Maps as Truths: How the Next Generation of Internet Users Navigates the Unknown

7 insights on digital maps and how the next generation of internet users will navigate the world wide web. Derived from a collaborative conversation at future living lab SPACE10 on March 14, 2019 in Copenhagen.

The World’s Population Illustrated

Across the world, one of the first apps people download on their phone is Google Maps. In fact, last month Google Maps became the only second app to pass 5 billion downloads. And when people don’t use Google Maps, they are likely to use Apple Maps, Bing Maps or OpenStreetMap.

To have the world at our hands helps us navigate to our destination without getting lost. For people in the Amazonian rainforest maps are even more important; maps help them claim ownership of where they live.

Together with scientific advisor Bruno Sánchez-Andrade Nuño, Emily Jacobi from Digital Democracy and a group of 35 research fellows at SPACE10, we explored how maps help us decide what roads to improve to reduce mortality and enables us to gain credit by verifying our property claims

Below is our field guide to how digital maps helps the next generation in ways we often overlook.


1. Digital Maps Are at the Foundation of Data Driven Development

Maps are used to measure how far people are from schools. With this information you can measure how many minutes kids are away from schools and what percentage of them live less than 20 minutes from a school. This number provides a strong indication of literacy.

What percentage of the world is less than fifteen minutes away from a hospital? That question provides you with an indication of mortality. So based on maps, governments know how to decrease mortality by improving roads. Because if something happens in a certain village, then instead of 30 minutes the villagers can get to the hospital in 10.

2. Five Billion People Have Given Google The Power to Decide What Is Truth

Today Google Maps put everyone ahead with maps. Before Google Maps it was very hard to know where you were and where you wanted to go. Google Maps is the second app to achieve five billion downloads. The other one is YouTube. It is that important for us to have maps.

At the same time giving Google the power to decide what to show on the map comes at a cost. It is similar to giving Google the power to decide what is truth. Maps are not a perfect representation of reality, maps are leaving out many details.

What are the companies, community organisations and authorities that are shown when you search for a place in Google Maps? Are these the same places that your friend would see? Your grandparents? And what are the places left out by commercial interests?

3. Maps Are Only Useful When They Are Imperfect

Maps are missing things. That is the beauty of maps. How much can you remove from a map to make it useful? If you had everything on the map it would be hard to find anything and thereby the map would lose its usefulness.

This is the business of Mapbox. Building on OpenStreetMap, Mapbox allows people to create their own maps, highlighting what is relevant to them. In this way a bike rental company can create a map showing where their bikes are while at the same time hiding public transport or competing bike rental shops.

4. Maps Are Extremely Political

Namibia [W] — South Africa — Botswana [E] credit Imagined Borders.

The borders on Google Maps are placed differently depending on whether you access it from China or India. This is surprising at first, but it is not surprising when you see a map in your native language. In this way we are constantly changing the realities of maps.

When you travel to India, the immigration form it says it is forbidden to import drugs, pornographic material and maps with illegal borders. The problem is that the borders often depend on who you ask. Just think about the disputed territories in Russia, Ukraine, Tibet, China, India and Kashmir. This makes it hard for places like OpenStreetMap and the World Bank that requires a canonical database, one single map that is true to everyone.

5. Maps Empowers People To Claim and Take Ownership

Maps are not just about where is the next restaurant or bank. Maps give agency and legitimacy to people. If you live in a slum without street names and then one day your street has a name, it makes it more official and people become very proud to be able to name the street where they live.

After the civil war in Kosovo, women used maps to claim the ownership of the land they were living on. Land that historical only had been possible for men to claim. Claiming ownership of the land also meant that the women could ask for credits, using the land as collateral to accelerate other business opportunities.

6. Community Driven Maps Could Be The Future

When Haiti was hit by the earthquake in 2010, the community used OpenStreetMap to respond and record the impact of the earthquake. The community added details on what houses were destroyed and what roads were still working, allowing for emergency people responding to have the most updated version of the catastrophe. In very short time Port au Prince became the most mapped place in the world, creating something that no single company could accomplish. It shows the power of community.

Communities could make decentralized, offline, customized, inclusive and democratic maps with OpenStreetMap. However, unless we rally the communities for doing this, the future of maps lies in the hands of Google, Facebook and Apple who have a vested interest in making their own maps the true reality.

7. Making Maps Accessible Should Be On Everyone’s List

Many of the existing tools that are out there are very difficult to use and requires a lot of expertise that people living in remote areas often don’t have. There is a lot of possibility in building open source tools that are really build with and for local communities.

One example is Mapeo, a mapping and environmental monitoring tool that can also be used for other types of local documentation. Mapeo has been built with indigenous communities in the Amazon, where it is used to protect their land from the evading oil-industry. Struggles that at first can sound unfamiliar to us, but often is not much from reality in Copenhagen, New York and Berlin, where local communities are fighting commercial interest from real estate developers.


About the Research

Welcome to the World Wide Web is a series of conversations, exploring how digital technologies empower people across the world, looking at everything from out-of-the-box ideas and cultural norms, to certain phenomena that define digital life.

The series strive to better understand how the Internet of the future enables more people to live better lives and use these different environments as a mirror to reflect upon our own digital behaviours.

We look into key technologies (mobile, voice, AI), human needs (physiological, safety, belonging) and cultural norms (traditions, religions, societal structures) that shape the online experience for the next generation on the world wide web.


About the Speakers

Emily Jacobi

Emily is passionate about leveraging technology to empower marginalised communities. Prior to founding Digital Democracy, she worked for Internews Network, AllAfrica.com and as Assistant Bureau Director for Y-Press. Working directly with grassroot organisations and marginalised tribes in the Amazonian rainforest, Emily knows the power of maps to protect our environment and human rights.

Bruno Sánchez-Andrade Nuño

Bruno is a scientific advisor committed to bringing the maximum possible value of science to society. With a background as chief scientist of Mapbox and VP for social impact at Satellogic, Bruno has profound and tangible knowledge about the creation of maps and how maps are used to create social impact across the world.


About co-matter

co-matter explores what makes communities thrive. We help people to connect, share and create value together.