OpenStreetMap Caribbean

It was my tough chore to introduce several Caribbean islands to OpenStreetMap this summer. Mainly Dominican Republic, but also the Isle of St. Lucia, and Anna forayed to Cuba. Finding digital mapping data for the region is difficult, and nothing detailed is available in the G-Y-M apis. Yet many of these places are sized on the order of the Isle of Wight, and with the huge tourist industry in the region, this map data is valuable.
Perla Marina, Original Map

Our first venture outside Santo Domingo was to Cabarete, a few hours drive on the north coast of DR, one of the top kiteboarding spots in the world. We arranged to stay at a really cool beach bungalow, in a small area called Perla Marina (there’s no marina actually).

The map above was our guide to our destination. We got lost.

It appears to be drawn in Microsoft Paint. It contains several missing streets, drawn in with pen. What appears to be the beach front is actually just a crossroads. There’s no landmarks, and the geographical scale is completely off. Obviously MSFT Paint is not the right tool to make maps .. but it shouldn’t be at all harder to make maps than to draw I think.
Perla Marina GPS traces in JOSM

We spent about a half hour driving around the neighborhood with the GPS, and got the track above (loaded into the JOSM editor). The line running across the bottom is State Highway 2. There are streets missing, due to out of control security concerns; there’s a guard & gate at the main entrance, but apparently some streets don’t trust that, and they have another guard & gate at the street entrance (and each house has its own security as well, .. and the heart of each occupant is locked away, locks within locks within locks *sniff*). I marked waypoints at each guard house, generating incredible suspicion in the process.

There’s also a huge tree along the main road of the neighborhood, an excellent landmark.

Perla Marina in osmarender

After making segments and ways in JOSM, I downloaded the data from OSM and ran it through osmarender, which is responsible for producing some very professional looking maps. I didn’t have a lot of time to tweak the output, but this map of Perla Marina is really taking shape. The red dots are gates, the green dot marks the distinctive tree, and the blue dot is the beach house.

See, it’s not so tough being a mapper.

Another summer, another wiki! UN INSTRAW Gender Training Wiki. INSTRAW Tech, Take 3.

In what’s becoming an annual tradition, Anna and I have launched another Wiki within the United Nations, the UN INSTRAW Gender Training Wiki! This is intended as a resource for a wide community, and features such technical nicieties like integrated mapping and calendaring of all articles. I encourage you to check it out for yourself, but here’s a run down of how it went down, from my perspective.

The Conceptual Switch. This Wiki brought its own share of new challenges, as well as reinforcing lessons from the previous one. At the start, the success of the WaterWiki was convincing enough to pursue the Wiki route for gathering Gender Training resources (rather than the traditional Word Document favored at INSTRAW!) .. even if they didn’t quite know what they were in for with the Wiki. They also like maps, which have an even better integration in this wiki (more below). Anna organized two training sessions for the entire organization, introducing the concept and the techniques necessary for using it. We quickly simplified the interface of the wiki, and tried our best to bypass the nastiness of wikitext.

The biggest difference is the emphasis on connecting with external organizations, and multilanguage support. The WaterWiki was designed as a knowledge management tool within the organization; the Gender Training Wiki is intended for a wide community of organizations to access and share information on Gender Training organizations, events, and materials. It’s open for anyone to edit. And along with that, this Wiki, as it grows, will require ever greater effort to garden and organize the contributions .. an organizational effort that still needs to be met. Unexpectedly, the first external contributors to the wiki were men, listing gender sensitivity training for men. They intend to pursue the Wiki route with other projects, for instance one focused on Gender and Political Participation, and the MediaWiki is all set up in a farm mode .. this represents a fundamental shift in how INSTRAW approaches its mission.

Internationalization. INSTRAW is committed to supporting English, French and Spanish. But rather than launching three seperate Wikis, ala Wikipedia, we wanted to avoid duplication and patchy data and stick with one multilingual Wiki. The ideal solution would have different versions on each article in multiple languages; a user would be presented with the article in their preferred language, if available, with links to other languages, and default to English if not available. With limited time, I was unable to build an extension to do this, but think it’s possible. As a stop gap, all three languages are presented on the main page, and Spanish and French articles are categorized and automatically collected.

The structural text is translated, as per normal, but some of the extra features we introduced weren’t easily translated. Breadcrumbs, which has just a little traction as a concept in User Interface design, was completely nonsensical in direct translation to migajas de pan. Its meaning is only clear via a cultural reference to a German fairy tale, that’s not commonly known among native Spanish speakers.

Mapping and Calendering. Any page in the wiki can be assigned a location. This is done directly by browsing in a small Google Map, including location lookup with MGeocoder, inserted in the edit page. Rather than the difficult-for-the-novice method of explicitly typing coordinates using wikitext, or simple-but-not-intergrated use of a external service like Placeopedia. The editor never actually sees the wikitext that assigns location and inserts the map .. it’s all preprocessed using hooks, based somewhat on the MediaWiki Google Maps Extension (authored by Evan Miller, who I collaborated with years ago on some worldKit features). All of the geotagged articles are assembled into a GeoRSS feed, and displayed on the main page using MGeoRSS.

Similarly, any page can be assigned a date range; this is especially relevant for timetagging training courses. The interface uses the calendar widget from Yahoo, and all upcoming trainings are automatically collected and listed.

The technical details of the extensions and hacks, used and developed, are all listed for those interested. I haven’t released the new Google Maps Extension or the Calendaring Extension, but could be pursuaded to. I think there’s a lot to this approach, of adding to wiki interface elements besides the text edit box.

Our Guard at UN INSTRAW

Our guard at UN INSTRAW

The daytime guard at UN INSTRAW is about the nicest security guard I’ve ever come across.
After a hectic journey across Santo Domingo to the office, it was great to be welcomed with “Hola hermano” and a “Fight the power” style fist salute. The gate was almost never locked, just a chain hung across the gap symbolizing lockedness.
He’s on loan from the Policia Nacional. Next door to the INSTRAW compound is some type of military installation. Every evening the trumpet would bellow, traffic would be stopped, and our guard would dutifully lower the Dominican flag in unison our neighbors.

One morning he stopped me and tried to hand me some sheets of paper. It was some kind of multiple choice History test, in Spanish. Cuál era la causa de la guerra mundial una? a) los fascistas. b) revolución de los métodos de producción… . He wanted me to take it and look up the answers on the Internet. I didn’t take it. He asked everyone in the office. Later I learned the test was not his, but actually his brothers. No moral quandries for him whatsoever. A kind of beautiful Dominican attitude. We’re all in it together, we help each other, and if his brother can get an entire UN Agency to help with him multiple choice history test, then wow, he deserves even more credit for it.

Another week, he started saying everything in English. Good Morning, How are you, I’m fine. Practicing. I was happy to oblige, he obliged my own tortured Spanish. One week later, the English abrputly ended, and then it was just Spanish for the rest of the summer.

My sysadmin colleague at INSTRAW always wanted to snap a picture of our guard sleeping. He always woke up first. He may be sleeping, but his attention was finally tuned to any disturbance.

Hasta luego senor.

Mapping Medio Ambiente

On August 22, in the newest building at the oldest university in the western hemisphere, a group of adventurous folk from the Dominican Republic Ministry of the Environment became Map Hackers at the Mapping Medio Ambiente Workshop.

Universidad Autonoma de Santo Domingo

In their work, monitoring pollution sources, preparing environmental impact reports, conservation, they generate large amounts of data, GPS waypoints, imagery .. but generally lack the technical and financial means to organize this information in a traditional GIS. Mostly GPS readings are just noted down in paper notebooks. Clearly more could be done with this data, further internal and external communication and organization with geo-visualiation and -analysis. The idea for the one day workshop was to introduce the web/hacker oriented approaches, to drive use of the great geospatial tools from the bottom up.


We had a large agenda, though the day ended up looking a bit different. Our main activity of the day was production of a geotagged photo map. In three shifts, groups went out with the GPS and digital camera, checked that the clocks were in sync, and took a stroll. Back in the meeting room, I demonstrated how to use GPSBabel to pull out GPX (and KML), and used WWMX LocationStamper to geotag. Then upload to flickr, and display on a little custom mapping flickr hack (using flickr in preperation for their native stuff). We then distributed the GPX track and photos to each person’s computer, and they went through the process of stamping, uploading, and mapping themselves.

From the feedback I got, this simple activity was really inspirational. Within a few hours, they went out and physically collected, transformed, uploaded and visualized data. Making flickr maps itself may be useful in their work, but more widely they now understand that they personally have the ability to work with geospatial data and maps.

At the end of the workshop, we distributed copies of Mapping Hacks, Google Map Hacks and Web Mapping Illustrated to various departments within the ministry and donated a set to the university library. The participants were very happy to receive these, and it should provide a foundation for further explorations. There were one or two folks with a bit more experience with GIS, so Web Mapping Illustrated will be on target for some. The IT staff as well will find all these useful. Big thanks to O’Reilly for the donation.

Mapping Medio Ambiente Workshop

Naturally, not everything went to plan. Partially this was technical .. I didn’t get a chance to test things out in the meeting room before, so lots of time taken up getting the correct gateway for the wifi, and a fruitless attempt to use FTP, blocked by the university’s firewall. The same “everything will be fine” Dominican attitude which stressed me out in preperations for the workshop, served well during the disruption. The unexpected is expected. People browsed Google Earth without any prompting, and probably could’ve continued all day. The Directors of the Ministry and representatives from the University helpfully gave speeches while we scrambled to get Wifi working .. the speeches were planned anyway, a chance for me to practice my Spanish comprehension.

But also I overestimated what we could accomplish in one day. It was probably good that FTP was blocked, since teaching just this basic concept of moving files from the computer to the server could have taken hours. And in retrospect, my plans relied on building custom hacks rather than primarily on many of the established web services for building maps. I think eventually the Ministry will build capacity to publish KML, GeoRSS, and Google Maps on their website, but in the mean time its enough to be able to useflickr and Wikimapia and Platial.

Wikimapia was really really intuitive for the participants to use; I think more of the social mapping websites, and the web in general, should strive for this simplicity of interface and functionality. Platial, while definitely useful for creating personal maps, felt overburdened with functionality at first impression (I have a bunch of feedback for Platial when I run into them again). Watching a novice user, especially a non-native English speaker, foreign cultured, trying to navigate Web 2.0 apps in really telling. All the things I love about Web 2.0 — the irreverant attitude and language, the ever changing plethora of features, playful design — are major obstacles. Errors are part of the game — in order to use the web, in a way you have to understand how it can break (anyone who promotes Firefox will have to explain that some sites only work in IE, HTML incompatibilities, etc). Imagine if your refrigerator broke down 10% of the time you opened it to get some food? What if flickr had been having a massage during the workshop?

I really had a good time doing this Workshop, and hope it catalyses further mapping work at the Ministry. There’s so much opportunity to adapt the web, hacking, geo- in the Dominican Republic, and throughout the world .. its a shame I’m heading back to the UK now. I was entreated to stay, or come back again, and I hope I get a chance soon.

Tropical Depression Chris

tropical depression chris

Toprical Depression Chris visited Santo Domingo this morning. Within 15 minutes the drains were overwhelmed, and many streets transformed to swift streams. It was easy to see a good hour or two of the torrent could lead to some serious flooding. But he left.

Dominican Republic is in a perfect spot to intercept hurricanes. The word hurricane comes from the Taíno, the indigenous and long gone people of Hispanola. Georges in 1998 was the last big one to come through.

With the poverty and daily chaos of the DR, its hard to imagine the true chaos of a hurricane disaster, the challenge of mounting a relief operation. And at the same time, it both makes feeble (you really just need resources on the ground) and strengthens my belief (it will help coordination and organization) in mapping and GeoRSS for humanitarian response.
Early Warning System

The DR Government does not sit idly by. Every small village, of a dozen or so families, has a concrete hurricane shelter, which can also serve as a focus point for relief efforts. Most of the times these buildings double as schools. The slightly large villages (several dozen families) have early warning systems installed — these solar power satellite phones pictured above. The phone is maintained and operated by Verizon, and most of the time is simply a pay phone (and this is important here, as the mountains and economics make leapfrogging with mobile phones impractical).

We need a GeoRSS feed of all the hurricane shelter sites. Would be incredbily useful to coordinate relief after the inevitable future hurricane. And it could double during the off season for more Creative projects.

Electricity para Republica Dominicana

charles de gaulle terminal 1

Its thundering heavy right now. Though this is only sometimes the source of power failures here in Dominican Republic. Its unpaid bills.

There’s more than enough potential power capacity in this country, but with pretty much no one paying their bills, including the government, the power companies can’t operate, and simply stop producing electricity for several hours a day. The situation is compounded by a series of privatizations and renationalization of various components of the electrical generation-distribution-billing system, leaving the responsibilities in disarray. Plus government legislated, but unfunded, universal right to electricity .. which seems great idea, if someone was paying.

electricity in santo domingo

People tap into the system on their own initiative. Throughout the country, dozens of wires hang in big drooping bundles, organically flourishing, with several loose ends dripping down to head level .. and who knows whether they carry live current, I haven’t checked. Once a month, the bill collector comes around, and if the bill is refused, the line is cut to the house. An hour later, the bill collector is heading back to headquarters and the locals are heading up to reconnect their wires for another month. And so on.

Few pay their bills. The mentality is .. why should it be paid?! — it can be gotten with just a little effort, and blackouts can be handled. And my neighbor isn’t paying, so why should I. Hurt your credit?! It’s like a prisoners dillemma national nightmare, and every once in a while the night light is on.

The power outage in our neighborhood here is pretty regular .. 4 hours every morning, 4am – 8am (it’s much worse in the outer barrios and rural areas which can be without power for 18 hours). Our place has a backup battery and a generator, most places that can afford it do .. but the aircon is on a circuit that’s only powered by the mains. So sleepily every morning I switch on the floor fan we acquired soon after discovering the blackout schedule — its just too hot for us weak foreigners to sleep without some air flow. Around 7:30 the battery goes out, and Abuelo (sweet Spanish old man here, the caretaker of the place) has to go and manually start the generator; as with just about everything, he doesn’t move too fast, so there’s a gap of five minutes. Usually this happens right during a shower, or while toasting toast.

We have UPSs and all here at INSTRAW, but they aren’t always so reliable. Same at home. So if you see me bouncing on and off IRC or IM, you have the story. However it looks like MINUSTAH has all the goods for a smooth running UN office over in Haiti.

The electricity woes follow us. Last week travelling back to Sweden, our connection in Newark was hit by lightning, causing a three hour delay. Coming back, staying in Philadelphia, power was lost after another big electrical storm, causing general household chaos (“Shower in the dark?! Where to get coffee?!”) .. but by this point I’m pretty comfortable without power .. for a while. Something we should all start thinking about.ringtones brown prideringtones buy with credit cardtracfone c155 ringtonescall ringtone cat whistleringtone cell karaoke ipod phonecell motorola phone ringtonescode geass ringtonescentral carlos mencia ringtones comedy Map

Santo Domingo in an Alternate Reality

Santo Domingo is a different city. We returned last night after a week away. While we were gone, the government has banned all alcohol sales after midnight during the week, 2am on the weekend. And deployed 6000 troops across the country to enforce the ban.
This is effectively a curfew, there’s not much other reason for ever-party-loving Dominicans or toursits to be out on the streets at night. The party action usually doesn’t really start until after midnight. Coming from the airport last night, no blaring Merengue music, no people hanging out in shop fronts or doorways .. just empty streets and gun toting soldiers at intersections. There may be no more effective means of control here in DR than going after alcohol. Things are safe and calm .. too calm.
Seems to be an extreme response to a perceived, and not entirely actual, rise in crime. Is this actually a newly elected government expressing its power, to a country with dictatorship not so far in its past? This does nothing for the real heavy crime here, drug and people trafficking .. but perhaps there’s a vested interest in not going after that income source.

Follow the local expat discussion of the ban on DR1 forums.

World Cup de Boca Chica

The German Embassy sponsored a viewing of the World Cup final at the Hilton all inclusive in Boca Chica. Boca Chica is the nearest beach to the capital, and not all that attractive, with a shipping port just west and a breakwater creating a tepid lagoon not unlike a large underclorenated public swimming pool surrounded by bars. Since CDN, the main broadcaster for the Dominican Republic, did their broadcasting from there, filming the commentary from the room (GOOOOOOALLL), I guess they hosted the whole country.

There were loads of bigwigs there apparently, making several overly long speeches, such as the Minister of Tourism profusely thanking Hilton for hosting the event and I guess for developing numerous impenetrable all-inclusive resorts around the country that are the sum total of most tourists DR experience (and cutting off prime beaches and basically entire economies from the local people). Thanks Hilton, Love, Your corrupt local politician.

We were seated at the “Scandanavian table”, and got loads of cameras gawking. I guess we were a bit more excited that the politicos quietly enduring the overtime. So maybe on TV you saw my big head among the big wigs.

The best reason to be there was sauerkraut. And mustard and grilled meats. Dominican food can be very good, pollo y arroz for sure, but is very very inconsistent in quality. Now hungering for German food in the Caribbean, estoy loco.

But as soon as the party was over, so was the privelage. Trying to get just a glass of water at the beach front bar, we were denied. No all-inclusive resort bracelet, no aqua.

Loteria Nacional

Last week I was asked to help out with a quick Perl script for the Dominican Republic Lottery.

Unlike in the States and Europe, the Loteria Nacional is a semi-privatised affair. The sales of tickets and awarding of prizes is open to any private company that registers with the government. The government picks the actual numbers every night on TV at 8pm. And collects taxes from those companies. Interesting way to distribute the problem. The government insures some legitimacy to picking the numbers (rather than leaving open all kinds of abuse with completely private illegal Numbers Games) and gets some income (which goes who knows where, but whatever) all without having to organize anything substantial (extra big bonus here), like setting up a secure network of lottery purchase machines. So besides the actual sellers, there’s a cottage industry of companies selling computing systems to sell lottery tickets.

The loteria is typically three numbers. You can win something by even hitting one number. Any small or large amount can be gambled, to appeal to the dreams of the many poor here. As a result, the more sophisticated lottery systems allow the merchant to monitor which numbers are being picked in real time. If one number is being oversubscribed, he can stop sales on that one number. Too many 33s this afternoon, block 33 and sorry, you can have 32 if you like, thanks.

One particular company installs linux machines at sales locations, and collects numbers and determines prizes on a central server. All in COBOL-85 of course. The telecommunication here being what it is (something to do with luck) the machine only phones home occasionally. And this opens up a potential abuse. After the numbers are announced at 8pm, someone on location disconnects the network and shuts down their linux box, resets the time in BIOS, and once the box has come up again buys some winning numbers in the past. Restart and reset the BIOS to the present time, and connect the network. Wow you won!

So the company has now installed queriable USB devices which only keep the current, unmodifiable time. And the Perl script I helped hack together .. simply compares the time on the linux box with the usb device, and if its off by more than a few seconds, it kills processes and complains loudly.

Hooray for Perl, making sure people lose their money fairly.