When it comes to politics, crowds can be manipulated, but not communities

The women and children in the photo are suffering, and the story tells of hidden revolutionaries challenging brutal rule in all arenas, and victorious on the maps of the most powerful company on the planet. They’re renaming the infrastructure after revolutionary heroes. You can’t help but cheer on such clever efforts for freedom.

Google supports liberation! Another front in American online diplomacy?! How far from the truth. Another lame attempt to boost American companies sales with puff pieces about their support for the Arab Spring. Let’s watch and see how long before Google scrambles to show its commitments to national governments (i.e. customers) and their maps switch back to their Assad era names.

The real story here is the nature of “crowdsourcing” (a term I’m increasingly despising), and power over and control of our geographic reality. Stefen Geens says that such false information, that politically motivated editing is a risk of crowdsourcing; it’s not, it’s rather the result of a false community and opaque processes. This write-up (“regime change, hardly”) is an excellent blow by blow, but there is absolutely no way to full penetrate this proprietary system.

Could this have happened on OpenStreetMap? Sort of. Anyone can edit anytime, I could change these names right now. The difference is that the change would be spotted soon by the community which cares for this data, all past changes by the user easily identifiable, discussion and questions posed in public, and reverts applied if necessary. In the event that the inaccurate edits ontinue, the case can be escalated to mediation, and the DWG can finally take actions like warning and blocks. It’s happened before, in Northern Cyprus, and OSM dealt well.

OpenStreetMap does not support the Assad regime, nor does it support the rebellion. It supports everyone’s access to the facts, and the equal ability for those common facts to respond to reality. OSM was the first map to display the world’s newest country of South Sudan. And in the event the brutality in Syria ends, and the streets are renamed on the ground, you know where to edit.

Only Possible With Open Data

Arguments about the importance of Open Data often come down to a principled stance, or a licensing discussion … that kind of argument doesn’t make much impression on folks who aren’t way in the weeds. And it’s more than just licensing … there are equal parts issues of legality, technical freedom, and community. Clear examples of what you can do only with OpenStreetMap, and not with say, Google Map Maker, makes this stuff real. Here are just a few, among many.

Mapping of Jalabad and surrounding countryside is unique to OSM. They collect data with GPS and Smart Phones and Walking Papers. With GMM, you can only trace imagery on your laptop computer. With OSM you can go into the field to actually talk with people about what to put on the map. Afghanistan is not an option at all on MapMaker, for political reasons. And the Jalalagood guys are organized as a company, but do mapping largely in their free time, voluntarily … so they get nixed for being “commercial”.

Great video on Jalalagood and a detailed mapping trip report.

In Haiti, TapTapMap maps local bus routes, free to add any sort of data in OSM. In GMM, users are not allowed to add bus routes, only Google does that, and only by getting data from transit agencies. Haiti’s system, like many places in the developing world, does not have a single authority which maps and controls the routes. You can only get these routes by riding with your GPS.

Another project that certainly couldn’t happen without Open Data. This is a Tourist Map of the Gaza Strip. Produced by a spin-off company from a university that took part in OpenStreetMap mapping in Gaza. This is not an area that can even be mapped in Google because of a political decision, it’s mostly blank on the map. While the map is free, it’s produced by a commercial entity and contains ads for local restaurants, hotels and sites.

In the Phillippines, recent humanitarian response to flooding relied on open source tools to process and make available satellite imagery to create OSM data. The GMM toolset would not permit integration of any other data sources except those controlled by Google. So it would stifle local ability to respond to disasters that don’t make huge media splashes (G Crisis Response has not been active at all in the Philippines).