OPED: Empowering Citizen Cartographers

January 13, 2012

Caroline Anstey The International Herald Tribune

From cave drawings to navigational charts to GPS, people have created and used maps to help them define, order and navigate their worlds. Four hundred years ago, in the Age of Exploration, it was cartographers, often working alone, who used the stars, mathematics and early attempts to represent longitude to map the New World. Today, in the Age of Participation, it’s crowds, not scholars, who are charting their own New World.


A combination of the old art of mapping with the relatively new art of crowdsourcing — the open calls for action via the Web — offers the potential to open up a new path for the developing world: helping citizens map their own country’s facilities and thereby have a greater say in charting the future.


Citizen cartographers can be a powerful force. In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, rescue workers used real-time data uploads on Open Street Map, via text and cellphone messages, to help create up-to-date maps of Haiti and find the injured. Engineers from around the globe gathered “virtually” to assess the damage.


Last October, the World Bank and its partners staged the first ever global “water hackathon,” with volunteer tech experts in London devising a system to allow Tanzanians to report water problems through SMS messages, and tech experts in Lagos devising new applications for reporting broken pipes.


Or take Dar es Salaam, where the local authorities engaged students to map roads, drains and streetlights in anticipation of an urban upgrading project, not only generating transparent planning data but also providing a platform for community consultation and a space for dialogue on development between citizens and leaders.


It’s a simple but harsh reality that most developing countries don’t have basic local data about where schools or hospitals are located. A recent mapping study of 100 health facilities and schools in Kenya found that only 25 percent of the clinics and 20 percent of the schools matched official data. Nearly 75 percent of locations needed to be updated.


Lack of knowledge of social infrastructure like schools and hospitals makes it more costly when natural disasters strike, setting back recovery efforts, sometimes by months. And lack of data, in general, makes it harder — both in government and in the community — to argue for improved services or increased funding.


The answer? A good start would be scaling up the use of modern mapping technology with crowdsourcing. It’s just this potential that’s been the driving force behind a new partnership between the World Bank and Google. Under the agreement, the bank and its development partners — developing country governments and U.N. agencies — will be able to access Google Map Maker’s global mapping platform, allowing the collection, viewing, search and free access to data of geoinformation in over 150 countries and 60 languages.


Simply put, it means that up-to-date maps of social infrastructure used by nearly a billion people around the globe can be created using crowdsourcing tools, partnering with volunteer mappers using GPS enabled phones and other devices.


Success will hinge on using local expertise to break new ground — finding an active community of passionate citizen cartographers from civil society organizations, local governments, public service providers and universities who can plug in the data that makes its way to publicly available online maps.


Where once charts were vital to guide mariners to safe harbors, today's interactive maps can guide development to the places it is needed most. Crowdsourced mapping platforms can serve as a foundation allowing citizens not just to map but to give feedback on the reach and quality of the services in their community. And that information can be used to improve service delivery, fight corruption and track resources. Citizen cartographers, yes, but also citizen monitors, citizen evaluators, citizen-driven development.


Development agencies can also benefit. At the World Bank, we’ve mapped 2,500 projects in more than 30,000 locations in our partner countries. Building on this success, the World Bank, Britain, Sweden, Spain, the Netherlands, Estonia and Finland have endorsed an Open Aid Partnership that will map development projects of all partners for better local development coordination. Adding citizen feedback can be a valuable addition to the bank’s quest to ensure development dollars are well spent.


In the 17th century, imperial cartographers had an advantage over local communities. They could see the big picture. In the 21st century, the tables have turned: Local communities can make the biggest on the ground difference. Crowdsourced citizen cartographers can help make it happen.


Caroline Anstey is a managing director of the World Bank.