CALLS TO ACTION
A new app aims to fill in the areas of the map neglected by Google and Apple, potentially a boon to many of the world’s most disadvantaged regions.
An app for all those hard-to-reach places.
WITH GPS ONBOARD MOST MOBILE phones today, navigation in well-trod areas is borderline brainless. Such convenience, however, makes us forget that big chunks of the world remain off the map due to a lack of financial interest to put them on it. Now that is slowly changing with the help of willing volunteers, satellite images and a Java-based app called Open Street Map (OSM). Developed by British entrepreneur Steve Coast, OSM recruits volunteers from around the world to trace infrastructure from satellite images and tag it appropriately. Further details are prompted, especially when identifying classes of roads and paths – whether it’s a motorway, for residential use, or just a rutted track. Since its inception, the program has received backing from the University College London, Imperial College London and a plethora of tech and telecommunications companies like Bytemark and Delta Telecom; but the ultimate ha l l mark of credibi lit y was perhaps when popular AR game Pokemon Go switched to its platform from Google Maps in early December. Virtually anyone with data access can join the mapping project after sitting through the website’s tutorials. Senior mappers then validate the drawings before local groups on the ground do the final vetting such as identifying buildings and roads with actual names. Remote areas fare better on OSM compared to Google Maps. Detailed buildings of interest, individually marked houses and road names feature on OSM for areas like Kampung Tengah in Johor, Malaysia and Jhapa District in Nepal’s Terai, as opposed to a uniform pink, uncharted patch on Google’s version. Taking OSM further is its humanitarian branch, Missing Maps, which has been recruiting groups of volunteers in events they call ‘mapathons’, focusing on uncharted regions that should help aid workers better reach people post-disaster. Since its inception in 2014, 45,000 volunteers have mapped more than 50 million homes around the world. Biondi Sa nda Sima, Communications Specialist at Humanitarian Openstreetmap (HOT) Indonesia, said its success is all thanks to the power of the people: “Crowd-sourced data is stronger than capital. Google Maps collect data from admins, from people who’ve walked the streets, which means its coverage in urban areas are very decent. But for a disaster-prone country like Indonesia, people exist everywhere, in areas where there are no maps. Our volunteers help people like them by putting them on the map with simple technology.” Sima’s office is HOT’S biggest branch, larger than its siblings in Tanzania, Turkey, Uganda and the US. Since joining four years ago, he’s organised mapathons with women, youth and the disabled: groups who spotlight infrastructure related to their specific interests such as street lamps, clinics and playgrounds. Data is then fed to their partners at the Indonesian National Board for Disaster Management, who lobby the government for further action. “We want participants to be aware of – for example – women’s issues when we’re mapping and include them in the decision-making process in terms of disaster preparedness. We have made wheelchair-accessible maps for the disabled,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting to see the direction of mapping in the future.” OSM can be found atwww. open street map. org, and you can join the effort on Missing Maps at www.missingmaps.org, where you can pick a location of interest or commit to existing tasks. Mapswipe is the mobile version for those on the go: satellite images are split into grids and users only need to tap on the ones with buildings and/ or roads. – Joyce Yip