Conclusions from Mapping the Maldives

For seventeen days in September/October, I skipped from urban Malé and Hulhumalé, to the more remote Kaashidhoo and Addu City, on a mission to make a maps community in the Maldives. In addition to digital maps, I was peeking into bookshops, asking questions of local mapping companies, and figuring out how to make this more streamlined for future maps projects.

Some background

You could say that this started in June 2014 when I sort of trolled OpenStreetMap by changing an island name to Dhivehi language / Thaana script and reporting it as an issue. But this past July I took constructive steps to localize the website:

That process led me to create a spreadsheet of the most important UI text (1,101 words, plus 300 or so for the About page) and find a translator. If you’re looking to localize OpenStreetMap in your language, feel free to ask about this spreadsheet (or download the CSV).


By August I had my first challenge: the translator had done the work for about $200, but PayPal and Western Union failed to send a payment, with a peculiar C1974 error. What does that code mean? According to my Twitter DMs…

Nick, we are sorry to inform you that based on the information you have provided, Western Union must decline to process this transaction. Western Union is subject to a number of economic sanctions and restrictions imposed by the United States and other countries, and it appears based on the information that you have provided that the transaction might violate one or more of these sanctions programs.

DhiCoins is a Bitcoin exchange which opened in the Maldives this spring and handled the remaining half of our local currency payment quickly and safely. For safety, I sent $20 before the rest.

20 Maldivian Rufiyya (about $1.25)


Popular editing tool iD crowdsources its translations on Transifex (separate from’s organization on Translate-Wiki). While I was working with these translations, I noticed that it was clunky to edit Dhivehi text because it treated editing the same as left-to-right languages.

After seeing that Transifex had a nice RTL experience for Arabic and had just overlooked Dhivehi settings, I Tweeted, and a month later it was fixed!

R2 (and

When I was making a mock-up About page in July, I noticed an issue which was also messed up in the live Arabic-language About page — missing icons:

only one of the section icons shows on the page

It turned out that generates its right-to-left CSS using the R2 gem. It has been attempting to flip the sprite CSS on this page, which (1) shouldn’t be done on a sprite, (2) generated invalid CSS here anyway, and (3) only spared one icon because its regex was misconfigured.

I had some ideas for how OpenStreetMap could patch this quickly, but the maintainers preferred that I go back to the R2 gem maintainer and lobby for a notation not to flip a section of CSS code. That allowed us to patch the issue on OSM with a small change to the Gemfile.

iD and Tangram (but not MapBox yet)

I’ve already patched Thaana script appearance in the iD editor and in Mapzen’s Tangram renderer… I haven’t looked into MapBox extensively, but I would note that it shows up as Unicode-tofu boxes in the iD satellite tiles, and I don’t see their labels showing up at all in MapBoxGL demos.

One of the obstacles to more OSM use is that any satellite imagery that we can find on Bing and Yahoo is very old!

Community Input and Continuity

As a software developer, management and people-management are not really appealing topics for me. Long before my visit, I realized the importance of finding local sponsors to validate and continue OpenStreetMap work in the Maldives. My thought was that an NGO which might have ignored this tool before, would consider the timing, technology, and new Dhivehi UI and adopt this work.

The UNDP does a great deal of work in the Maldives and has recently been working on innovation programs including their first Startup Weekend Maldives events this month. Unfortunately, I got no replies from them, NGOs, and a government mapping agency. I try to keep my emails short and clear, but I think that recipients didn’t understand what OpenStreetMap was or what I had attempted to do with it, even with demo pages (which admittedly don’t look so special on mobile).

I had already booked my flight when a colleague from my Myanmar project unexpectedly offered to help me get in touch with someone who’s worked as a journalist there. She sent a Tweet which gave us several leads, including “kudanai” who is working with UNDP on the Startup Weekend project, too.

I might have pictured a Meetup invite or having one experienced organizer suggest a time, but ultimately it fell on me to make plans. Shortly after arriving, I was excited by one NGO’s promise to do an OSM training. The guy asked me several questions about timing, number of participants, age of participants, so I waited to schedule this and then the tech meetup. Finally it was the weekend and there was no word from the NGO at all! I left for Kaashidhoo without having made any meetings, and with my remaining time being very restricted.

I had only one day passing through Malé again on my way to the airport, but I was able to hold a lunch meeting with two developers of a maps company plus one government GIS guy. “kudanai” was out of town but we’ve continued to discuss this project and he’s been a major help. Another promising lead, the developer of , lives on another atoll and will be more difficult to meet with.

  • Even with a small island and a small tech community, the mappers at lunch had never met each other, or other techies we knew from Twitter. There are no tech Meetups, even monthly.
  • The government GIS guy was already an OSM user and had added the coastline of the new Hulhumalé Phase 2! The eAtolls business was considering switching to OSM from Google Maps! So everyone was open to hearing more.
  • Despite a few replies on Twitter that English language OSM would be sufficient, the meeting attendees were pro-Dhivehi. We discussed making bilingual placenames. The maps company said that some people (taxi companies in particular) had asked for an all-Dhivehi map.
  • They all were interested in expanding OSM and we discussed some more farfetched ideas like drone-mapping or OpenStreetView.
  • We discussed some ideas of who could continue sponsoring this work, or maybe invite me back to the Maldives. Normally I would suggest using tech to support the 2018 elections, but if you think about it, only a few islands have more than one polling place!

In retrospect, I wish I had used my first week to meet everyone individually, time-consuming as it is, instead of waiting on the perfect meeting. There are still people who I need to meet, and I am sending materials to the NGO in case they still want to try an OSM training. Diversity-wise, I also reached out to Fathmath (the translator) and a woman with engineering experience who’d liked one of the OSM tweets, but neither was able to attend this meetup on short notice.

Some future plans

I’d like to continue working with OSM in the Maldives and (after discussions at the Unicode and State of the Map conferences this week) support other right-to-left languages.

Probably the best option is to create an OSM Maldives or more general OSM Internationalization / Localization e-mail list. I mentioned at the Unicode Conference that we are in an unusual position because the core OSM Foundation is mostly there for servers and legal matters, and local chapters handle more people-oriented things, and HOT does humanitarian work, but there is no equivalent to Wikimedia’s grants programs which have driven their language communities.

At the Unicode Conference there was positive buzz about Adlam, a recently-developed alphabet for the Fulani language. Fulani people live in Western Africa and in smaller populations in other countries (my taxi driver yesterday agreed that they live in Sudan, too). So it might be interesting to add a Fulani name to a few places.

I don’t want to jump into a successful volunteer translation process (such as OSM and iD Arabic localization) and trample over everyone’s work. I do think it would be a good start to finish the Arabic About page, plus seed basic translations on the homepage for Persian and Urdu. I’d like to learn more about what Wikimedia does and whether people involved in those translations could support OSM translations work.