Democratizing the Geography of Information

    by David Sasaki
    December 5, 2009

    As little as a year ago Google Maps had no geographic information about San Javier La Loma, a small working class neighborhood on the outskirts of Medellín where the ConVerGentes group of the HiperBarrio citizen journalism project is based. Some progress has been made, but as you can see from the satellite imagery, most of the streets are still not mapped, much less the parks, buildings and footpaths.

    Screen shot 2009-12-05 at 5.21.PM 1.jpg

    Now, compare that to the map of San Javier La Loma created by HiperBarrio and freely available with nearly unrestricted use on Open Street Maps:


    Screen shot 2009-12-05 at 5.24.PM.jpg

    There is clearly an aspect of amateurism to the cartography, but anyone who has been to La Loma will tell you that the second map is a much more useful representation of the community. All of the roads are represented, as are the church, school, and the labyrinthine network of steep footpaths which carry constant pedestrian traffic.

    la loma


    A resident of La Loma carrying a washing machine down the road.

    In fact, much of the world is still a blank void on Google Maps, especially slums and lower income communities. The majority of Rio de Janeiro is remarkably well-mapped, and even includes public transit information. But if you live in a favela like Santa Marta (where Michael Jackson shot the video to “They Don’t Care About Us“) there is no street information at all:

    Screen shot 2009-12-05 at 5.40.PM.jpg

    Access to geographic information is crucial to the development of any community. As Mikel Maron, an evangelist of Open Street Maps, puts it: “Without basic knowledge of the geography and resources of [a community] it is impossible to have an informed discussion on how to improve the lives of residents.”

    Last Saturday Fredy Rivera, a leading mapper of Open Street Maps based in Bogotá, organized a workshop at the small public library in La Loma to teach its young residents how to make a map of their own community.


    Gabriel Vanegas, the librarian in La Loma whose dedication is responsible for much of HiperBarrio’s success, explained the background that led to the workshop:

    In March of this year, thanks to the free software community, I had the opportunity to meet Fredy Rivera, a master of Linux and cartography, who will be with us to help us better understand the collective creation of maps. It will be an excellent opportunity to continue recognizing the community from the public library and through exercises of citizen journalism, free culture, participative history, and citizenship.

    The workshop was later covered and summarized on the website of Medellin’s Network of Libraries, a recipient of the Gates Foundation’s 2009 Access to Learning award. Fredy Rivera posted a very useful summary of the contents of the workshops (in Spanish) on his blog.


    Mark Graham has mapped the total number of of geotagged Wikipedia articles per language, location, and population. He found a “highly uneven geography of information.” An article in The Guardian notes:

    Almost the entire continent of Africa is geographically poorly represented in Wikipedia. Remarkably, there are more Wikipedia articles written about Antarctica than all but one of the 53 countries in Africa (or perhaps more amazingly, there are more Wikipedia articles written about the fictional places of Middle Earth and Discworld than about many countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas).

    all countries.jpg

    The article goes on to optimistically wonder if this imbalance of information presents a new opportunity for Wikipedia’s declining number of active editors: to democratize not just access to information, but what kind of information is made freely available. At one point iCommons was involved in organizing Wikipedia Academies to encourage local experts to fill in Wikipedia’s sizable information gaps. (Unfortunately iCommons now seems more interested in publishing research reviews.)

    Like Wikipedia, Open Street Maps, has seen an almost unbelievable explosion of activity in the past few years. But unlike Wikipedia, contributions don’t seem to be declining. There is a strong commitment from within the community to produce valuable information not just about North America and Western Europe, but all communities regardless of class or location. In fact, last month a group of Open Street Map activists headed to Kibera, Kenya, one of the world’s largest slums, to produce a better map of the area. Already their information has been integrated into Ushahidi to provide a real-time interface to local news events:

    Screen shot 2009-12-05 at 6.48.PM.jpg

    A similar project in Rio de Janeiro led by Viva Favela is also trying to integrate local citizen media with community-produced maps of favelas (including Santa Marta).

    It is too early to know whether this flurry of cartographic activism will lead to any sort of sustained social change, but Robert Neuwirth’s Shadow Cities offers a clear example of how access to information can serve as a catalyst for improved livelihoods:

    A few years ago, the Water and Sanitation Program, a nonprofit affiliated with the United Nations and the World Bank, became interested in the water supply question in Kibera. The group issued a report on Kibera’s water kiosks. By reading the fine print, you can determine how much Kibera people — and by extension, residents of all the mud hut communities of Nairobi — are being ripped off by the kiosk system. At 3 shillings per jerry can, Kibera residents pay 10 times more for water than the average person in a wealthy neighborhood with municipally supplied, metered water service. And that’s when water is plentiful. When there’s a shortage, metered rates don’t go up, but the prices in Kibera do. So at those times people in Kibera
    pay 30 or 40 times the official price of water.

    The group published a brochure about the study. They presented it to local and national politicians. There was only one bunch of people who never saw the study: the residents of Kibera.

    Japeth Mbuvi, Operations Analyst for the program, explained why. “Our audience for this was not the people of Kibera, but the political structure,” he told me. Then he added, “Anyway, maybe it’s better not to publicize this: there could be riots.”

    I applaud Mbuvi for his frankness. He is one of the few people I have met at any of the large nonprofit agencies who was willing to be candid about his agency’s shortcomings as well as its achievements.

    Still, there’s something sad about his concern.

    Perhaps it’s true that people in Kibera could riot over water. After all, Kibera has been the scenes of riots in the past — most of them involving landlord tenant issue — and scores of people have been murdered in the melees. Still, Kibera’s people deserve to know the facts about their lives. What’s the point of studying the water kiosks of Kibera if, when the study is done, the information is not shared with the people who are most at stake?

    Tagged: colombia Geo-journalism geo-web geodata kenya kibera rising voices

    7 responses to “Democratizing the Geography of Information”

    1. Jon Evans says:

      Google is doing the same thing with their maps, fwiw.

    2. Patent says:

      Thats true, google is doing the same thing with his maps, just look here for example: http://www.google.com/Top/Regional/Africa/Congo,_Democratic_Republic_of_the/Guides_and_Directories/

    3. No, Google isn’t doing the same thing. Google is a multi-billion dollar corporation which is asking people to donate (contribute) free of cost to Google, local information. In turn, Google is making money off that information, and doesn’t share it back.

    4. amanda says:

      As Russell points out, the big difference between data added to Google and data added to Open Street Maps is ownership: according to the terms of the (short and sweet) Open Street Map, anyone and everyone (even Google) can use the data in the Open Street Map as long as they attribute it to Open Street Map and make it clear to their own users that it can be re-shared.

    5. matt says:

      This is outstanding, and dovetails well with the AAAS Science and Human Rights Program, who is working on Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights. Complex data sets based in geographic information are being used to leverage environmental, social and human rights issues.

      (I have no affiliation — I’m just an interested scientist.)

    6. A through explanation of the differences between Google Map Maker and Open Street Maps is available here.

    7. chris says:

      Russell, Google actually does share the data it collects in MapMaker back with the world (for non-commercial use): http://mapmaker.google.com/datadownload
      Not all countries are available yet, but it has been spreading rapidly.

  • Who We Are

    MediaShift is the premier destination for insight and analysis at the intersection of media and technology. The MediaShift network includes MediaShift, EducationShift, MetricShift and Idea Lab, as well as workshops and weekend hackathons, email newsletters, a weekly podcast and a series of DigitalEd online trainings.

    About MediaShift »
    Contact us »
    Sponsor MediaShift »
    MediaShift Newsletters »

    Follow us on Social Media