. The approach is more like planting a single seed, nurturting it, and then allowing it to grow. It’s yet to be seen how this pans out.

JumpStart started next working in Georgia. Their approach is now long term but different. They have first focused on conflict areas, following the Georgia-Russia conflict in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and also in the capital, Tbilisi. From this start, they are building a country wide network of regional offices, Open Maps Caucasus, supported by an NGO structure. They are producing curriculum, hiring a team, and doing extensive outreach with map data users. The question to my mind is the long term sustainability of the structure. If JumpStart decides to stop supporting the NGO structure, will it be able to find more funding to keep going? And if that doesn’t materialize, will a community be in place to take it forward organically? Again, yet to be seen, and a question they are certainly considering.

In the USA, mapping hadn’t taken off until last year. This was perhaps due to the TIGER data set, available public domain. CloudMade set out to initiate this community by hiring community ambassadors in regions throughout the country, and holding mapping parties. One of the most spectacular was the Atlanta mapping weekend, involving hundreds of people in cooperation with the Atlanta municipal government. However, after a time CloudMade discontinued the ambassadors program. From there, what has developed has looked like a more traditional growth, with a wide spectrum of individuals, companies, organizations, and government getting interested and involved. The GeoDC group has been very active, and recently OSMF US has incorporated. Hard to calculate what effect the intentional effort of CloudMade had on this growth, though it was certainly a contribution.

Finally, many have seen the extremely rapid growth of the map in Haiti. Prior to the quake, very little data existed there for familiar reasons. Following the disaster, and the release of imagery for derived works and other data sources, remote mappers quickly and spectacularly produced comprehensive maps of Port au Prince and much of the country. Mappers wanted to contribute to the relief effort. Certainly in other unmapped places, remote mappers are motivated to contribute just out of interest. If you look at any capital city covered by Yahoo imagery, there will have been remote mappers contributing at least geometries. Does this translate to places not in crisis, but in more prolonged issues that prevent mapping? Probably to some extent, but not nearly as focused and quick, and very much dependent on imagery. But imagery is not enough. Local knowledge is needed to name places, and identify features … most roofs don’t tell you what’s going on inside a building. In Haiti, two deployments have gone to advocate, train, and build capacity for OSM locally. Nicolas is now planning to go again, as part of our long term plan for OSM in Haiti, to continue the work to the point where the Haitian community, which includes their government and civil society actors, are ready to take it forward.

4 thoughts on “What would it take to map an entire country?”

  1. Some months ago we started organizing some mapping parties in the Basque Country. We’ve gone to more than 20 cities and villages. As you say, engaging some individuals and creating a community is the key for a sustainable quality map. This promotion work is exhausting but the community and the map are growing a lot.

  2. Thanks for the kind words about CloudMade’s efforts to support the mapping. Just wanted to point out that the ambassador program was replaced with an effort to support more local effort like the Atlanta Mapathon with planning, train the trainer and PR. This is an ongoing effort and includes working closely with both individuals, companies, organizations, local government and press to support OpenStreetMap.

  3. The NGO structure JumpStart has built in Georgia is, in my opinion, an apt and sustainable way forward. After our experience in Palestine it became clear that impact requires a lasting effort in a community and the encouragement of local skills and ownership. It’s not merely about mapping a country, but about understanding where that, conceptually, meets societal needs, and building value therein. Sustainability for Open Maps Caucasus comes by understanding the convergence of digital technologies with community mapping, social fabric, governance, and civil society, and filling a need within that sphere. We’re not expecting OMC’s community mapping focus to last forever, but that concept, at the very heart of it is meaningful and sustainable, because accessing the tools for extracting and considering not oil or timber, but information, strengthens a society and can make it more prone to long term development.

    Great post, all efforts which will be certainly interesting to watch.

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