GPS is not a crime

Keeping a close eye on the developing story of the arrest of two GPS surveyors in Gujarat, India. Their crime .. a GPS system fitted in their car, and videos of places they surveyed. If that sounds like your favorite crowdsourcing mapping project, you have cause to be concerned. Chippy blogs they were working for a mapping company contracted by Nokia. That’s a legitimate, international corporation folks .. not a bunch of hackers wandering around with GPS talking to themselves (into audio recorders).

It’s likely these guys simply ignored common sense. Filming military installations anywhere is likely to generate _some harassment_. But common sense may soon not be enough. Are railway stations and five star hotels now militarily sensitive locations? Will lists of sensitive areas be published publicly, so mappers know to avoid them? Unlikely. Which leaves the absurd possibility of not knowing if you are violating the law until after you do so. Reminds me of the creepier trends in the US post-9/11, a world we’re hopefully leaving behind next month, and it saddens me to see this trend reemerge in India.

What’s dangerous is that the recent attacks in Mumbai give authorities an excuse to overstep authority, to incarcerate on flimsy pretenses and to widen the definition of suspicious activities and sensitive areas. Google Earth and GPS are again technological scapegoats

Details emerging from investigations following the attacks reveal that among their arsenal of weapons included a cache of ICT gadgets like satellite and mobile, and GPS equipment that were cleverly used to keep battalions of security forces at bay for hours.

Your mobile phone and GPS is considered a weapon. And I had thought it was actual weapons that had kept the security forces at bay. What else should be considered weapons? Boats? Food? Oxygen? All were employed. GPS and Google Earth are part of our lives, and pointing at these seriously overwhelmingly beneficial technologies is seriously lame blame game. Just deploy a GPS jammer with security forces.

There’s a hundred more plausible reasons why this happened vigorously discussed in this thread. And don’t forget that GPS and Google Earth (funded by In-Q-Tel) both started as military technologies; it’s one of the more astoundingly clear headed strategies of the US military that generally, more information in the public sphere increases security. The OpenStreetMap of Mumbai was itself used to elucidate the situation in Wikipedia’s comprehensive coverage.

We’re seeing the same absurd suspicion rear its head in Egypt, reasserting the illegality of GPS within iPhones. Of course GPS are everywhere there, I spoke about GPS mapping in Egypt this year, and OpenStreetMap in Cairo and Egypt as a whole is taking off.

What can we do? The India OSM talk list has suggested that local chapters may help present an official govt facing organization for such matters. The fact that the arrested mappers in India worked for a company working for Nokia makes this seem unlikely. And if we asked for permission, would it be granted? No. And we never have asked for permission!

I’m concerned. Mapping started as a military technology, and that outdated view is still held widely .. especially in places where OSM is needed most, where mapping is of crucial social benefit. Bloggers are arrested frequently under repressive regimes. We must be poised to come to the aid of mappers when the repression spreads.

How do *we* determine the names for things?

Illuminating and fascinating reading on Google’s naming policy for disputed places. Commendable that their decision making process, and the process for devising that process, have been so transparently communicated. There are things here for any mapping organization to learn from. And interesting to see how far Google’s process has paralleled OpenStreetMap, and where it ultimately diverges .. in the basis for authority.

I’ve had an interest in the nature of borders and conflicts in mapping ever since maps started to take over my life ;). Traditional cartography hadn’t done a very good job of representing the multiple, fluid realities of the world, especially in the age of nation states. The reality of borders isn’t represented very well by a thick black line. For instance, the national boundaries within the EU are tending towards something like US state borders; in fact, crossing into California, through the agricultural checkpoints, is more restrictive than driving from Germany to Austria. Better are the maps indicating the shifting line of control of WW2, so fascinating to me in my childhood atlas. The thick black line gives the illusion of stasis and control, but ultimately it’s all temporary.

Like most ultimately liberating technologies, maps were primarily designed as military technology, to claim territory, demonstrate authority, control reality. The promise of digital democratic mapping up-ends the military origins. Digital maps have the potential to express multiple and opposing points of view.

OpenStreetMap had the start of its first edit war in the fall. It won’t be the last. At issue was the territory of North Cyprus, in conflict since a nearly universally regarded illegal (excepting Turkey) invasion by Turkish forces over 30 years ago. A English expatriate living in North Cyprus was labelling places with Turkish names. A Greek Cypriot, whose father fled from North Cyprus, had been switching to the Greek names. And back and forth. Traditionally places had both Greek and Turkish names, and Greek and Turkish people, and people used whatever localisation they choose. With the political/military conflict, and a global platform for communication, the conflict has spread to open databases. The Wikipedia article on Cyprus is often in conflict, and now OSM.

I attempted to intervene and broker a solution between the fighting editors. Perhaps I had been spending too much time at the UN, and fancied myself a digital diplomat. With much patience, we came to agree that both Greek and Turkish names will be represented, in A/B fashion. But in the end, we could not reach consensus on who was A and who was B. So disappointedly, dialogue in this case failed.

The discussion within OSM for a solution has been wide ranging .. everything from totally laissez faire, i.e. letting the editors fight it out until one gets tired, policies for disabling certain user accounts (ineffective), whitelists, blacklists, to locking down certain areas from any editing at all. As with most “decisions” in OSM, the solution has been a combination of the simplest thing that works and whatever someone takes the initiative to actually code. We have a rule but no code changes (though disputes has led some impetus to implementing changesets and reverts). We have called our rule the On the Ground Rule, which resembles greatly Google’s Primary Local Usage. The difference of course is in where the ultimate authority for applying this rule lies.

Preceeding this difference, I think I can detect something of the frustration I’ve experienced in attempting to free data from the United Nations as Google has. “We considered attempting to extricate Google entirely from the problem of deciding placenames by simply deferring to the determinations of an existing, authoritative, multilateral or multistakeholder institution.” But the UN keeps a strict policy that their maps are not official political representations, and takes no authoritative stance on boundaries or names. Frustrating, since essentially the UN is hamstrung by the traditional, single reality view of cartography.

So, Google has imbued itself with the authority for these decisions. And they have the funds to employ a Director of Global Public Policy to think these thing fully through. Of course, of any authority, they are presently most open and transparent. Google is spreading its remit way beyond organizing the world’s information, to organizing the world. They are investing in green energy technologies, sponsoring humanitarian information software development, advising governments and intelligence agencies on how to operate. And perhaps the primary colored, happy, relatively open and efficient world of Google is a better alternative to the current world order! They’ve done such a good job with the web, give them our world.

Google has become a target for such sarcasm on many fronts .. because it wasn’t supposed to be this way. The interweb would rebalance power and authority, and this potential is what inspires me for democratic digital mapping. In this vein, Google is an systematic aberration, amassing power by doing what it should — being good. But does power inevitably corrupt? That’s the fear, and the remorse that it doesn’t necessarily need to be this way.

Where does OpenStreetMap derive its authority? The discussion of
the tagging process
touched on this very issue. Jokingly, OpenStreetMap was described as an anarchic collective, but I don’t think that’s far off. There is some ultimate authority — the Foundation runs the servers — but only in the most hands off caretaker position. Beyond some extremes, it’s a continual negotiation and consensus building process, never definitively settling, open to newcomers and new perspectives. The authority of OpenStreetMap is its Openness.

This difference in authority has real implications for real maps. Here is Google and OpenStreetMap compared for Cyprus.


Google has decided to dodge the issue completely by not providing any data for Cyprus. There is definitely data commercially available, since Microsoft maps do show boundaries, roads, and names. OpenStreetMap shows the still somewhat messy circumstances.

OSM has better potential solutions. Our database is already internationalized. All that’s waiting is i18n and localisation of the maps themselves. In an interesting twist, this is one of OSM’s proposed Google Summer of Code projects. Another twist is that the student proposer is from India, and the problem of localising Indic scripts is a complicated one — how a series of characters is rendered differs based on their order, so rulesets/state machines need to be embedded in fonts. Yahoo India has made some impressive progress here, rendering Indian placenames in the local script of each Indian state. The Indian state itself provides the forum for sorting out placenames — state divisions are organized, and reorganized, along real and sometimes semi-imagined linguistic lines. But of any place I’ve ever visited, India demonstrates the greatest variety of people living in relative harmony .. so if there’s any place that will work out the solution for the promise of multiple points of view in digital democracy, I reckon it’s India.


Two enthusiastic young guys at Freed in Delhi told me they were attending the workshops in Kolkata as well, and they wanted to borrow a GPS to map the 16 hour train journey there. When I explained that they would need to hold the GPS to the window in order to get a signal inside the train, for sixteen hours, they only smiled more. They’ll go in shifts. I handed over the GPS to them, and they say “You don’t know what you’ve started”. Two days later, they walk into the workshop, with waypoints for every station along the route! What delirious dedication, that’s the true OSM spirit. I’m completely impressed by these guys, their other young student colleagues, and Indranil, their advisor and our host in Kolkata. I showed these guys around some branches of subversion, like JOSM plugins, and gave them a quick introduction to rails and the OSM server, and suggested a few potential projects. Also encouraged them to apply for Google Summer of Code, cause I certainly want to see OSM as a mentor organization this year and these guys would be great to work with.

West Bengal University is a sort of meta-university, overseeing the exams and curriculum of over a hundred colleges all over the state. Apparently this is a common educational structure in India, a kind of spatial distributed Oxford. WBU are our main sponsors in FreeMapIndia2008, and we were happy to finally see them.

Unfortunately I can’t say too much about how the workshop went. Exhaustion and a weakened immune system caught up with me, and I was ill these two days. I tried to help out some, but my impressions are dulled. Schuyler tells me that the participants made good progress through GPS surveying and JOSM. The participants themselves filled out feedback forms, which were largely very positive, except for a feeling that the workshops were too long. Part of that was done to the network OSM is hosted on going down, after getting Slashdotted or something, which meant we couldn’t edit. And partly, according to Indranil, that people are more used to simply getting instruction rather than being called apon to drive the direction of the workshop, as we do in Free Map India.

There were very good suggestions from two women from the West Bengal government agency which oversees introduction of information technologies into the state. They are just starting to investigate GPS and GIS, so the workshop was useful, but they wanted to see a more practical oriented workshop, where OSM would be applied to solving an actual problem. This is brilliant, and perhaps could be the frame for another series of workshops next time around. Again we were introduced to whole new application possibilites, with the personable Vice Chancellor describing the massive problems with rapid erosion of riverbanks in the region, and unchecked mining operations in the north of West Bengal. These might not be OSM itself, but projects informed by OSM principles of open, simple, and collaborative data collecting, or projects working partly with OSM data.

Too quickly and we’re done! We’re done! The month of FreeMapIndia2008 is now complete! What a month. What an intense experience. We met so many great people, were so welcome everywhere. So now I’m on a flight to Mumbai, brief layover, then London, and then Barcelona, and then… somewhere along the way I’ll catch a breath, and do a proper look back, reflection and praise of this time. There’s also a ton of photos to digest, caption and select here. More soon enough. Goodbye FreeMapIndia! and Delhi is one of the core open source conferences in India. And after a month riding the open source circuit, Freed was a mini-reunion of our trip. Again we saw Rene, the German wifi hacker hanging in Trivandrum, Nagarjuna from the Homi Bhabha Centre, the dynamic Jace of BarCampBangalore, etc, and a few of the Bangalore Yahoos. And there was plenty of opportunity to drink some free beers with the free software people.

We stayed in a hotel in Gurgaon, a satellite city of Delhi, actually in another Indian state, and a shock in scale and shininess to rest of India. Delhi itself is laid out in wide boulevards, has huge areas of cool forest on extensive government, military, and academic grounds, including the site of the conference Jawaharlal Nehru University (a distinguished and very politically active university), and a pretty decent Metro system. Gurgaon is reached by a startling new expressway, through a ginormous toll plaza, with long stretches lacking any proper pedestrian crossing (of course, people still darted across 8 lanes of 100+ kmh traffic to cross), lined with sparkling new complicated glass buildings straight out of downtown San Jose, a shopping mall with 1 km2 of floor space (the 1km mall), and in one section land cleared as far as the horizon to make way for a new airport in time for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. This pace and scale gave me just a taste of what it must be like in China. Behind the hotel, a new building was being constructed, work going on non-stop 24 hours a day (in spite of which, I slept soundly). The lot between was crisscrossed with cow paths of workers, a crazy geometry suggesting some magick design out of which a new shiny glass building would suddenly erupt. What hath globalization wrought?!

After Ludhiana, it was a nice change of pace to be the sideshow rather than the main attraction. We gave our introductory talk as a presentation to the entire conference, and then ran the workshop in nearby spaces. This proved complicated, since the nearby GIS lab had only windows machines on a locked down network, and the linux lab was a few minutes away in another building complex with no wifi. We managed to hold the survey portion of the workshop with students from the geography department, and make a movie, and that part all went smoothly. The professor for this department had been involved in discussions on an Indian SDI — with over a billion people, dozens of languages and states, it sounds even more complicated than INSPIRE. I quickly tried to suggest a more sane way forward than the heavy OGC standards and SOAP-and-friends web services being cooked up for INSPIRE, relating the wisdom that these specs are fine for controlled environments, but for cooperation among diverse organizations you must start simple (GeoRSS perchance), iterate, keep to architectural principles rather than explicit solutions, and stay human. This department had even acquired satellite imagery of the campus, had already done some digitization based on it (we wanted to hook up a quick and dirty mapserver WMS to load this into JOSM, but hosted on Windows, alas) .. so they were familiar with some of the OSM concept, though actual hands on with GPS was new. Seems like there’s scope here for the future.

Being at a conference, the second day of OSM mostly involved new people from the conference itself, and few of the geography students from the day before. So another round of surveying and some tutorials on JOSM and other tools. It was hard to gain momentum this way, which makes me think mapping parties really need to be focused events on their own to make much headway (I’d experienced this before at OSM events tacked onto conferences). Still we connected with some key people to take mapping forward in Delhi. And from the India-wide attendees, there was much interest in purchasing the NaviGPS units. So I decide to sell them all at cost after Kolkata, and arranged with Swapnil and Indictrans to coordinate payment and distribution. I suppose there’s a business waiting to happen here.

Sunday morning was blessed. On the drive from the hotel to JNU there’s a Coffee Day, India’s answer to Starbucks, and better coffee than them too, with a genius slogan “A lot can happen over coffee”, which means absolutely nothing and everything. Coffee is blessed of course, but the real thing was this peculiar building nearby. It appeared to be a hotel or office building, and carved across the front were a series of six-pointed stars and swastiskas. In the West we naturally associate these symbols as the Star of David of Judaism and the Nazi Swastika, but naturally in India the star, with the addition of a central point, is a Yantra, and the Swastika, rotated the opposite direction and with the addition of four dots, a symbol of peace. The combination of these two symbols, carved into the edifice of a building, would be unthinkable anywhere else but India. I had the driver stop for us to take photos, and Jace had his curiousity lead us inside, where we find a large expansive room, an alter, several shrines, and beaming robe clad guru. H H Swami Sarvanand Saraswati is such a dynamic personality, quickly captivating us with explanations of the symbolism of the Yantra and Swastika, of the main half man/half woman statue, and myriad other lovely carvings. He asks after me, and it turns out he’s been in California, in Monterey and San Francisco, and we agree all of California is a powerful energetic place. He speaks about an Indian restaurant in the hills above Half Moon Bay called Hanuman, after the monkey god. So now I must have dinner at this restaurant, how often does a guru recommend you a restaurant! We explain that we are attending a conference called, for open source software, and he exclaims “wonderful, I am now freed!” Before we leave, we’re brought into his office where he has hung pictures of the major figures of all the world’s religions, from Zorastor to Mohammad, Jesus and Krishna, even Native American holy people, and my thoughts turn to Meher Baba “bringing together all religions and cults like beads on one string”. There’s a beautiful, large Sri Yantra, with inscriptions written within each triangle. We assemble for pictures, while he softly shouts out “I _need_ world peace!” Wow, what a personality.

Back at the conference, I didn’t get to see many of the talks unfortunately. I was busy trying to pull together a workshop, and spent some time listening in on a conclave on Open Knowledge. This was a wide ranging, interesting discussion among the major participants in open source in India, to which I could only make some very half baked, half exhausted comments. Unfortunately, I thought that seperating out the most experienced people into a semi-private discussion in the middle of the conference was a missed opportunity to engage with the rest of the attendees, but oh well. The nature of the Indian educational system, and really of all educational systems, is mostly based in the efforts of the industrial revolution, to take children out of the labor force, and has exhausted its utility in a world of electronic communication and the wide open opportunity for anyone to contribute to knowledge. Yet, in some places in India, girls aren’t even sent to school because there are no girls lavatories, and books are expensive, copyrighted, and can’t be photocopied, and illiteracy is still a problem. The Indian education system produces absolutely brilliant minds, but with hundreds of millions to educate, the scale of the task is beyond daunting. Can open co-production of knowledge, help leap frog people from illiteracy into a global communication platform?

The most entertaining exchange came at the end, over a discussion of the X system, which aggregates, for university internal use, as much useful digital material as possible, whatever its copyright status. Rene made the point that not making a distinction between pirated and open material in this system was problematic, as it doesn’t confront students with the issues of free and open access to knowledge. This sparked passions of pro- and anti- piracy factions, the pro-piracy parties, such as Sunil, arguing that to some extent disobeying copyright is an act of civil disobedience against a system introduced by former colonial powers to place control in a neo-colonial economic regime. While the advocates of open knowledge, such as Nagarjuna, argued that just as important as access is the change of mind that openness requires, the responsibility of cultivating knowledge should be actively engaged by all. Myself, I tend to think that this change of mind really is the point, and that encouraging people to download Lethal Weapon 4 is not going to have any affect. But who knows how these things really make progress, sometimes we must work within the system to change it (my usual mode), and sometime fight against the system from outside it. Right on open source.

Back at the hotel on Sunday night, the work had paused on the construction site. The lights were off, but noise still carried. The workers had gathered somewhere within the depths of the proto-apartments, and were singing and drumming on spare construction materials in celebration. Perhaps celebration of some wonderous emerging India.

Thanks much to Gora and the rest of the organizing team for taking care of us in Delhi, and elsewhere too. It was stimulating and a thrill to see India open source in fine form.

Ludhiana Day 2

The next morning came way too soon, our closest host just stepping through my door with ‘Good morning sir’. I’m unwell, and getting some simple medicines seems to involve discussions among a dozen of our hosts. Patients in India don’t question their doctors, the experts, which makes for complication when an American patient expects to simply know what kind of pill he’s putting in his body. Eventually it’s sorted out, and the day can start.

We’re shown into an assembly room where 150 or so have gathered. Huge bouquets of flowers are presented to us to carry about 5 feet further and place on a table. And again applause as we enter. There are printed banners announcing our day of ‘Democratic Digital Mapping’. We’re sat facing the room along with the principal, H. S. Rai, and others from the computer engineering department. Everyone gets a chance to speak. Including an introduction of Schuyler and myself, featuring lengthy sections cribbed directly from our CVs. Schuyler gives another rousing speech of thanks. Overwhelmed, I have to start with “I’m from California, and we don’t really do ceremony very well there…”. Finally, we are presented with trophies commemorating our participation this day, and a couple mintues for photos, including photographers from the local media. Another round of applause as we move into the side room for tea.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m incredibly grateful for all the effort made on our behalf, and it truly was all one of the most unforgettable memories of my life (in a month of unforgettable memories). But only when I feel like there’s been large tangible results, like India fully mapped, would I even consider feeling worthy of such honors, and even then this month is only the smallest nudge towards getting it all started — the congratulations will be for all the contributors pounding Indian streets. This day, I feel like I’ve won the Nobel Prize, but really I just want to do some mapping.

After holding workshops in Mumbai, Trivandrum, and Bangalore, we’re in the groove and the day goes really well. The students are really sharp and interested, and we make great progress in just one day. The surveys are very very impressive, with many students sketching out maps of the entire campus, and finding new features to map despite H. S. Rai’s already thorough mapping of the campus. Because of issues in prior workshops with multiple people editing the same area, and since only some of the computers are set up with Java and JOSM, we decide to try something different and edit as a group. I invite people to the projected computer one at a time to add a new feature. This goes decently well. We also cover tracing Yahoo imagery, since Ludhiana is one of those rare locations where Yahoo’s coverage is better than Google. And of course the ever popular animated GPS traces and photo mapping.

There are always challenges. One is the pace of our speech and our accents. It’s often unclear to me whether the participants actually understand what I’m saying, and they’re way too polite to say otherwise. Another is the divide between men and women here. Women are well represented, but don’t always participate to the same degree, and even we make special effort to include them, they shy away from drawing attention to themselves. There are exceptions of course, but generally it’s frustrating since I know they are just as capable.

One of those exceptions was the up right female police officer who joined the college for the day. She presented herself with a series of rapid fire series of questions “How long are you in Ludhiana?”, “Who have contacted here?”, “What are you mapping, any industrial facilities?”. Baffling like an interrogation. At the end, I managed to squeeze in a question “What interest does the Ludhiana police have in OpenStreetMap?” and she answers “For traffic regulation.” Intriguing, but I fear a bluff. We had expected this kind of thing even earlier in the trip; the Survey of India is still a loose branch of the military, and using a GPS is “officially” against the law, and generally India is quite overtly security concious and militarialy proud.

One of the faculty spotted a link to my page on the Art and Geometry of Sri Yantra, and invited me to meet his guru at lunch. We convene in the glass windowed server room, where our boquets from the earlier ceremony have been laid, making for the sweetest smelling server room in the world. Guru is pleasant and peaceble, but doesn’t speak English, so I think I missed some subtleties of the conversation. I’m invited to ask any question I like, about anything, about life. Perhaps I had been overwhelmed by the questions earlier from the female police officer, and had no questions of my own. Or maybe I have no burning questions in my life. So I struggled to come up with something to ask, and only thought to ask about the Sri Yantra, and how to use it as a meditation device. Interestingly, he told me that each Yantra is designed for a specific part of the body, the Sri Yantra the mind, and that the Yantras should be visualized internally over the associated chakra.

Towards the end of the day we’re asked to sign certificates for each student in the course. This is the practice at every university we visit where the workshop is hosted within the academic program. We present these certificates to each student in turn, with photo, and at the end applause, appluase for us and especially I think for the students.

Yes, there are a few pictures.

Utterly exhausted, sleep comes easy, and the next day is quiet and connected to wifi. Except for three students who attended the interaction on the first day, where we extended an invitation to all the students to just come and chat, came into my room just to chat. Happy they took up the opportunity — good luck dudes. Next stop Delhi.

Ludhiana, day 1

Words so far have failed me, to describe the experience in Punjab.

Ludhiana was surreal from the start. We arrived in the early morning on a sleeper train from Delhi, annoyed with broken sleep, and shuttled from the station in a white draped Ambassador to the campus of Guru Nanak Dev Engineering College. After quick breakfast refreshment, we’re brought to meet the principal of the college, and then into a conference room with all the senior faculty members of the college. In front of these esteemed professors, collectively possessed of hundreds of years of experience, we are generously introduced as “experts” in GIS and mapping and community, a notion Schuyler quickly dispells and ducks citing the constant learning we’ve both engaged in over the years, and especially during this trip. This theme of constant learning is quickly picked up the professor — “if we think we are experts, then we have grown stagnant”. Over tea and biscuits, deferentially delivered in front of all (and constantly available at our whim throughout the two days) we discuss open source, mapping, and the social function of software; not facebook but the immense societal benefit potential of software, and link that to the mission of the college, to aid rural development by accepting 70% of their students from rural districts where educational opportunities traditionally lack.

Ludhiana is the major industrial city in the state of Punjab, predominantly Sikh, a tolerant and forward thinking and modern 500 year old religion. The Sikh men wear turbans and have a different bearing from other parts of India. There’s incredible discipline, attention to detail, and explicit delegation of responsibility. And Ludhiana hasn’t caught the globalization fever yet. All of which combined to a feeling of really being in a foreign country again. Of course, if you eat “Indian” food anywhere in the west, it’s familiar and usually in the Punjabi style, thick curries and nan bread.

After our interaction with the professors, we’re brought to the computer engineering department. Finally we meet with H. S. Rai, the professor who’s independently pushed forward OpenStreetMap, and made an wonderful map of the college, and our prime reason for making the extra effort to visit Ludhiana. With barely a breath, we quickly dig into pretty advanced topics, like setting up Mapnik. H. S. Rai is keen to help distribute the load, and give good grounding to the OSM infrastructure locally.

We keep this up until exhaustion can’t be ignored any longer, when we’re informed that we will have an “interaction” with the students, and asked what will be the topic of our presentation. Exhaustion. We just want to talk about whatever the students want to talk about, informally, but our hosts insist we must have a topic — “we’ll call it Career Counselling”. Shudder. With no other choice, I quickly name our talk “Revolution”, which gets lengthened in “Revolution in Open Source”. We have a quick lunch back in our rooms (the professors usually eat at home) and then head over to the talk. We’re greated by a full room of students and some staff, who erupt into enthusiastic applause and hoots when we enter (this happens several more times during our visit), and we’re sat in front of eager and inscrutable faces. Schuyler quickly edits the projected slide with the title of the interaction back to simply “Revolution” and riffs on the notion of freedom in open source, and I incoherently try to link Facebook and Orkut and IM to the unfettered opportunities these students have with access to the web, people and knowledge around the world. With no agenda, we run out of topics and will to just talk at the students, so I turn the microphone around to face the audience, eliciting some shock. OpenStreetMap and open source is based in personal initiative, just do it and don’t ask for permission, and I want to see this in the students.There are some good questions, like how developers can earn a living with open source software. After a lengthy pause, we call it over, and head back to the rooms to collapse into sleep deprived unconciousness.

It seems like an instant later when we’re awoken. There’s not any notion of privacy here, and our hosts simply walk into the room unannounced any time there’s a need. It’s time for a cultural event. The moon is full. We walk next door to the high fenced girls hostel, and pushed ahead down a corridor, where we are showered with flower petals and beaming smiles by five girls, and continue into the front of an open central yard of the complex, facing several hundred of the female students. Applause, hollars, flash bulbs. We are seated at couches placed in front, with a small table apon which clipboards are laid out. We quickly gather that this is a dance competition, we are the guests of honor, and are expected to judge the dances of a dozen young women. Numb horror.

Someone had the good grace to recognize the shock on our faces, and we are relieved of judging duty. Still, imagine, we are sat in front of two hundred girls, watching young female students dance for us. Snacks and tea our laid out for our sole consumption. A dozen of the best dancers in the student body take turns on the stage, in their finest costumes, ranging from elaborate traditional Punjabi dance, to Bollywood numbers, to Bangra flavored hip hop, and all sorts of amazing hybrid styles. Some of these girls could easily wow any dancefloor in London or Berlin. It’s hard to imagine that these enthusiastic and expressive young women are normally the serious and shy students we’d met before. The shock stays.

After the last dancer, ourselves and some of the faculty are asked to stand before the crowd and give our views on the performance. My god. Schuyler gives a rousing statement of appreciation, and I manage to get out that this is one of the most memorable experiences of my life. It is. Then we are given the task of presenting the awards to the winning girls. My favorite dancer won.

We retire for tea at the nearby residence of Professor Rai, joined by the principal, where we discuss the practices and history of Sikhism, education and Punjab, and all sorts of topics, while the whoops and hollars continue at the girls hostel next door. Later over dinner at a hotel off campus, talks continue, and the teachers are especially interested in our views on education, and I especially stress the need to motivate students to work and think and act indepently. After a very full meal, it’s back to the rooms for more collapsing. And that’s just the end of day 1. Ok, more in another post.

Bangalore, Result!

Writing this from Spice Jet from Bangalore to Delhi, a flight we rudely pushed and shoved our way through the jammed up city and overstretched airport terminal to catch. SpiceJet is one of a half dozen Indian budget airlines reconfiguring Indian transport, at the same prices found back home, which seems surprising and unsurprising at the same time. We took Kingfisher (ala the Beer — these Indian conglomerates spread horizontally without any apparent reason) from Kerala to Bangalore on Friday (geez, just three days ago!) and that was one of the nicest flights I’ve taken anywhere, India’s answer to Virgin. Of course, we owe all measure of gratitude to our hosts across India whom have sponsored our travel between venues, and especially recently Jace who has stoicly juggled our crazy itinerary. And our most gracious host Dinesh and housemates at the servelots house, the kind of place I could chill out at in any city.

Bangalore started to reveal itself more today. At first it’s an endless traffic jam of self replicating architecture and streets, a supremely computationally compressible city, a slight textured variation on a basic theme of concrete and shops and rickshaws and Coffee Day and signs advertising politicians and Linux training. There’s no apparent geography or variation, mostly flat with no significant water features, it sprawls in every direction; and while Mumbai is just as jammed up by economic dreams, Mumbai has this kind of totally out of comprehension pulse, and a readily apparent interesting topography and history and real neighborhood difference. The oasis of the Lalbagh Botanical Gardens finally gave a bit of the spaciousness and peace I suppose Bangalore had in the past. This morning we half heartedly mapped around the reservoirs and paths, soon dropping that altogether for climbs up into Bamboo groves ala Fighting Tiger Hidden Dragon (we watched Hero late last night on Jace’s Mac after X11 failed us) and sneaking up on numerous young couples desperately attempting privacy (love at the risk of death, for real) in grottoes and within the large root flying buttresses of a gigantic banyan tree.

Most people know Bangalore as the Indian Silicon Valley. And you can see it in the cityscape deritous and certainly in the participants in the workshop. Still, it’s a relatively un-mediated world, overlaid with mobile phone fabric sure, but no where near the invisible and visible sensors and echoes and trajectories of information rich London or San Francisco. And this lack of mediation is so refreshing and confounding — almost every step and action in India involves direct communication and interaction with people without reference to some hidden ruleset or embedded system. Yet maybe not for long, as part of our objective with OpenStreetMap is to make the invisible visible, and jump start the headmap Metaverse where it’s needed.

Saturday night we trekked to a mourning party for some local Yahoos, a few had been laid off. It’s been almost 7 years since I left Yahoo, and dipping back into the familiar Yahoo world years later, on the other side of the world, was more culture shock than anything else more foreign. Death metal, mobile phones, beers. Crazy to hear some of the same technology ticking along in the depths of Yahoo, and hang out with these YouTube tweaked minds. We were introduced to Benny Lava, the phonetic translation of the Tamil Michael Jackson into English, revealing the real meaning behind these Bollywood and Indian musical dance numbers. As we were informed, no one talks about sex in India, but there are over a billion of them anyway. We want to work Benny Lava into the animation section of our presentation, but it would really need some very proper framing to go over well.

Ok, so the workshops. We met for two days at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore and the participants were incredibly self motivated, technically competent, and familiar with the general field of mapping and GIS. There were folks building vehicle GPS+GPRS tracking devices, BarCamp Bangalore hackers, media artists from Shristi, students all the way from Chennai, an ecologist building collaborative and education focused ecoinformatics aggregators, and one chap equipping shepherds with GPS for therir 400 km seasonal trek through the back country of the Deccan plateau. The discussions and questions were excellent. And by the end of day two we had a great result with a detailed map of the expansive grounds of IIMB, based on GPS traces and now excellent Yahoo imagery over Bangalore (Yahoo must have updated recently, even Brighton has gone high def). And a nice movie of course.

There are some subtleties in OSM that people take time to get (or that we don’t explain adequately — I think we should update the survey tutorial presentation). One is that the GPS traces and the map data exist separately, and that the GPS traces are just a guideline. These measurements, and the tracing from imagery, and the other tools in the toolbox, all need to be understood for what they are in terms of quality and accuracy, and human judgement plays a big role. The well discussed suggestion of digitizing directly from GPS came up again, particularly from exposure to Tracks4Africa, where the usually off road wide open savannah tracks are amenable to automated processing (the other contrast of course is that you don’t get anything legally useful back from donations to Tracks4Africa, and maybe FOSS4G in Cape Town in September will be opportunity to recruit some converts). Wikimapia has made a big impression in India, some even think it’s a Wikipedia sponsored project, and explaining the subtleties here of derived works and potential for Google to claim ownership over derived vectors, in contrast with Yahoo’s permission to OSM to use aerial imagery, well it’s tricky.

The other difficult concept to really understand is that as a collaborative project, and that the work needs to be self coordinated and divided up in some way. We leave this largely up to participants to discover, as it’s an implicit experience based concept, when they discover multiple copies of the same street in the map. This particularly led to a lot of useful suggestions for improvements to JOSM and the API to manage conflicts, such as a simple indicator if anyone else is editing in the same region at the same time (this could even be done as a JOSM plugin with the current API calls) and when uploading JOSM should do the same sort of check on an area, not just on individual existing object conflicts, and if there is any overlapping activity ask the editor to examine them.

Other suggestions focused on management of GPX. There could be direct upload of GPX files from JOSM. OSM could accept waypoints as well. And GPX points could be edited in JOSM — to remove wildly erronous points for instance. This last point came up when we went through Photo Import in JOSM, which everyone was very excited about. It also revealed a bug, where GPX trackpoints without timestamps threw a fatal error, even if other trackpoints had useful information in them for photo mapping.

We also got to cover a variety of data exports. Converting from OSM to GML allowed us to easily produce Shapefiles with ogr2ogr for use in QGIS, and KML for basic Google Earth Overlay, and also covered osmarender to generate SVG, and mkgmap to make Garmin GPS maps. There was a brief tutorial on configuring OpenLayers to use OSM. And we got LiveGPS/gpsd plugin working in JOSM, reading from the NaviGPS and the eyeglass case GPS too. One of the nice surprises were a couple hackers who photographed a map of the campus in the dining hall (with no visible copyright), which they rectified with the MetaCarta labs rectifier, and displayed in JOSM with the wmsplugin. Nice work guys!

A very productive workshop which gave every indication of kickstarting an OSM community in Bangalore! Next stop Ludhiana.

Kerala to Bangalore

We’re right in the groove of the workshops now. The presentation and technology and outlook are getting inline. We’ll have perfected the delivery of the FreeMap workshop by the end of the month — just in time to go home.

The second day in Kerala was smooth from the technology point of view, great relief, and generally people just jumped right in and started studying the OSM wiki and playing with the tools. We kept it loose, doing demos throughout the day and diving into topics when there was interest. This started with more advanced JOSM editing techniques, converting OSM into GML and then Shapefile for use in QGIS and ESRI, using osmarender and Inkscape to make a printable PDF, and photomapping with JOSM. It was particularly important to get OSM data into other forms — many of the applications developed in Kerala are agricultural (monitoring rainfall, collecting and disseminating data to forms, calculating land use) and make use of GIS or other systems. Export is one of the tasks we designed for IndicTrans back in Pune, and it’s needed.

The participants seemed happy with the two days. One even made a speech at the end! There was a third day too focusing on the applications developed at IIITMK, and everyone received certificates at the end. We feel it was a success, a great amount of progress was made, with a group of very wide technical backgrounds, even if there wasn’t too much progress on the map itself. And though we sometimes wonder if the conditions are right to take this forward, if the open source ethos and personal initiative and bottom up approaches can really take root here .. I’m optimistic. It starts with a few pioneers anywhere. In spots, people are already mapping on their own independent of the workshops — H.S.Rai in Ludhiana, who we’ve made new arrangements to meet due to his heavy involvement and someone random in Coimbatore, discovered by wireless hacker Rene on his motorcycle ride, halfway between Kerala and Bangalore.

The past two days we’ve taken it easy — or as much as possible with the responsibilities of work back home still calling. One kind participant from the workshops took us on a whirlwind tour of places in Kerala, and crucially the food in Kerala. And yesterday we escaped from the TechnoPark for the beach, where Schuyler made another attempt to check his email on his mobile card in the most unusual place. The beach and waves were so great, and I realized I hadn’t been in the sea for almost a year and a half, tragically too long. I’ll definitely be back to Kerala — the environment and attitude there was amazing.

So now we’re in Bangalore, staying with Dinesh at Servelots, most comfortable. I’m excited for today — with the tech heavy experience here, I think we’re going to progress very quickly.

OSM Kerala, Day One

Greetings from Trivandrum! What a contrast this place is to Mumbai — I had forgotten the world can be quiet and green. We knew something was different when the classic and completely out of place American airline pilot, flying Deccan Air, announced “Have a pleasant stay in the Trivandrum area”. Trivandrum is the capital of Kerala, nearly in the very south of India, it’s tropical, has beaches and serves beautiful fish in its restaurants. Kerala is an interesting state — a democratically elected Communist government and home to the India’s very first IT park, TechnoPark, housing numerous very capitalist orientied technology companies and educational institutions. Their political and economic contradictions are resolved by a full embrace of open source software — we were picked up from the airport by a chap whose masters project utilizes Geoserver. We’re hosted here by IIITM-K, and again you couldn’t have asked for more generous or energetic organizing. Check out this amazing brochure produced for the workshop…

FreeMap India Brochure

We have about 50 people participating this time, and the specialties and studies of this group were really great — environmental science, agriculture, geology, the local airport manager, emergency response. These are people with such a need for mapping technology, and they had heard about GIS. We were at pains to make the distinction between OpenStreetMap & web native geo and traditional desktop GIS, fielding familiar questions over issues of accuracy, community, reliability, and we made the point our tools are really about collaboration, relative ease of entry, and simply getting the job done. Also emphasized that OSM and GIS are not incompatible, they can speak to each other. There was a lot of interest in 3D, building digital elevation models out of OSM GPS data, and using OSM data within a GIS when the application requires it — like calculating agricultural area on steep hillsides.

Nearly half of the participants are a group of young women studying for environmental science masters at a nearby college. I’m told that other parts of India don’t give women such opportunity, so it’s really great to see. Still, it’s quite a challenge, as workshop leader, to engage them in the activities — they are very very reluctant to ask for help (let’s just say they don’t) and really seem to want to be lead step by step by step through the learning process. OpenStreetMap by nature requires a great deal of personal initiative, there’s nothing top down about it, from the technology to the process to its goals and aims. So there’s also this feeling that we’re not just teaching about OpenStreetMap, but the entire culture and ethic of open source/open data and entreprenuership.

Looking at the progress yesterday, we did a great deal. Introduced the concept, got everyone out collecting data with a GPS receiver, got the data into JOSM, everyone signed up for an OSM account, and editing some data in JOSM. Getting through that process is another matter, particularly the technical hiccups which just seem like a part of life in OSM, and India. Yesterday was particularly painful because it turns out there are major incompatibilities with the crippled, non-proprietary version of Java that ships with Fedora and JOSM, and we had no other immediate choice but to reboot all the machines into Windows. Ouch, but sometimes you need to go with what works. Generally I’m adjusting my expectations to meet the expectations of the participants, which is hard when I’d love to see OSM work smoothly right out of the box. Such is life in software.

Off to start today’s proceedings. We’ll split up into different tracks — some people progressed quite quickly yesterday and are ready for the next level, and some are going to be set up with just the Yahoo imagery, which is actually quite detailed in Kerala.

Post-Mumbai Workshop

Greetings from Mumbai! Hanging out with video hackers from

We had made plans to travel back to Pune today, to attend the Gnunify open source conference, have some meetings tomorrow, and work a bit more with IndicTrans and basically chill out from Mumbai. But somewhere on the eastern outskirts of the city, after an hour and a half on the bus already and the guy in front reclining extremely right into my knees, we decided to ditch that plan and stick to Mumbai until Monday when we fly to Trivandrum. Mumbai is actually pretty pleasant when you’re in one place, it’s the moving about which causes problems.

The workshop on Thursday and Friday went really well. Less attended than expected, but the dozen-plus participants were very enthusiastic and patient as we shook out the bugs in the agenda, the software and hardware. We went through the full process of acquiring data, uploading to OSM, and editing the map. Twice. Everyone was very keen to continue, and went away equipped to carry on mapping Mumbai in OSM on their own. The slides from the introduction of the workshop are here, and the Beginners’ Guide on the wiki was effective for the more in depth tutorial section.

The party render is proving very popular. Take a look at this video and you’ll see why. The area this covers is this park — some mistakes to clear up there, but it’s a start.

Finally had the pleasure to meet Nagarjuna and his assistant Alpesh Gajbe, who have been the primary organizers and herders for our trip. Without their incredible effort, it wouldn’t have happened. Nagarjuna is one of the most unusual thinkers I have met here, or anywhere — just to start he’s an India who loves beef. His main effort is gnowledge, and he’s quite busy developing free and open curriculums. We were interviewed by a Mumbai paper, and put through a slightly ridiculous photo shoot, like taking marketing shots for a band. And the guy who spotted my FooCamp t-shirt on the highway showed up with his brother, and made several business propositions — a total gold rush here.

Also met Terrence D’Souza, an open source hardware hacker, who has built this eyeglass case GPS logger.


He was kind enough to give me one. These are really cool devices, I love how easy they are to open. He’s going to start selling them soon, I’ll give details when that starts.

The AND import was a big topic of discussion. There is a resemblance to reality in that data, but the geographic positioning is inconsistently incorrect in odd ways, with many missing streets as well. We’ve pondered how the data could end up like this, and it looks like it may have been traced from an incorrect paper map? Would be interested to hear from AND. Still there’s something to salvage there, and after some deliberation, we’ve decided to leave it up to individual editors to correct areas as they survey, or by comparing against the excellent Yahoo imagery in Mumbai, or they can just delete the data in a local area if it has no value. In contrast, Pune is just wildly wrong, and we may just ditch that entirely.

There has been a lot of discussion of applications, involving so many people and organizations and connections that my head is swimming, on top of a deep pool of implicit knowledge of the working of India in general. There seems to be great opportunity in education, as part of training IT students. And in mapping urban change, empowering slum dwellers, and redevelopment — the remit of CRIT and PUKAR. (We had a post-workshop Thai dinner celebration with Suhit Kelkar from PUKAR, which was very enjoyable and even more notable since we got home by taxi without getting lost — I made sure to charge the Garmin GPS for this!) Also applications in data collection for rural development, and models for transitioning to open GIS data collection. Thinking about these applications, especially the development and redevelopment of Mumbai, I can not fathom how these problems could be solved without maps as a tool for public discourse. I mean, there are no proper maps you can even buy. The sad fact is that there are maps, but held very tightly by a few, and this is an issue of power. Along the way, I seemed to have been offered a professorship at an Indian university, to provide technical education and help boost the use of open geo data in these fields — an offer I don’t think I’d have time to properly fulfill, but wow.

Btw, did you know that in Indic writing systems, groups of letters might be contracted, switch places, or operated on in all sorts of other fashions. It gets quite complicated in ways I don’t understand, but the upshot is that Indic fonts require not just rendering for individual letters, but also rulesets. So now I fully understand the undertaking of IndicTrans in producing open source Indic localisation.

After the chilled weekend in Mumbai (as chilled as that can be) the next stop is Trivandrum. We’ve also decided to make a visit up to Ludhiana to visit Professor H. S. Rai, who is already actively contributing to OpenStreetMap. Check out the map of his university.