The magic of mapping

I was so excited by my first mapping expedition, you might have thought I’d just gotten back to Earth from mapping the far side of the moon. I had been charting the areas around Ggaba town on the edge of Lake Victoria. The job involved marking points of interests and taking photos of local scenes, which were uploaded to the Internet and will become a fixture on Google Maps.

I was privileged to join one of several groups from the dozens of experienced Google Map Maker (GMM) colleagues who had come to Uganda from other African nations. They have already pioneered map making with the tools we used, mostly mobile phones.

While listening to stories they told about how they have mapped roads, towns and villages in Cameroon, South Africa, Tanzania and a host of other countries I was thrilled to discover how simple it is to plot locations on a map. And now here I was walking along the streets of Ggaba noting down the names of different offices and shops, copying contact information and collecting crucial Global Positioning System (GPS) information.

I gathered the precise three dimensional location of, for instance, the St. Francis Clinic or the shop with the Barber Salon sign painted above the door. This was a momentous – perhaps historic – moment, it seemed to me. I tried to imagine myself as one of the great explorers, identifying with Speke and Livingstone, or the famous intrepid duo, Lewis and Clark, who, in the early nineteenth century, risked their lives to chart hills, rivers, mountains and valleys of the Pacific Northwest. Their graphical description of what lay beyond the known world to the west paved the way for its exploration and settlement. I suddenly understood what drove them.

Indeed one of the reasons for my writing to you is that I am hoping that some of you will join us, throw caution to the wind and be a part of the next mapping expedition. Not interested yet? Let me try to tell you a little about what I saw. And make no mistake, it really is not an exaggeration to say that before we had properly mapped, say, intricate details of Ggaba market we, and most of the rest of the world, were blind to them. Yes, it’s about seeing, about being able to visualize. To behold in the mind’s eye a more accurate picture of what is on the ground in that market place, where men in long white coats and white gumboots standing on tables laden with newly landed tilapia fish, shout out the price for fishmongers to bid for a prized catch. You could just about smell the freshness of the fish, so carefully described are the details given by the mappers whose photos of the fish auction might come into view as one hovers over the map on their hand device, be it a phone or a tablet. It could possibly even include a short video with the sound of the auctioneers.

After we had collected the information, we gathered at the Meera Conference Room at the Speke Resort in Munyonyo, the venue of our Google Geo Summit. Each of the five team leaders would give testimonials with advice on lessons learned from their visit to Ggaba, before we would knuckle down to the donkey work of collating the information we’d gathered and uploading it to Google Maps. We were admonished to be mindful of the local community’s sensitivities, whose concerns about their own security and privacy would need to addressed. By reaching out to explain what we were doing we could avoid unnecessary misunderstanding or hostility.

A local official who challenged one of the groups was quickly put at ease once it was explained to him, though we were also reminded that government installations, including police stations, were off limits for photos or filming.

We were about to begin the work of EDITING THE MAP – that is we would be supplying the discoveries we had made about Ggaba to the rest of the world. Once the new information we entered on the Google Map Maker server-in-the-cloud had been approved it would be there for all to see. Indeed, on the Map Maker website one could even see the yet-to-be approved new information from some of the other mapping teams and compare notes before submitting one’s own details. It is a straightforward process of diligently submitting the details that were missing on the map, piece by piece. Some of the streets did not yet have names, but that would be a task for local officials. Whether or not one’s point of interest was indeed a point of interest was somewhat arbitrary, yet it was noted that common sense should prevail in cases of doubt. It may comfort you to know that, although anyone may edit Google Maps, Google has built safeguards to ensure that edits are done responsibly and a verification process is in place such that levels of moderation in the approval process depend upon the track record of each of the editor-mappers.

Now let me try to paint the bigger picture of how important these maps are and will become and how they will improve the quality of life for you and me. Some of you will have heard about Ushahidi – the interactive mobile phone-based crowd sourcing software that uses Internet and mapping for visualizing on-the-ground realities. It enables aid agencies and emergency services to better coordinate their responses to disaster management, saving lives and lessening the suffering of earthquake victims. Route planning is another extremely useful service available to those of us who are travelling to unknown destinations by way of these same mapping technologies.

However before we can enjoy the full benefits we have to find a way to fill in the huge unpopulated areas on our maps. One way to do this is to organize mapping parties with activist groups such as the Scouts, Rotaract, or other youth groups of one sort or another. Some of us organized presentations and training in Google Map Maker and Open Street Map at the recent Scout Jubilee. During one of the presentations a couple of Dutch visitors arrived on their bicycles and I was surprised when one of them asked for me. She was holding her mobile phone up for us to see how she had found us with the Open Street map on her phone. Way to go!

By Daniel Stern