Field Stories

Open source, global impact: the rise of humanitarian mapping

Mapping_itoThe potential benefits of open source software – affordability, accessibility, transparency and adaptability to local needs and languages – are particularly relevant in the global South and in advancing development goals. Humanitarian mapping projects in Africa using OpenStreetMap are one example of how open source technology allows for greater collaboration and shared benefits.

By Grace Benton

OpenStreetMap (OSM) is non-commercial and can be used and edited by anyone – it has often been referred to as ‘the Wikipedia of maps’ and, like Wikipedia, users with different levels of expertise can moderate and check any additions or edits. However, at the centre of the initiative is the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (or HOT) – a team of digital volunteers who assist humanitarian work by contributing to the open-source, editable online map.

The HOT group was inspired by an OSM-related project which, in 2009, involved recruiting young people from Kibera, the largest slum in the capital city of Nairobi, and training them to map their part of the city using GPS sensors. Unmapped and over-looked until November 2009, thanks to the mapping project, authorities and inhabitants are now better-informed about the conditions in the slum, and Kibera has become a safer community.

Recognising the humanitarian potential, the HOT group was formed after the Haitian earthquake in 2010 by OSM volunteer editors who wanted to help efforts on the ground. Since then the team have mapped previously unmapped areas of the Middle East, Asia and Africa – including in the Central African Republic, Ivory Coast, Malawi and Senegal. The aim is to ensure humanitarian agencies have good digital maps now of places that are particularly prone to natural disasters, conflict or epidemic diseases, so they will be able to respond properly as soon as a crisis occurs.

The digital mappers draw maps from satellite imagery and aerial photographs – they mark roads, buildings and natural features. People on the ground are then able to take these basic maps and mark local details such as street names or types of buildings. These detailed ‘field papers’ are uploaded and added to OSM and this work, too, can be done remotely by anyone with an Internet connection.

Video: A Year of Edits – 2013 by ITO World Ltd

Since 2010, HOT has grown in sophistication and has collaborated with NGOs on maps for both emergency and non-emergency programmes. They worked with the Red Cross to map the Ugandan cities of Gulu and Lira as part of the NGO’s disaster risk reduction programme. The cities have grown dramatically in size over the past 20 years and accurate maps did not exist. Now, a joint initiative of the British Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team called ‘Missing Maps’ aims to further this pre-emptive mapping of vulnerable unmapped areas, bringing together the resources of HOT’s online volunteer community and the NGOs’ in-country knowledge.

With the aim to map the world’s poorest and most vulnerable urban areas within two years, Missing Maps host ‘mapathon’ events where volunteers gather to map a specific area and are trained in using the tools required.  Andrew Braye, who works for the British Red Cross Geographic Information Systems team, explained that this is a two-way relationship; the British Red Cross and MSF can provide contact with field programmes, fundraising and communications, as well as venues to host mapathons. The information from fieldworkers on how maps are used is particularly important, he says: “Bringing that wider conversation to the HOT team was very powerful because they were doing it because they thought it made sense […] when you actually add someone from the field saying ‘no, no, this really makes sense, it really makes a difference.”

The project is characterised by collaboration between NGOs “who don’t normally play with others,” as Braye says, and other organisations and individuals with different programmes or needs but a shared interest in access to an accurate map. When HOT worked with MSF to map Lumumbashi in the Democratic Republic Congo they did so with members of the geography department at the University of Lumumbashi.

Work cannot be duplicated on OSM and once an area is mapped it can be accessed by anyone for free. Commercially-owned products like Google Maps are free to access currently but may not remain so forever. Moreover, the open source nature of OSM means that users can ‘query’ the database and show certain features, such as roads of a certain size or areas of a certain population density. Information can help people not only to decide which road a bus should go down, but to decide where the road should be in the first place – a tool for urban planning.

Also unusual for the NGO world is how this collaborative mapping work is done in an organic, relatively unplanned way. No-one can control who maps where and when, and according to Braye this is both a challenge and a massive opportunity for the NGOs who are used to a linear, focused method of working. “These [OpenStreetMap] communities are popping up all over the place, without our help, all we’re doing is trying to further support them, we’re not trying to get in the way […] We’re not trying to control it. If the Scouts get involved and want to do X, Y or Z, that’s great. We’re trying to add fuel, we’re hoping it will thrive and go beyond our control.”

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