A postscript (of sorts: a postpost?) to my previous discussion of the use of satellite imagery by humanitarian organisations.
Today’s Guardian includes a notice by Chris Michael of the Missing Maps project, an open, collaborative venture between Médecins sans Frontières, the American Red Cross, the British Red Cross and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) to map what MSF calls ‘the most crisis-prone parts of the developing world.’
It is, says Michael, ‘nothing less than a human genome project for the world’s cities.’ Less hyperbolically, mapping is of vital importance in any emergency, and MSF’s experience in providing medical aid after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 alerted the organisation to the importance of accurate and reliable geo-locational data.
The base will be satellite imagery but, unlike HOT’s existing disaster response mapping [see its response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa (above) here and here], the new project is intended to be pre-emptive. And in case you are wondering what’s wrong with Google Maps, the answer is: a lot. Michael again:
Crowdsourcing … gives the open-source project an advantage over Google Maps, which is engaged in its own effort to build proprietary maps for cities in Africa and the developing world. By harnessing the aggregated individual acts volunteered by everyday people, Missing Maps can make its scope truly planetary. Google has similarly been asking people to voluntarily flesh out Google Maps, following criticism that the company was ignoring places where there was no advertising money to be made. After all, there’s no Starbucks in a slum. And Google Maps is, like the rest of Google’s projects (whatever their current openness and freedom of use), privately owned and subject to fees at any time they might choose to start charging.
“The point of the project is that the maps will all be open source,” says Missing Maps coordinator Pete Masters. “It will be illegal for anyone to charge anyone to [have access to OpenStreetMap.org] – meaning local people will have total access to them, not just to look at, but to edit and develop.”
That idea more than any other has fired the imaginations of the people in unmapped places, says Gayton. “It’s legally impossible for someone to steal it, to close off and own the data. It’s created by genuine volunteer labour, and belongs to everyone. And the question everyone asks me is: ‘Why?’ They couldn’t believe it.”
To give you an idea of what is envisaged, the image above juxtaposes a hand-drawn MSF map in Katanga (DRC) with a map of Lubumbashi (DRC) made by local university students and others (see below) supported by the Humanitarian Open Street Map team.
I realise that there’s nothing new about participatory mapping: have a look at Map Kibera, which has successfully put a marginalised zone of Nairobi on the map and morphed into an interactive community information project.
And there are risks and dangers in being ‘put on the map’ too. The OpenStreetMaps community has produced constantly evolving maps of Syria, for example [follow the link for some animations], and while I don’t dispute Eric Fischer‘s claim at Mapbox that ‘this data is of vital importance to humanitarian workers on the ground’, I suspect it’s also valuable to others on the ground – and, for all I know, in the air too.
But even if you don’t want to or can’t get involved in Missing Maps, reading this project alongside parallel ventures by MapAction (which this year alone has had field teams in Iraq, Liberia, Paraguay, Serbia and south Sudan), together with other established work in participatory mapping and GIS (like the Rainforest Foundation‘s Mapping for Rights project) and counter-mapping and counter-cartography is highly instructive.