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In Another Country, That Map May Not Mean What You Think It Means

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, June 30 2011

Mobile messaging and better maps are an integral part of many efforts to use technology to change how we understand the world, from Ushahidi and OpenStreetMap to, well, this — and it follows that in order for these initiatives to be of any use to people, the maps have to make sense.

But the quirks of user interfaces for mobile phones and interactive maps to which many Americans have become accustomed can be completely foreign and counterintuitive. Ushahidi's Patrick Meier explores what this means for people trying to improve life in remote parts of the world in a post from yesterday, written upon his return from iLab in Liberia, where local and visiting techies there can learn information sharing tools.

On text messaging, he shares an anecdote from his colleague Kate Cummings, who directs Ushahidi Liberia, about Nokia's predictive text functionality. Nokia phones are still some of the most widely used around the world:

If I had never seen or been warned about this feature before, I’d honestly think the phone was broken. It would really be impossible to type with. I’d get frustrated and give up (the tiny screen further adds to the frustration). And if I was new to mobile phones, it wouldn’t be obvious how to switch that feature off either. (There are several tutorials online on how to use the predictive text feature and how to turn it off, which clearly proves they’re not intuitive).

On mapping, Meier relates his attempt to show people a project called Walking Papers, which lets users print maps, draw on them, and scan them back in to improve the coverage of points of local interest on OpenStreetMap:

So I showed the example below and continued talking. [Here, it appears at left.] But Kate jumped in and asked participants: “What do you see in this picture? Do you see the trees, the little roads?” She pointed at the features as she described the individual shapes. This is when it finally dawned on me that there is absolutely nothing inherently intuitive about satellite images. Most people on this planet have not been on an airplane or a tall building. So why would a bird’s eye view of their village be anything remotely recognizable? I really kicked myself on that one. So I’ll write it again: there is nothing intuitive about satellite imagery. Nor is there anything intuitive about GPS and the existence of a latitude and longitude coordinate system.

For a past piece on digital mappers and how they tick, GeoIQ's Andrew Turner told then-techPresident associate editor Nancy Scola that mapping was part of "our" nature.

"We have a culture and mindset geared towards mapping," he told Scola at the time.

But who's "we?" In the comments to Meier's piece, Kay Vasilyeva relates an attempt to use a digital map in Istanbul, Turkey.

"So there I was, sticking a digital map into a local shop-keeper’s hands, hoping he can help me find a small alley because of course there are no street signs," she wrote.

"He turned the device upside down, left, right," she later continued, "although the main street was marked and clearly oriented in our direction. I pointed it out. He got another guy to help. The two of them finally found my turn – just two blocks away – and the second guy said in very decent English that they have never seen a map of that area before."

Technology can lead to culture clash, it seems — including something as simple as a digital map.

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