You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

How the State Department Plans to Make Humanitarian Crowdmapping Mainstream

BY Jessica McKenzie | Thursday, April 3 2014

Progress on the mapping of Nimule, South Sudan

The U.S. Department of State has more than 859,000 Twitter followers and more than 518,000 likes on Facebook, and they want to mobilize those million plus followers for the benefit of humanitarian causes around the world.

In early March the State Department launched MapGive, a campaign to educate the masses about crowdmapping: why it is important and how one can help. MapGive, a collaboration between the Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU) and the Office of Innovative Engagement (OIE), is part of one of the projects in the third round of the Presidential Innovation Fellows program designed to harness the power of crowdsourcing to improve government.

The campaign is a long time coming. The inspiration for MapGive was the crucial part crisis mapping played in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince. At the time, half of the city was missing from Google Maps. In just a few days, volunteer mappers on OpenStreetMap made “the most detailed roadmap of Haiti ever produced,” according to crisis mapping guru Patrick Meier.

An animation of the evolving OpenStreetMap of Haiti:

“We wanted to know,” Joshua Campbell, a geographer with the HIU, told techPresident, “was Haiti a perfect storm of events that allowed these people to come together to map? Or could it be replicated?”

The success arguably has been replicated, over and over again. The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT)—an organization dedicated to facilitating humanitarian work on the OpenStreetMap platform—has overseen mapping projects for Indonesia, Somalia, Senegal, and the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan, among others. And yet most projects employed only 25 to 100 volunteers. Campbell wanted to find out what happens when you get hundred or thousands of volunteers working on a project. Hence: MapGive.

Before MapGive, there had to be Imagery to the Crowd, the part of the HIU for publishing satellite imagery that can be used to create maps on the OpenStreetMap platform.

The State Department purchases satellite imagery from companies like DigitalGlobe—the company that encouraged crowdsourcing the search for Malaysian Airlines MH370—under a license that allows them to share the imagery with NGOs and those in the volunteer mapping community whose projects are in line with the State Department goal of supporting humanitarian assistance. Imagery to the Crowd, formally launched last year, facilitates that process.

When I asked Campbell who their initial target audience for this campaign was he laughed and said “I'm probably a little biased...I love mapping and I think everyone should.”

He elaborated:

In this first phase, the remote mapping part, you need a broadband Internet connection, need a computer, it helps if you like technology, because it's kinda a new thing, and it's tricky—that's why we built the videos [that explain how to map].

Campbell said college students were a promising demographic—they held the first MapGive event at George Mason University on April 2—and also, he thought, recently retired people with some technology skills and a desire to give back.

Mikel Maron, the co-founder of HOT, told techPresident that he is excited about the opportunity to bring more people into the crowdmapping fold:

MapGive could be really useful for bringing in a lot of mappers from places that have been affected by disasters...I feel like there's an opportunity here to reach out even farther to places that haven't been exposed yet.

Alex Barth, who sits on the board of OpenStreetMap US, highlighted the advantage of being able to log in to OpenStreetMap and immediately access the platform and begin editing. And the changes are immediate, too.

“It won't go into a queue where it had to be vetted by a priesthood of mappers,” Barth explained to techPresident.

Nor is OpenStreetMap subject to the whims of capitalist owners, which some argue has led the entire continent of Africa to be shortchanged by Google.

MapGive's first project is for the area around Nimule, South Sudan, where humanitarian organizations need better map data so they can respond to the recent increase in violence there. The project was requested by MapAction, a humanitarian mapping and information management organization.

So what are you waiting for? Go map!

Editor's Note (April 4, 2014): The article has been amended to reflect two changes.

The original article stated that all Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) projects employed only 25 to 100 volunteers. The article has been corrected to state "most projects."

The original article also stated that the State Department releases satellite imagery to approved organizations working on OpenStreetMap projects that contribute to the United States' humanitarian interests or foreign policy objectives. The sentence has been clarified to state that the State Department releases satellite imagery to NGOs and those in the volunteer mapping community whose projects are in line with the State Department's goal of supporting humanitarian assistance.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

For a round-up of our weekly stories, subscribe to the WeGov mailing list.