Moabi and Big Important Challenges for the GeoWeb

Recently finished a technical review of WWF’s Moabi platform, their geodata sharing platform to track deforestation, and came out with some important technical challenges for the GeoWeb I want to share with the mapping nerds.

Just following TAI’s bridging session on natural resource governance, I met Charles Huang of the World Wildlife Fund at a similarly styled event at the World Bank. After self-identifying as a developer, Charles asked if I’d like to talk more about Moabi … they needed a developer’s eye on the platform as they considered how to move to their 2.0. This isn’t GroundTruth’s usual sort of work, but considering the TAI Bridge effort to connect technologists with sector experts, our other work with Drupal and mapping, and my own deep interest in conservation, I dove in.

Moabi is ambitious. In its current expression with DRC and deforestation, the platform is meant to collect geographic data and detailed profiles from all sorts of courses, including the “crowd”, on everything from mining concessions, informal logging, road construction, to REDD projects, and enable conversation and coordination among everyone conservation workers on the ground, government officials, and the interested public on the other side of the world. And in the long run, this platform is intended to apply to other places and focus areas of WWF. This is such an ambitious, wide mandate, and I think touches on 3 key technical developments for the GeoWeb.

Features as Full Social Objects

In Moabi, every single feature, such as an individual mine or road, has a profile page, which should be shareable, pivotable, a focus point for social interaction among people and groups organizing to prevent deforestation. Most often in GIS and web mapping, we talk about layers of information, and while individual features often have expression in various forms on a site, there is no open source software package that deals with feature-level data in this way out of the box. And there’s not really that many examples to draw on. Every feature in OpenStreetMap has an individual url, with details on its tags, last editor, etc. But it’s not quite used as a social object, excepting maybe the awesome machine tag integration with flickr. Foursquare has some elements of this, every venue primarily being a place, and users able to connect to that place. But besides these sorta examples, a geographic feature is generally treated as a property of social objects, rather than social objects in themselves.

Multi-master sync and flexible schemas

Data is Moabi is sourced from both government, civil society, and interactions on the site. Those source databases are very likely to update over time, and very possibly they will receive updates on Moabi as well. Given a foreign key, or even a clever lookup, at least identifying which features have updated is possible. But this inevitably leads to thorny issues of handling conflicts during synchronization. This is commonly experienced in the simple situation of editing in OSM during a mapping party, where two editors independently modify the same feature. The OSM API can detect the potential conflict, but once detected the interface and process to resolve the conflict in JOSM is not intuitive or easy at all. When writing code, this situation happens all the time, and simply being text, it’s simple enough to throw the problem to the programmer to resolve. But we’re talking about geographic features here, and that’s going to take very well designed interfaces to solve properly.

A related issue is that a single feature may contain pieces of information from several different masters. Take roads. Yes, common enough is the geometry, maybe the name (or names) of the road, the surface. But with Moabi, they may also want to know if the road has a regular anti-poaching patrol, or if it’s commonly used to transport lumber. OSM deals with this unpredictability of attributes through tags, arbitrary key-value pairs, with no predetermined mandated structure, with conventions of use worked out over time. In contrast, traditional GIS requires pre-decided database schema, leading to long running discussions which often never resolve to the point of actually collecting and sharing data. So why not just use OSM? Well I’m not sure it’s best to keep every single thing interesting to Moabi about roads in OSM, and some features, like say mining concessions or REDD projects, may simply not be appropriate for OSM (this is up for discussion of course). So assuming that something else is needed, what are the options for a tagging based system that’s not OSM? The closest I’ve seen is Matt Berg’s work at Earth Institute on georegistery, an open source db with RESTful API for sharing and versioning geographic objects in GeoJSON, with arbitrary attributes.

Complex interactive experiences without a lot of fuss

Moabi has a lot of data, two dozen layers, thousands of features. Currently the only way to work through the data is via query, which can be a little slow both in usability and response time. Interactive exploration is best accomplished through Tiles and Grids, as enabled so well in TileMill and MapBox. And there’s been a lot of activity in OpenLayers with Grids, including support for interaction in multiple layers.

The issue comes with how to make this architecture efficiently queryable. Say you wanted to show only to show mines operated by Chinese companies in the DRC, which are not located in mining concessions. The most obvious way is to send this query to the server, and render the result on the client side. But perhaps there are other ways, utilising the same approach MapBox Streets takes to customize styles on the fly, by manipulating the color table of tile images. If a tile set handled just a single layer, then the color table could someohow be used to encode other properties. This would essentially pre-can a set of interesting queries during tile generation, with the query results rendered by the server. If that’s too limiting, perhaps we need to start thinking further in the future, where something like SVG based tiles could be efficiently rendered and queried in the browser.


Would love to hear feedback on whether these are actually interesting challenges in your opinion, and what are some other ways of moving forward with them.

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.

A Week for the Record Books

That was a week where I really was truly and completely welcomed to DC. Some great things, some other things, and some things I can’t talk about yet.

Was invited to fill for Kate Chapman at the Mapping the World of Humanitarianism workshop (not the geo kind of mapping). Talked about the challenges with community centered social technologies, within the humanitarian system. Most difficult question “Do you consider yourself a humanitarian?”

Seda Muradyan invited me to present within a multi-day workshop with Armenia journalists. Was via Skype, with translation (the translator did an amazing job. Spoke about OpenStreetMap and how we’ve applied it within community-centered journalism projects. Just missed saying hi to Noha Atef who had been in Armenia for this. Still amazed that the Internet makes this kind of thing possible.

TC103, Tech Tools for Emergency Management is an online course led by TechChange. I’ve been moderating, and the quality of the discussion and participants is phenomenal. Rob Baker and I sat down for a chat in front of the camera, good fun … may be released at the end of the course.

World Bank and Google


How many beers, coffees and phone calls discussing this boggling move last week? I’m still thinking about how to respond and where to go from here.

OpenStreetMap and Google

Google contractors were caught vandalizing OpenStreetMap. Oy vey.


Back in September, I was invited to Kosovo, to speak at the Software Freedom Conference. It was an honor for me to come to this troubled region where so much good work was happening in open source. And it was the ideal moment to gather long brewing thoughts on the political lens of open source and particularly OpenStreetMap, and on the incredible road trip I had just taken with Erica through the former Yugoslavia.

My talk was “neo-geo-politics, the impact and issues of open source and open data on political crisis, borders, disputes, and marginal places”

The talk runs with the basic premise that the complexity of international political organization in nation-states has inherent problems and faces increasing strain (as seen now in North Africa and the Middle East) and that new conceptualizations of how we relate to each other can be explored through open source community ideas (and its progeny in open knowledge, open data…). This is made particularly clear when talking about the new power structures in geographic data and technology, and provides a better intuitive guide as individuals are increasingly atomized and the narratives of consumption vs citizenship grow more difficult to properly separate.

Enough babbling … my slides and video …

Video of my talk on neo-geo-politics from Software Freedom Kosovo

Systematic Injustice

I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to raise our predicament publicly, but an injustice has been done. I must try all avenues available to right this situation. If after reading this, you have any ideas on how to proceed, please get in touch.

One of our partcipants, Zacharia Wambua, applied for and received a travel scholarship to attend the ICTD Conference next month at Royal Holloway, University of London. Zack is one of our brightest mappers, and shows great promise to take on this work as a career (Zack is standing to the right of US Ambassador to Kenya Ranneberger in this picture). The conference was going to be an opportunity for him to network, especially with UK universities, and take part in our panel focused on citizen mapping and media projects. He was to be joined by fellow mapper, Douglas Namale. For Zack, this would be his first time traveling outside Kenya, and I’m sure a life changing experience for a highly intelligent young man from Kibera.

As required, Zack submitted an application for a business visa (ref NAIROBI\323731), and took great care to fill out the application honestly and comprehensively. Yesterday, he received noticed that he was refused entry, with no opportunity to appeal. The decision gives no weight to our organization, the Map Kibera Trust, and draws attention to Zack’s economic situation as the primary evidence for the decision that, in the view of the UK Border Agency, Zack is not genuinely seeking to attend this conference.

To me, this is a deep systematic failure, based on probabilities. Zack is impoverished, it’s true. But he is working very hard to improve himself and situation, partly through participating in our programs. Despite having very little financial ties, or having family with a bank account, he is in fact very tied to his family, church and community. I’m not sure how you are supposed to show evidence of strong relationships to your family in a visa application. Zack is volunteering with a program, that among other things, has been featured on the BBC, is the subject of a DFID funded and UK university led research program, and he’s been invited to a prestigious conference organized by UNESCO and the University of London, that focuses on social and economic development through technology. Yet he is denied entry by the UK Border Agency. This is a terrible contradiction.

Frankly, if being poor is a barrier to taking part in these kind of activities, then the intentions of the entire conference, the work of DFID, etc, are completely negated.

We understand that an incorrect decision could have been made. However, Zack has been denied the right of appeal, the right to an interview, and the right for his supporters to speak on his behalf. Therefore, I ask, if there’s anything you can see we can do in this situation that could lead to a change of decision, we’d greatly appreciate the advice and action.

Technology, Hype, Marginalization

A little meandering on how hype and closed systems threaten to overwhelm all our good intentions…

Yesterday, I visited Mukuru slum (still a blank spot on the map) to discuss possible collaborations and methodology sharing with an ongoing participatory mapping project there coordinated by Emory University and Partnership for an HIV Free Generation, at a well apportioned community site built by Micato Safaris.

Mukuru has developed on different lines than Kibera … the road infrastructure is relatively planned, there are designed gutters, the area is flat and sprawling over a huge area south of the Industrial Area. It also receives less attention than Kibera, so there are relatively less NGO and CBO programs trying to fill the service gap. The Mukuru group has used many interesting participatory techniques to engage the community, some based in the work of Robert Chambers, who we met last week at Erica’s IDS talk on Map Kibera (and told us a brief and awesome story of his mugging in 1960s Kibera while rock climbing). Particularly, the group there had undertaken a “community asset mapping” in two villages of Mukuru, a paper based cataloging of community services, with actual GPS mapping done by a consulting company, resulting in a few map prints and spreadsheets detailing services. The resulting data is good, but they complained that it’s not really reusable or updatable by the team directly. So they were very interested to hear about our techniques which both built capacity to create and make use of map data, and other kinds of information, directly … they can do it themselves, have lots of ideas for applications in the community, and perhaps soon we’ll have an opportunity to explore some merging of methods.

On Tuesday, I met with Umande Trust, who do amazing and innovative work in sanitation, best known for introducing biogas latrines to Kibera. I talked with Aidah mostly about data … we have data from our recent water and sanitation mapping, Umande has amazing data in Gatwekera and adjacent villages, exact locations of many standpipes, toilets; and water piping installed by Nairobi Water.

But also we talked about their programs generally. In an innovative compromise to the usual policy of simply ripping out illegal pipe connections in slums, Umande has worked with Nairobi Water for installation of master meters for the entire area, and may work to dialogue directly with the community about how to legitimize and make secure the entire system, in a way that works for everyone. They are also discussing the installation of proper sewerage, partially to help with the volume of waste in the biocentres. Turns out too many people are using the biogas latrines for the decomposition process to fully digest the waste, an example of the challenges of when innovation meets reality.

Umande has also done community asset mapping of the entirety of Mukuru, by actually training community member on GPS … those individuals and that data could be a great start to further work in Mukuru. Of course we need the data shared. I was delightfully surprised and also shocked that I hadn’t seen these maps before. But realize, this is not due to any intent of Umande, Aidah is very willing to share the data for reuse if only there were an infrastructure to use. I’m interested to build off the Digital Gazette, an integration of Crabgrass and GeoCommons for use in Northwest Pakistan, to help build up the information commons of the slums.

So, on Monday, I attended a Nike Foundation event to discuss innovative use of technology to assist young girls. This is something Map Kibera has focused on through our association with Unicef, and the Nike team were very interested to learn and listen, kudos. One point during the presentation touched on Pamoja Mtaani a video game developed by Time Warner that conveys messages about HIV/AIDS prevention. As chance would have it, I got to see Pamoja Mtaani in action directly in Mukuru.

Before our meeting started yesterday, I was given a tour of one of two centers built in Mukuru to “host the game”. My jaw dropped as we entered a spacious room, with 20 gleaming computers showing Pamoja Mtaani. The game looks pretty well designed and fun, definitely innovative and not overly didactic … the game starts with a matatu robbery, includes graffiti and MC games, runs through a virtual Nairobi … a kinda slum version of Oregon Trail.

What struck me cold was that most of the computers were unused, and were completely locked down to only run this game. Here was a resource that any school anywhere in the world could use well, and Time Warner only permits their game, a game that you also can not download and run freely. Frankly, an idiotic implementation of a good initiative, and somehow emblematic of many things wrong with the inappropriateness technology in development. I can understand the desire to make sure the game is actually played, rather than just giving away computers for kids to check Facebook (of course that would happen) … but you do that through a well designed program and continual involvement rather than locking away all the other potentials of this computing resource.

Now we could make pretty good use of those computers for mapping in Mukuru. As it is they are useless for anything else.

At the other end of the spectrum, a few days before, I was reminded of the Hole in the Wall computer project, when Tanya Notley asked me my impression of this TED Talk on education innovation in the slums. The Hole in the Wall computer, simply an open kiosk installed in the middle of the slum, open for children to experiment on without restriction, is one of my favorites. The radical experimentation here has been widely celebrated and hyped, including in that TED Talk.

Now someone recently went back to actually visit these Hole in the Wall computers. The program had change considerably. Wonderfully, there are many more computers in the slums … but they are not the unrestricted free for all the original program experimented with. Apparently those original computers quickly stopped functioning, and the program now looks like a more traditional digital village, with computers, internet, and programs to use them. There’s still space for exploration, but not without supervision.

So in response to Charles Leadbeater, I wrote Tanya..

I broadly believe in what he’s saying, but the talk is pretty hand wavy. The critique of our education system is not new, and plenty of examples of experiments from the past 50 years abound. Certainly there is innovation in education happening in marginalized areas, enabled by new technology, access, and approach … we see ourselves fitting this movement quite well. What’s more difficult is to see how informal education will connect with the existing models … which are still essential for legitimacy and maximum opportunity for all. We’d like to see the opportunity for mappers to continue studies in GIS if they are keen, and several are, but there is no consistent financial aid here. Seems to me that there’s a need to still engage with traditional institutions, open up the way they approach education.

So maybe after some more research, he’ll have some insights! For one, he needs to ground check his facts … just yesterday I read that the hole-in-the-wall computers more or less stopped working 3 months in, and they’ve now adopted a more traditional approach. I still love the audacity and thought provoking of that project, but too often in innovation (and generally) we’re hiding the failures and not learning.

Perhaps one of the hardest lessons I’ve been learning is the limits of innovation. Map Kibera is innovative, and it’s much hyped, but is it in danger of being another project that only looks good from afar? To really make an impact with technology, is requires far more than simply doing something new. It takes a lot of work which you might think is boring, lots of discussion, lots of program design, lots of failure and revision, lots of reality. There are limits beyond simply getting computers and internet into marginal places, limits beyond training, that have to do with the dense interconnection of all issues facing our increasingly urban and marginal world. The shiny glean of technology starts things off, but after that the work may be the same as ever … learning from each other, respecting different points of view, long negotiations of how things can change for the better.

Freedom and Restrictions in Open Data

Very interesting situation developed last month within the Russian community of OpenStreetMap. It is illegal to map the location of military facilities in Russia. In fact, a permit is required to do any mapping. The Russian community started a vote (well, in practice and discussion, a non-binding poll) on whether military installations should be removed from the Russian map, to protect the safety of the local community.

Response from the international community was that any mapper has the choice to map whatever they like, especially if it physically exists. Deleting someone else’s data would be against core principals of OSM, of open data.

As Frederik states, this puts us in an ideological paradox

With Russia we now seem to have a case where it is possible that a
majority of the local community decides to work differently from the
principles that we have grown to cherish, namely letting everyone map
what the hell they want. We now have people who not only want to keep
certain things out of the map, but even delete these objects where they
have been mapped by others. It is even possible that they form an OSMF
chapter supporting these actions.

If this happens, then we have a clash of two principles. Either we say
that the principle of subsidiarity overrides the “freedom to tag”,
allowing the Russians to restrict that freedom in their area because it
is, after all, their area; or we say that the “freedom to tag” is the
overriding principle and we will not tolerate any local community to
tell us outsiders how they would like to be mapped.

This could have repercussions for mapping in many restrictive authoritarian regimes. It’s my position that for the vast majority of cases, open data is better and the default, and in fact, makes us more secure and informed. This was one critique of our mapping in Gaza, that showing details of Gaza would make Gazans more vulnerable. Fortunately, Gazans also agree that information is all about changing perception.

In general, I view these edge cases as a question of power. Hiding information protects those already in power, but not those that are already marginalized. Legitimate cases to me is only information that puts dis-empowered people at risk, such as refugee routes along the Burmese-Indian border. But does this mean I would remove those tracks if someone added to OpenStreetMap? This and other questions remain to be answered.

Weaver House Still Mapped Properly Only on OpenStreetMap

I’m still amazed that three years after I dug into the history of Weaver House, just when the whole area was being dug into and the East London Line has opened, that only OpenStreetMap is up to date with the massive changes there. Compare OSM with Google and Ordnance Survey.

pedley 026

Look forward to trying it out in person next month, when Erica and I are in the UK (from June 17-24). Erica will be giving a talk on Map Kibera at my alta mater, University of Sussex.

OSM Gaza, end of week one

Still working on two tasks .. getting imagery in North Gaza, and bringing on Gazans living abroad to help fill in the details. We’re getting close on both counts. It’s taking a few days longer, but that’s life, not everything operates on internet time.

With imagery, we’re trying to pin down the legal rights and restrictions on using imagery. We’re pretty sure we can derive vectors, just need absolutely clarity. There are probably restrictions on who can have access to the data .. this is commercial imagery after all. Not ideal, but we’ll see what’s possible. In amazing timing, the DigitalGlobe sales team is on a retreat this week, meaning we can’t get answers right away.

There are several promising contacts for help with place names. Takes a little time to bring people up to speed on the OSM tools; often best to be sitting at the same desk. Tomorrow, there are protests scheduled all over the US, and here in SF. I’m going out to try and meet some folks to contribute to the map. Feel free to do the same.

At the same time, we’ve collected a tremendous resource of existing geographic information and discussion on the wiki. I am really blown away by the quality and volume of data. Honestly, wow.

The European Commission offered to contribute their roads data. This is the data set that underlies UN-OCHA’s maps. However, the EC restricts use of this data to non-commercial, and doesn’t permit modification. I’m unsure about modification, since that’s exactly what OCHA does. But certainly non-commercial prevents use in OpenStreetMap. Commercial use is extremely unlikely in Gaza; if there was any commerce in Gaza, we should be happy. Anyhow, this data is now available non-commercial, non-modifiable. If anyone thinks this is useful, let me know, and I’ll arrange to host it somewhere.

Thanks everyone who’s emailed, blogged and tweeted in the past few days. Phenomenal response. Really, it doesn’t take much work individually for us to collectively do something awesome.

Gaza OpenStreetMap Update

Work has been proceeding rapidly. Quick update.

* The southwest has been traced pretty extensively. Incredible work from OpenStreetMap mappers.
* We’re looking into purchasing satellite imagery for the north or the entirety of Gaza. There’s actually B/W imagery available from yesterday! This may require a fund raiser, depending on the quote we get.
* JumpStart International has offered to host that imagery on the server, for tracing into OSM.
* We’re getting closer to bringing on Gazans living abroad, to add street names, place names, map features.
* AlertNet ran a story on the effort yesterday.

Thanks to all the blog posts and tweets to get the word out.

If you want to help, the OSM Gaza wiki is the place to start. It’s probably the most comprehensive listing on Gazan mapping generally. Or get in touch direct with me by email. Thanks.