What's needed to put more people on the map?

A man participates in a mapping training in the Democratic Republic of Congo. How can the global development community leverage both high and low tech solutions to put more people and places on the map? Photo by: Missing Maps Project

Designer Katja Ulbert traveled from Berlin, Germany, to “the jungle,” a migrant encampment in Calais, France, to map the constantly evolving landscape. In a makeshift library beneath a tin roof and behind a painted canvas reading “Jungle Books,” she worked with migrants to plot their paths to the camp with Post-it notes, pencils, and giant prints of countries and borders.

Maps provide the people who live in informal settlements, often for longer than they had envisioned, with tools to track down the resources they need, from doctors to Wi-Fi to mosques. And they enable humanitarian responders to provide recovery and relief.

There are a growing number of ways to apply cartography to humanitarian and development missions. While some organizations develop new technology and launch new platforms, others are going back to basics, using pencil and paper. Devex spoke with a range of experts who said the global development community can do more to leverage both high and low tech solutions to put more people and places on the map.

“If you’re not on a map, you just simply don’t exist in many senses,” Tyler Radford, executive director of the nonprofit humanitarian organization Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, told Devex. “Having tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people just appear as a dot with no level of detail beyond that continues this marginalization of people all over the world who are living in the shadows.”

In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, an unprecedented number of volunteers headed to OpenStreetMap, a Wikipedia for maps, to add new data. The impact of the effort now extends beyond crisis response, with humanitarian organizations relying on crowdsourced maps to respond to a wide range of needs at the local level. The movement includes remote mappers who work from behind their computer screens, as well as field workers who teach others how to put themselves on the map for the first time.

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The most vulnerable places in the world that have the most urgent need for updated maps also tend to be places where commercial services like Google Maps see little economic incentive to operate. Volunteers like Ulbert contribute to crowdsourced maps of the world to make sure everyone from migrants in the jungle to people in the urban slums of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, are represented.

Launched in 2004, OpenStreetMap offered more than a free editable map of the globe. It inspired a movement of cartographer volunteers and a number of spinoffs.

Stamen Design in San Francisco, California, launched Field Papers in 2007, a project that allows people to print paper atlases from OpenStreetMap. They can annotate these maps by hand, take pictures of them, then upload them to update OpenStreetMap or other digital maps. 

Field Papers is used worldwide for community mapping, by organizations including the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and now, Missing Maps. This project by the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, the British Red Cross and American Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders enables remote volunteers to trace satellite imagery then print those maps for community volunteers who can add the local detail humanitarian organizations need to respond effectively.

“What Field Papers has done on a scale that was unanticipated is lower the threshold of participation in online cloud mapping,” said Seth Fitzsimmons, director of technology at Stamen.

More and more people can contribute to the cloud without having to use a computer, find an Internet connection, or pick up geographic information system skills, he continued. But as more people all over the world want to be a part of projects like OpenStreetMap, Stamen is starting to ask how it can make cloud systems more widely available, and in doing so the company has to consider information as a logistical problem.

“You can’t roll into a village with your fancy equipment and expect it to work,” said Drishtie Patel, who coordinates the Missing Maps project for the American Red Cross.

In November 2014, the Red Cross launched pilot projects in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Rwanda and Bangladesh to test over a three-year timeframe how mapping could enhance project work. That effort has since expanded to South Africa, Colombia, and soon, Ecuador. When Patel enters a new community, she combines Field Papers with GPS and OpenMapKit, an open data collection platform developed by the American Red Cross but available to anyone on the GitHub repository.

The Seattle-based data visualization team SpatialDev is collaborating with Stamen Design and the American Red Cross to launch a low cost and portable local server that makes edits to OpenStreetMap possible without the Internet. The project, which uses Field Papers, OpenMapKit, and a new download app for OpenStreetMap, is underway on GitHub.

While Patel emphasizes the need for an open source approach to global mapping, there are also a growing number of for profit companies, like the data to insights engine CartoDB and the custom designed maps company Mapbox, that leverage OpenStreetMap while also offering additional software or services.

RippleNami Inc., a cloud-based data visualization company, is working to redefine mapping by consolidating big data into one location so customers can draw on actionable insights. The organization is working to reduce waste, break down silos, and close gaps of communication, like the gap between where migratory tribes are believed to be and where they actually are. Nuru International, a social venture working to address poverty in Kenya and Ethiopia, is one of their customers.

Beyond launching new platforms, new companies like RippleNami and others that are sure to follow should also reach to off the shelf and ready to use tools.

“When we started out, we focused on building innovative platforms, because the frameworks weren’t there,” Sara Dean, director of research and partnerships at Stamen, told Devex. But she said that the technology has developed so quickly that there is now a need to transition from developing new products to leveraging those products to put as many people and places as possible on the map.

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In the jungle, Ulbert met a 17-year-old who traveled with smugglers to escape recruitment from the Taliban in Afghanistan, before crossing Pakistan, Iran and Turkey — where he spent some time in jail and lost some of his fingers — then moving through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Germany, until he finally arrived in France, where he and other migrants wait for trucks bound for the United Kingdom.

His story is one of the reasons she is motivated to map. Ulbert said she wants to help people transition from recipients of aid to agents of change, “to boost their confidence in themselves, to get a grip of their surroundings, to get ideas on how to improve it.”

Across Borders is a monthlong online conversation hosted by Devex and partners — World Vision, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, the U.S. nonprofit partner of the International Organization for Migration and United Nations Volunteers — to analyze and amplify the discussion on global migration and current refugee crises through the lens of global security, development cooperation and humanitarian aid work, and more. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation on social media tagging @devex and #AcrossBorders.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.