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Does a Google-World Bank Deal On Crowdsourcing Ask Too Much of the Crowd?

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, February 2 2012

Should the commons improve Google's data on the developing world? Photo: ToastyKen

A World Bank representative will meet with global transparency advocates and digital mapmakers to discuss a controversial geodata deal with Google it announced in mid-January, according to an official at the bank.

Aleem Walji, practice manager of the World Bank's innovation practice, said Thursday that he would be sitting down with people from Global Integrity, the anticorruption organization, and the open-source mapping group OpenStreetMap to discuss a partnership between the bank and Google that would see the search giant's Google Map Maker tool put to use in developing countries.

The World Bank announced that country offices in Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Zambia, Nigeria, DRC, Moldova, Mozambique, Nepal and Haiti will all pilot the Google-World Bank agreement.

Map Maker is a tool that allows anyone to submit improvements to the maps and geospatial data that Google has in its database by adding the locations of things like schools and hospitals to datasets that can already be used to build detailed digital mashups of roads, demographic data, and physical terrain. The partnership gives the World Bank and a list of partner organizations, including U.N. agencies, access to the underlying geospatial data in Google's possession — a boon in countries where reliable and comprehensive digital maps are difficult to come by, says Walji, who was head of global development initiatives at Google before joining the World Bank.

But the move concerns activists who rely on freely available mapping data for international development or in crisis situations because Google's terms of service still apply as normal to all the volunteers and small groups outside of the agreement. Under those terms, data submitted through Map Maker cannot be used for profit without paying a fee to Google, and cannot be displayed on non-Google platforms that compete with Google services, like OpenStreetMap. The World Bank has also collaborated with OpenStreetMap in the past.

"Through this tool, citizens are able to directly participate in the creation of maps by contributing their local knowledge, and those additions are then reflected on Google Maps and Google Earth," the World Bank announced Jan. 16.

"These maps include locations like schools, hospitals, roads and water points that are critical for relief workers to know about in times of crisis, and will help NGOs, researchers, and individual citizens to more effectively identify areas that might be in need of assistance."

The deal is "nonexclusive," World Bank officials have repeatedly said, meaning that data input into Google databases could also be given to similar organizations like OpenStreetMap. It's just unclear exactly how that would happen if the use of Map Maker, which is as much a data input tool as it is a set of geospatial data, is a key part of the agreement.

"You're now asking the crowd to do something for somebody else's profit rather than for the commons," said Noel Dickover, who co-founded Crisis Commons, "and you don't allow small businesses to leverage that."

What's more, Dickover said, the restrictive terms of service would create impediments to use in a crisis situation. Map Maker data on schools and hospitals couldn't be deployed in OpenStreetMap — unless a big institution that was party to the agreement, like a UN agency or a government, got involved.

"If innovation needs to happen in a crisis," Dickover asked, "do you really want lawyers to agree before it can?"

The deal concerns Ushahidi's director of crisis mapping, Patrick Meier, because it seemed to be taking a resource — valuable information — from developing countries without giving people in those places a chance to benefit from it. Ushahidi is an open-source platform for crowdsourcing, vetting and then mapping incident reports, and was a notable part of efforts to understand the scope of the Haiti earthquake in 2010.

"I worry that Google will organize more crowdsourced mapping projects (like the one they did for Sudan last year), and use people with local knowledge to improve Map Maker data," Meier wrote in a blog post on Sunday. "Does this really empower citizen cartographers? Or is this about using citizen cartographers (as free labor?) for commercial purposes?"

Google spokeswoman Deanna Yick says that the company is "actively exploring ways to expand our ability to share useful map data." The data in Map Maker is also available through Google Earth, Google Maps, and the Maps API.

This is the type of concern Walji says he will be hashing out in person. The partnership with Google was perplexing to open-source mapping advocates in part because the World Bank has in recent years made a commitment to opening its vast trove of information. Last year, it made a commitment to releasing its data about the developing world, from health to finance and everything in between, online, in machine-readable format, without restriction. This commitment would support and facilitate independent support efforts and entrepreneurship around the world, which are, after all, part of what the World Bank is supposed to be all about. It's also aimed at increasing transparency about projects funded by the World Bank, which, through the Open Aid Partnership, is encouraging other major donors to map where their money goes, too.

Walji says the World Bank's approach to information and data sharing has not changed.

"Where the World Bank collects data directly from citizens, we are committed to open data," Walji told me Thursday. "We have done that in the past and we will continue to do that in the future."

The bank, he added, is hoping to release an open geospatial data catalog that would free up even more of its data to the world.

This post has been corrected. It's Open Aid Partnership, not Open Aid Project.