Humanitarian Open Street Map and Map Swipe Tasking
My initial reaction to Humanitarian Open Street Map was very optimistic. An ability to help in the sharing of pertinent information to my fellow human beings is warming. This collective use of volunteers enables the dispersal of the many tasks to those interested in being involved in a humanitarian effort and will cost them only a little time of their everyday life.
I created an account on OSM and then went to tasks.hotosm.org and viewed the many humanitarian jobs there. The idea is to sub divide the mapping, which on its own is too big and costly for any one person or group. By breaking it into smaller tasks, individuals such as myself can learn to map and contribute. Using general purpose software from GitHub, the Open Street Map initiative is open data, overseen by a foundation of the same name. It is licensed under (ODbL) or Open Data Commons Open Database License and is freely usable to anyone.
I took on the task of mapping the area of Aweil, South Sudan which had lot of missing maps the prime objective was to find settlement clusters in the designated region or tile I had selected. The process allows the mappers some control over the feature they map. I chose residential, but equally could have picked from a range of geographical features. I mapped five tiles in total and validated two, perhaps as a future contributor to the medium I can provide more input. But now it is simply an introductory exercise but I do feel am becoming more adept at the tasks.
Processes I undertook
Initially my contact with the HOTOSM project was as a complete novice learning the craft and so I played about a bit with the tools. At the time of the lab workshop, I was told that any spurious additions would be spotted and removed. However I was a bit worried that I may have sent an aid convoy in the wrong direction or worse. I did make a few additions to a map and did receive a message on foot of it. The offending object was a post box which I added as part of exercise in using the tools and I had forgotten to remove it. Interestingly enough, one week later I got an email from person named Andy with two url references asking ‘Are you sure about that’. I was shocked that someone had spotted my erroneous work, I immediately rechecked my mapped section and undid the additions. He did also query the width of a lane I mapped an area which I knew well, querying the width of the lane. I actually checked it with tape measure to be sure and relayed the information it came to nothing I did however measure the lane and found my estimation of its width was valid. So the lesson is to be careful because the work is important, even though some sharp eyed validator may spot mistakes try not make them. I suppose the medical motto of do no harm would be appropriate.
My mapping in HOTOSM was interesting although I did find it very repetitive at times. I engaged in a project to map and area named Aweil in Southern Sudan as mentioned above, where the need was to identify houses or building and residential areas. I was to trace around groups of houses and tag them Residential areas defined by two or more buildings or structures. The individual buildings or structure also had to be identified by tagging them as Building. Other people had identified many of the buildings, which were normally round huts as landmarks and then named them huts, even though the task stated to only mark them buildings.
As I was new at OSM, I didn’t want to change that person’s mistake as I may have missed something and perhaps this was an experienced mapper. I did however work on completely unmapped tiles on my third, fourth and fifth outing. They were virgin territory, and some were actually virgin forest, which is hard to look at in detail for long periods of time. I found that spotting features in these areas of green canopy hard and the temptation to doubt yourself is rife. After a few insertions into these tiles I began to recognise habitation patterns, which were useful in locating residential areas or buildings. Habitations usually were in a clearing not too far from a water sources and well used tracks were normally in evidence. So as one got familiar with the maps the process speeded up.
I managed to validate an area of the same project in Aweil and found it much simpler than I imagined. I was lucky in the choices of tile I picked as they were reasonably straight forward, with clearing in one section containing habitation and forest in the major part of the area. Where there is a clearing there seemed to be habitation. I validated two tiles in total and found it rewarding and as they were simple enough I felt I did an efficient job. As I found no inaccuracies, I trust I won’t incur the wrath of the original mapper.
The implications of what I contributed
The information being provided by our efforts from above did concern me as I did feel it was being a bit voyeuristic in nature. It felt intrusive and I wondered if the people living in these little huts would thank us for our well-meaning intrusions. I am fully aware of the need for reliable maps and up to date information in these areas. The variety of good causes from NGO’s from all over the world is testament to how useful the work is. This is especially the case for Africa/Asia as the nature of the climate during wet season or dry season, can result in human habitation shifting over the years.
However, as NGO groups working in developing regions need the cooperation of local militias and may sometimes become embedded with them to facilitate their work, I wonder is there a risk of the information being used by local warlords to carry out raiding parties for example? This is a pertinent fear, but outside my hands, so I must trust the agencies know their business. It is open data available to all. As satellites provide internet for developing regions in the future, concerns around maps being used in conflict and poaching will arise, but this will have to be addressed then. Is there a way of preventing this, probably not as the information has been firmly put in the public domain for all to see?
What I learned from the experience
The prime learning experience aside from using the mapping tools and learning to map, was that this was going on. I had no idea HOTOSM existed, and was pleasantly surprised and amazed at how easy it was to be part of it. Another lesson from the experience is that there is always someone watching in this type of crowdsourcing enterprise. This I find reassuring and a little perturbing at the same time. It does however make one strive to be better at the process and I suppose this is the nature of crowd sourcing and user generated content and the peer review nature of it. All this was made apparent to me through an intervention. It is a very useful feature of user generated content that I have come to understand through experiencing the process. I remember Andy has his eye on me.
How to apply the spatial or the crowdsourced initiatives in my own work – now or in the future
Crowd sourcing is a great tool for research and I intend to use it to conduct a survey for my dissertation. A project like OSM would not be of use to my area of research as it is dealing with well-established geographical areas and buildings that are mapped already. In short spatial data. OSM in the future however could be used for many research projects especially those concerned with developing countries, medical interventions and conflict relief or resolution. I have no experience of the aforementioned but could see an application for the OSM with socio/cultural/economic issues with regard to tourism in developing countries.
I have studied tourism and I have an interest in its effect on poorer areas of the world, in which it is sometimes seen as a panacea for all a country’s problems. Unfortunately tourism in poorer areas of the world does not lift all boats, and marginalised communities rarely benefit in the exploitation of their regions. Local elites and overseas companies seem the net benefactors of third world tourism. I feel OSM could be of use here mapping the areas, checking environmental sustainability, and collating information with economic barometers to establish negative implications or any potential benefits to such areas.
I looked at an area where I once lived in the knowledge that there was a pedestrian lane there that was not mapped on OSM and that the name of the lane was not on any maps I could find. My only information on the name of the lane is what I have heard from residents who have lived in the area for a long time. They informed me it is known locally as Stella Gardens lane or better known as the Gap. I thought it might be a good idea to put it in the open street map. The area is not actually listed as Stella Gardens at all and all the little streets that make up the area have individual names. The closest street to the lane would be Celestine Avenue. As Stella Gardens is said to be a reference to the daughter of Lord Pembroke (Stella) who had the neighbourhood built in the first place, I felt this was a suitable name for the lane but also included the colloquial name The Gap.
I include screenshots of same. I think this is an addition to the maps as I cannot find reference to the lane on any other online maps of the area. I found this more satisfying than mapping areas of the world that were unknown to me as it was more personal. Although it has no great social significance from a humanitarian point of view, it is a place I know in real life and so highlights the reality of the process. This is probably a better exercise to pursue prior to HOTOSM mapping as it does instil an appreciation of the real nature of the maps themselves. Initially I felt it was a little like a game but it does have real implications for the users of the information that has been provided.
I downloaded the MapSwipe application after I had used the OSM several times so I felt that the process would be fairly similar. I immediately liked the mobile nature of the application. In the introduction it mentioned you can contribute anywhere, waiting in a queue, sitting on a bus anywhere, which I feel benefits the project as many hands make light work. This also aids participation as time is a precious commodity to people today and to take part doesn’t involve ring-fencing a large amount of your schedule to be part of the effort.
The tutorial guided me through the missing maps section of the app. I selected Botswana Malaria control which I feel is a very valuable project, it is also 79% finished at time of writing so I felt helping to get it over the line would be very rewarding for myself and for all the other contributors who came before me. The fact that the project was near the finish line highlighted the importance people placed in this crowd sourced humanitarian effort.
The implications of my contribution
‘The European Region is the first in the world to have achieved interruption of indigenous malaria transmission.’ (WHO 2016) Europe effectively ‘wiped out’ indigenous malaria in 2015. It is a signal to other areas in the world that eradication of this terrible disease is a matter of having the will and resources to do it. However the disease of malaria is not just someone else’s problem and with global warming continuing apace malaria could again become a problem in Europe so an eradication programme anywhere in the world benefits us all. Europe has proven eradication is possible and this sets a precedent for other parts of the world.
I found the map imagery very indistinct as compared to HOTOSM and the zoom process was a little awkward. Perhaps the size of the screen I was using did not help, I was working on an iPad mini. If I had used my Android mobile phone I feel it would have been extremely difficult. On zooming the image did not crystallise clearly enough for me to identify many buildings, as this was the task I was assigned. I did spot many black spots but was unsure what they were, shadows perhaps but of what, animals, trees? I wasn’t sure. Only shapes gave a hint of their nature so I left a lot of maybes on my maps. I did however get through several pages. I completed one group at level 1, which took me and hour and a half after which I ended the session. I hope my contribution helped.
Review and learning outcomes
The main learning outcome was the fact that the project exists and exploits the available mobile technology which I think benefits the project in terms of contribution. The actual efficacy of the screen resolution and imaging of the mapped areas was disappointing compared to HOTOSM which I used on my laptop. The tools to use the application are more rudimentary than the HOTOSM, but they are sufficient to achieve the tasks set.
WHO 2016 Media Centre 2016. Sourced online at
Maps South Sudan Map tasking
Personal mapping adding detail to an area I know