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.


  1. Stefan Geens said,

    February 17, 2012 @ 9:43 am

    Hi Mikel, thanks for pinging my blog post. I just went back and checked OSM whether the politically motivated edit of the highway south of Damascus which I documented in the post was still there 6 weeks later. It still names the highway after March 15, the date of the uprising, rather than after Hafez al Assad, the official name. This is at least one instance of where OSM’s community has not reverted a political edit, despite it being pointed out on my blog and the post referenced in various OSM community BBS. And checking Mapquest.com, I see that this political edit has now seeped into their map as well (as predicted).

    I have no horse in the race between Google and OSM, and admire OSM’s progress and successes, but I can’t help but state the facts as I see them: Both OSM and Google Map Maker have let political edits stand for over a month. And that to me seems like a risk of “crowd sourcing”.

  2. mikel said,

    February 17, 2012 @ 12:22 pm

    Thanks Stefan. I’ve looked into it and repaired.

    This user, http://www.openstreetmap.org/user/syriejustice, created one changeset on August 10 http://www.openstreetmap.org/browse/changeset/8976241, renaming four highway objects.
    The changeset comment in English is “For the martyrs of the Syrian Revolution”

    I just reverted the changes, http://www.openstreetmap.org/browse/changeset/10710097
    And put a block on the user http://www.openstreetmap.org/user/syriejustice/blocks

  3. neuhausr said,

    February 17, 2012 @ 4:01 pm

    An example that might support both your comments…

    Power of crowd-sourcing: since it was mentioned on the OSM mailing list 6 days ago that Homs is covered by Bing high-resolution imagery, all roads and many buildings and other features in and around the city have been traced in OSM. http://www.itoworld.com/product/data/ito_map/main?view=131&lat=34.71680823079095&lon=36.70746541205442&zoom=12

    Weakness of crowd-sourcing: there hasn’t been anyone with local knowledge involved, so there are very few place names attached to the features. http://tools.geofabrik.de/osmi/?view=highways&lon=36.72121&lat=34.72811&zoom=13&opacity=0.75&overlays=name_missing_major,name_missing_minor,name_fixme

    Judging from the OSM map of Damascus, there seem to have been some contributors with local knowledge (who would notice a change like the one highlighted in the article more easily), but not many edits real recently.

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