Many organizations struggle to coordinate efforts and keep the public or even their own staff around the globe informed about their work. Some in the development community hope that the use of interactive online maps will help to change that.
Imagine a Web site that allows aid workers to mark their projects on an interactive map and share additional information with a global audience. Imagine this site to allow keyword searches, so that potential donors can find and contact you without delay.
“The difference of looking at a stack of papers versus looking at something visual is that a map can be integrated with multiple sources of information,” said Ioana Bouvier, a principal geospatial specialist at DAI, the Washington-area development consulting firm.
Such online mapping tools are already offered by the likes of Google Earth, Microsoft Virtual Earth, Wikimapia and others, although their application in the development world has so far been limited. But organizations such as WaterAid and the U.S. Agency for International Development are expanding their use of the technology, and with Kenya-based nonprofit Ushahidi, there is now a mapping tool that focuses exclusively on humanitarian assistance.
USAID’s Global Development Alliance has marked their public-private collaborations on Google Earth to gain visibility and attract new partners. To gain access to the USAID project locations, one must install free Google Earth software on their computers and then download another file from the GDA Web site that adds project details, including location, focus, funding, partners and duration.
“It allows any actor to go in and look at all the alliance partnerships in a particular country, while it lowers the transaction costs of finding new partners,” said Kristi Ragan, chief of party and strategic adviser to USAID for DAI.
Beyond identifying partners, Ragan predicts that mapping technology will evolve into a tool that aid agencies can use to plan and evaluate projects.
Free and easy-to-use online mapping tools are available to any organization regardless of size or budget. They include mapping software such as Google Earth, Microsoft Virtual Earth and online mapping sites like Google Maps, Yahoo Maps, Open Street Map and MapQuest.
Mapping tools that require users to download specific software with which they can view high-resolution satellite images without connecting to the Internet. Online mapping sites often have fewer functions and show less detail - and they cannot be accessed offline. But both kinds allow users to search for addresses, coordinates or locations that have previously been marked by users. Those who post information to a map can often restrict who can view or add to it.
Both Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth offer a basic version that is open to the public and a more advanced version that requires a licensing fee. Google Earth Pro is free for registered nonprofits and ”public benefit” organizations.
“MapQuest is the most popular mapping service but lags on features and usability,” according Tech Crunch, a blog dedicated to reviewing Internet services that has compared various online mapping sites and their functions. “Google is the most notable.”
WWF-World Wide Fund For Nature and UNICEF, for instance, use Google Earth to promote their programs and disseminate useful information to practitioners on the ground.
Putting community on the map
An example for how maps, people and data may converge to organize aid is Ushahidi, a nonprofit that has developed an online mapping tool for humanitarian emergencies using Google mapping products. Ushahidi’s Web site allows registered user - refugees, journalists or aid workers, for instance - to post field reports from conflicted-ridden Eastern Congo via e-mail or cell phone text message. Ushahidi’s software color-codes and tags incoming incident reports on an interactive map that can be accessed for free. Click on a point on Ushahidi’s map and a note may appear on a recent meeting between United Nations peacekeepers and aid workers about the region’s security climate, for instance. By integrating simple mapping technology and online communication, Ushahidi enables the aid community to share vital information about a troubled part of the world.
While they are not geared toward the development community, free sites such as Wikimapia and My Echo Place also use maps to create online communities. Both allow users to create their own profiles and send messages to others.
But online data hubs are only as good as the information they provide - and often, the person who interprets it.
“Looking at everything together is often quite powerful without further analysis, but in many cases the data is complex enough that it requires interpretation to pull out the right information to meet the project goals,” according to the consumer technology Web site Idealware. “Sophisticated [geographical information systems technology] allows more advanced understanding of all this data when layered together, through functionality including queries and filters that help analysts focus in on particular data and layers.”
Idealware recommends the use of a mapping and data analysis specialist to handle more professional tools or sophisticated amounts of data.
The breadth of information displayed on a mapping tool depends, of course, on how engaged the people who use them are.
“I hope what doesn’t happen is a fixation on systems because if the data isn’t accurate then it’s not useful,” said Bob Bouvier, DAI’s team leader for geospatial planning. “The focus needs to be on the quality of the data.”
To prevent inaccurate reporting, Ushahidi’s community of users polices itself by verifying that posted information is accurate. That’s a good start, to be sure, but not a foolproof means of verifying information.
Information security and verification concerns may prevent some organizations - especially government bodies - from making posted information visible to a broad audience.