Citizen Cartographers Prove Simple Maps Can Improve Lives

OpenStreetMap has been foundational for much of the movement around crowdsourced mapping. OSM encourages an emphasis on local knowledge as an asset for map-building. Contributors keep the data up to date using GPS, field maps and aerial imagery. OSM contributors range from novice mappers to GIS professionals, engineers to humanitarians. A map by Martin Raifer from 2014 shows the remarkable coverage of OSM.

Kibera is the largest neighborhood in Nairobi, Kenya, and the largest urban slum in all of Africa. While it is home to over a hundred thousand people, it was a blank spot on the map until a group of young locals mobilized to create a free, open source digital map of their community. Map Kibera provides maps showing where residents can find water, bathrooms, healthcare, education and polling stations.

Nairobi 1961, Satellite image

Map Kibera is now a non-profit that has grown into a larger community organization helping to improve the lives of people living in Kibera and other parts of Nairobi, underscoring the importance of location intelligence as well as citizen engagement. By literally putting their community on the map, these local citizens increased access to services and government participation in the community. Built using OpenStreetMap, Map Kibera is an open-source success story demonstrating how people can use technology to help each other.

Map Kibera water and sanitation data layer

Location intelligence can also track emerging threats and provide critical information in emergencies and natural disasters. Crowdsourcing through mobile geolocation technology has helped volunteers create effective crisis response networks that have saved lives. Ushahidi, which translates to “witness” in Swahili, is another open source mapping software that originated in Africa. Ushahidi first launched its crowd sourced crisis mapping platform in the turbulent aftermath of the 2007 elections in Kenya. Following the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Ushahidi’s crowdsourcing platform was used and developed by volunteers and responders to identify where survivors were trapped.

Ushahidi provided access to accurate information from the ground that helped humanitarian responders act in time to save lives. Tweets from the ground were used to pinpoint exact locations of those in need, and where medicine could be found. The technology enabled unprecedented collaboration and information sharing between the military, government agencies, volunteers and NGO’s.

Days after the quake, Fema personnel publicly acknowledged Ushahidi as the most up to date crisis map available to the humanitarian community. It remains a benchmark in the world of crisis mapping and has changed the way people think about crisis response. Part of Ushahidi’s legacy is the acceptance that informal, evolving, and partial solutions can still sometimes be the most effective option available, and that sometimes these solutions find their sources in social media. Ushahidi has set up their own open source mapping platform with humanitarian crises in mind, Crowdmap.

To see ongoing Ushahidi crowdsourcing, take a look at Ushahidi Tracker, an interactive dashboard which will be used for following and analyzing Ushahidi deployments worldwide. You can see an early version here:

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