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Filling in the gaps on maps - my role in uncovering the world

David Storey
24 Jun 2019 · 3 min read

David Storey is looking at sites on the internet that inspire people to take positive actions and create human advantage. In this article he examines ‘Missing Maps’. You can read the main story here.

 

In the Western world we’re accustomed to an abundance of rich mapping data of our neighbourhoods and communities. The reality however is that large portions of the planet are not mapped to the same level of detail, or in some cases not at all.

This can prove particularly problematic when humanitarian disasters occur. Locals are unable to find their way to places of safety and aid workers can’t locate those needing assistance. Missing Maps aims to help fix this by allowing remote volunteers to build maps based on aerial photography.

If you can trace an outline then you’ve already got all the skills you need to get involved.

Mapping the neighbourhood

To try it out I signed up, watched a handful of quick tutorial videos and then felt confident enough to get my hands dirty.

I used OpenStreetMap which is a bit like the Wikipedia version of Google Maps – anyone can add/modify it. As a practice run, I found my own house, which being in a relatively new estate wasn’t likely to have been added yet (taxi drivers love my estate).

I zoomed in and started editing. A few other people had started populating the estate: all the roads are there, the parks and a handful of houses. But, sure enough, mine wasn’t there so I added it, and a couple of my neighbours too. I clicked ‘save’ and a few minutes later my changes were there for anyone in the world to view.

Travelling to Tajikistan

Now I felt confident and looked at the list of official tasks currently available on Missing Maps. These can be filtered by priority and difficulty level. After some perusing I found a project to carry out: ‘Multi-Hazard risk assessment in Tajikistan’ and selected a quadrant from the area being mapped.

I was then taken to the map, centred on a small village on the outskirts of Hob. The imagery wasn’t as sharp as that over my hometown but the principles remain the same and I was soon drawing rectangles around objects and registering them as buildings.

You can theoretically record all sorts of detail such as the function of a building or type of crop being grown in a field, but for the purposes of this project just ‘building’ will suffice.

Satisfying work

There is something quite meditative about this simple, repetitive process and it’s satisfying to see the map slowly fill out and take form, like working through a sudoku puzzle. I couldn’t shake a slight tension in regard to getting it right though – with the fuzzy imagery it’s often difficult to gauge what is actually a building and what is just a rectangular area on the ground.

I worry that my contribution might one day get someone on the ground lost; someone potentially doing important work looking for a non-existent building. Everyone’s work in Missing Maps is double-checked though, usually with more experienced ‘mappers’ doing the verification. That helps put me at ease a little.

Overall the process feels productive – the recordings in neighbouring quadrants make me feel like I’m part of a team, and this feels like I’ve produced something that could genuinely be useful to someone someday.

I could see this being an exercise I come back to regularly in the future, perhaps whilst half-watching TV as a substitute for just scrolling through news on my phone.

Missing Maps is a great example of how existing technology can be used for more radical purposes. At AmazeRealise we often find we don’t need to reinvent the wheel to provide human advantage.

See what David made of the Be My Eyes app here. To discuss the human advantage you could create with technology why not get in touch with by filling in the form below?

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