FOSS Mapping as Alternative Media: The Case of OpenStreetMap (Part 4)

OSM in Action.

During the six years of history, the OSM project has been able to grow thanks to the volunteer work of an active community of amateur mappers and developers. Although this community is geographically dispersed around the world, it has organized itself in several localized projects. In the OSM wiki it is possible to find out that almost every country in the world has at least one ad-hoc project going on. Some mappers, especially in Europe, have also set up regional projects with particular focuses such as bicycle routes, railways, and waterways. Of particular interest is the creation of the Humanitarian OSM Team (HOT) that has tried to institutionalize the natural disaster response capacity within OSM and has collaborated with outside response institutions. The analysis of particular ad-hoc projects allows us to illustrate how FOSS mapping works as alternative media. I have selected two exemplary cases of OSM in action, the mapping of Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, and the mapping of Kibera.

Haiti Humanitarian Crisis.

Geographical data of Haiti was precarious before 2010 because GIS and cartographic business were not interested in mapping the country, and because Haiti’s government did not have the capacity of producing an updated map. Hence, the Haitian maps that were available at the moment of the earthquake on January 12, 2010, were totally out of date and represented only few highways and roads. In the middle of a humanitarian crisis caused by the devastation of the infrastructure and the thousands of victims and deaths, an updated map of the country became indispensable for coordinating the help and work of rescue and aid teams. OSM was able to provide an updated map 48 hours after the earthquake thanks to the work of thousands of volunteers around the globe that traced images and maps donated by satellite companies and distributors of imagery products.

Besides helping to organize the action of the OSM community by setting priorities and tasks, the Humanitarian OSM Team (HOT) played a key role in leading the cooperation with other organizations such as CrisisCommons (an international network of volunteers who specializes in the use of technology tools for crisis response), the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), and several rescue teams working on the ground (e.g. Fairfax County Urban Search & Rescue Team, Colombian Search & Rescue Operators Team). The OSM communication tools and channels (Wikis, IRC chat, mailing lists, and fora) responded well to the emergency and enabled the large-scale collaboration between geographically dispersed individuals. A process of feedback between remote mappers and rescuers made OSM data very precise and useful because it included particular features requested from the ground.

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A quick look into the OSM rendered map of Haiti, especially of the area of Port-au-Prince, revealed lots of details that are usually absent in commercial maps. Besides having parks, roads, avenues, and streets properly named, there is information about the water and sanitation infrastructure (fountains, bathrooms), medical facilities (clinics, hospitals, medical centers), refugee camps, markets, jails, police stations, firehouses, and damaged buildings. During the humanitarian crisis, these data was released in different formats (e.g. OSM XML data, ESRI shapefiles, Garmin img) every five minutes, so the rescue teams were able to download it and use it in their computers and GPS devices. Hence, users were not only able to see the rendered map in the OSM website, but could also use the data to render their own customized maps and to create their own applications. Thanks to having a Creative Commons license (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike), all the OSM data could be used freely and openly by anyone. For instance, CrisisMappers collaborated with Ushahidi in the creation and mantainance of an interactive and dynamic map of Haiti that utilized the OSM data for visualizing information that was reported in real time via SMS, email, radio, phone, twitter, facebook, television, list-serves, and live streams.

The humanitarian crisis of 2010 in Haiti demonstrated the viability the FOSS mapping as alternative media. OSM enabled not only the fast and large-scale collaboration between geographically dispersed volunteers using information and communication technologies, but also propitiated the cooperation between international groups with similar interests. Although the local Haitian community was not directly participating in the making of the map, it benefited substantially from the active mapping of a global community of volunteers. Even more, OSM opened a space for proprietary GIS business and imagery distributors to freely share their information with the project and, therefore, behave in a benevolent and virtuous manner. All in all, the success of the OSM response to the humanitarian crisis demonstrated that FOSS mapping is a valuable source of geographic data and a successful mode of production of information.

Map Kibera

Although in the official maps of the government and the commercial ones of Google it looks like an urban forest, Kibera is a massive informal settlement of people located in Nairobi, Kenia. As with other vulnerable communities and marginalized populations, there is a lack of available geographic data and other public information about the territory and its inhabitants. Media coverage of the community is also very poor and limited to negative news about violence. However, because Kibera is the largest slum in Africa, it is a place where many NGOs and international development groups work. In October of 2009, Map Kibera (MK), a project supported by Jumpstart International started with the intention of not only creating a complete map of the slum using OSM, but also engaging the local community in the production and sharing of information using new technologies. As Erica Hagen, one of the leaders of the project, explains, MK “is founded on the premise that the advent of the digital age means that gatekeepers to information and data can often be bypassed or ignored completely, allowing for a new and sometimes parallel information system to be created and used by marginalized citizens.”

The initial phase of the project went from October to December 2009. In October, a group of thirteen local young people from the different villages that compose Kibera was trained in OSM amateur mapping techniques. They learned how to use GPS devices (a Garmin eTrex Legend HCx was given to each mapper) for recording their movements in space and for identifying important points in the territory. They were trained in digitization of satellite imagery using computers and the OSM editors. In November, the Kiberian amateur mappers collected the geographical information. Furthermore, they became familiar with the use of Walking Papers, the OSM method for annotating a paper map that is later scanned and uploaded to the OSM website for tracing over it. In December the group discussed the collected information with larger groups of young people from the local community and worked in uploading and editing the data to OSM. During the last month, the volunteer mappers moved to a computer lab (SODNET) outside their community where desktop computers and Internet connection was donated for the project. By the end of December, a complete map of Kibera was rendered in the OSM website and all the geographic data was publicly available.

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The OSM Kibera map revealed the complexity of the local life thanks to the richness of the geographic data. This richness could be appreciated in the different symbols that were used and created ad-hoc for identifying local resources. It is possible to group those symbols around community issues such as health (clinics, health centers, pharmacies, baby care places) , security (police stations, jails), transportation (walking paths/trails), education (schools, children centers, library), water/sanitation (bathrooms, water fountains), commerce (groceries, butcheries, markets, kerosene pumps), religion (churches, mosques), and leisure (restaurants, bars, pubs, theaters, cinemas). Although the amount of information collected by the mappers was huge, the displaying of it in a rendered map made it easy to read. By printing rendered maps of Kibera, distributed them among local schools and business, and exhibiting them on public walls, members of the community started to recognize their habitat in a different way and felt empowered by the availability of information. For instance, the OSM map of Kibera motivated local discussions about how to improve the community and how to solve problems such as insecurity and violence.

Due to the editable characteristic of the OSM, the mapping process did not completely ended after the completion of the phase one of Map Kibera (MK). On the contrary, new amateur mappers emerged from the local community and requested training and access to technology. Between February and August of 2010, phase two of MK focused not only in adding more details to the local map and correcting some of the information according to the requests and priorities set up by the community (e.g. improving security information, including local business operating hours), but also encouraged the use of the OSM data in the sister projects Voice of Kibera and Kibera News Network. These derived projects took advantage of the OSM rendered map to display over it the work made by local videographers, news editors, and SMS reporters (citizen journalism). For instance, by combining the OSM Kibera map with the Ushahidi platform it was possible to aggregate and visualize news reports from local and international sources in real time.

The results of the application of FOSS mapping in the Kibera are quite a success. The local community has become more aware about the space where they live, has learned to use digital technologies, and has been empowered by the map to actively participate in the solution and reporting of problems. The OSM map of Kibera has showed that is a valuable and alternative source of information. The global visibility of the OSM website and of the MK communication channels (wiki, blog, twitter) where the rendered map is being displayed has attracted international organizations to not only support the MK project (UNICEF was involved in the development of phase two) but also try to replicate it in other marginalized communities. Furthermore, the richness and complexity of the collected geographic data has also motivated OSM developers from around the world to work in better ways of rendering the data, and to create web-based applications with it.


What I have called FOSS mapping is a mode of production of geographic information that relies not only on the development methodology, the licensing, and the ideology (both political and practical) of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), but also on the critical approach of participatory cartography. FOSS mapping is alternative media because its mode of production is more democratic than the one of commercial and institutional GIS providers; because the information goods that it generates are distributed using the GNU GPL and the Creative Commons Share Alike licenses; and because it encourages the active participation of local and global communities in the making and the creative re-use of geographic data.

The examples of Kibera and Haiti prove that OSM can work well locally and globally. On the one hand, OSM can be used as a powerful visual platform for communicating the subjective and local point of view of the inhabitants of a place. On the other hand, it can be used as a platform for communicating the objective and global point of view of satellite images and geographically dispersed mappers. In both cases, the application of FOSS mapping contributes to some kind of social change because it creates a context where individuals and institutions can become virtuous and contribute to the public good. At the local case of Kibera, members of the community donate their time and work for field mapping, private institutions facilitate the technology, and local business contribute by sharing their information. At the global case of Haiti, governments and international cooperation agencies contribute with their knowledge and rescuing resources, GIS companies donate their imagery, and volunteer mapers donate their time and work for remote mapping.

Although the complete map of the world is still far from being complete, the growing OSM mapping community, the ad-hoc local projects, and the increasing use of the free geographic data are early steps for achieving the OSM goal. So far, it can be said that OSM is a successful application of FOSS mapping and a valuable form alternative media. However, there is also the danger, as with other FOSS and alternative media projects, that OSM can eventually become co-opted by corporations or governments and the free labor of volunteer mappers could end being exploited by others. Although the FOSS legal licenses are designed to prevent that situation, free/open information, knowledge and cultural goods are always at risk of being appropriated and exploited by capitalist forces.


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