The race to map Africa and ethical issues around online mapping

6/3/2009 | Christian Kreutz

I started blogging at the Web2fordev gateway, from which I will crosspost some articles here from time to time to get some further discussions on web2fordev. I wrote the following piece together with Giacomo Rambaldi, the initiator of PPgis (Open Forum on Participatory Geographic Information Systems and Technologies).

Online Mapping for Development: Opportunities and Challenges

Maps are an effective medium which can be used for development projects. They help visualise the spatial distribution of complex problems their inter-relationships and promote awareness. In recent years the availability of free or low-cost digital maps and remote sensed images has unleashed unprecedented ways to make use of spatial information for a variety of purposes. Last week we analysed the potential of open data sources for development. Open maps are an excellent example illustrating the many ways to use and link information in creative ways. In almost any development project, maps can assist in the interpretation of spatial issues, foster awareness and support transparency. Le Monde Diplomatique, offers interesting examples on using maps to visualize complex conflict situations. Unfortunately in developing countries large scale maps are not always easy to obtain, data are often outdated or inaccurate or too expensive. Free digital maps offer an alternative. Potentials and Opportunities

Here are a few examples:

  • The Harvard university runs the AfricaMap project, where one can view the African continent through different data layers. It is a good place to experiment a bit. For example in turning layers on and off for display and adjusting their transparency allows users to superimpose data sets. Resulting thematic maps can be linked from other sites. .
  • Back at the 2007 Web2forDev International Conference Paul Saunby presented some great simulations on maps using open data around the issue of climate change. That way he could simulate future forecasts for a specific coast. “Such maps could provide planners with valuable information on where to build new roads or houses. They could also give farmers a better idea of where to plant next season’s crops or how best to irrigate their fields.”
  • UNEP offers the Atlas of the Changing Environment: "Through illustrations, satellite images, ground photographs and powered by Google Maps, this interactive media depicts and describes humanity’s past and present impact on the environment."
  • A renouned example for putting maps to work is Ushahidi which means “testimony” in Swahili, where human rights activists offers a platform that crowdsources crisis information. It allows anyone to submit information through text messaging using a mobile phone, email or web form. Resulting data are visualised on thematic maps. Recent initiatives covered the Swine Flu Epidemic and the elections in India. The same free and open source application has been used to spatially document the Gaza war and Eastern Congo conflict.
  • The AGCommons project combines mapping with mobile phones and aims to equip "Africa’s farmers with location-specific information to reduce uncertainty and increase returns". AGCommons was one of the organizers behind the WhereCamp in Nairobi, entirely devoted to mapping.
  • Another ambitious project is done by scientists from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), who want to create the first detailed digital soil map of sub-Saharan Africa. "African soils are among the poorest in the world, and many farmers suffer from chronically low-yielding crops. With accurate soil maps, we find farmers can increase their yields by around 60%, and sometimes double." (BBC)

But whoever plans to make use of online maps in Africa should have a look at Google maps and Open Street Maps. Both services offer already some impressive maps for some parts of Africa. Google Maps introduced lately a massive update of maps for Western Africa and Open Street Maps (OSM) added more then hundred thousand miles of roads lately.

Google Maps acquires map material and offers to combine it with third party data and on your own website. Open Street Maps goes a step further offers its complete data with all geo reference for free under the creative commons license. The license is currently changed to a an Open Database License Agreement. OSM relies completely on volunteer work. Thousand of GPS equipped mapers go through streets or parks worldwide and contribute to maps. The result are impressive and in some place the same as good as Google maps or even better. Check out how Mikel Maron initiated some detail mapping for Palestine.

OpenStreetMap in Palestine

Aidworker shows how OSM maps are even much better in developing countries on the example of Kabul and Tiblis. So in the case of OSM you can download entire geodata, whereas in Google you somehow are bind to their digital maps, which allow impressive presentations.


There are undoubtedly also some challenges. In the context only some parts and mainly urban areas have been mapped and there is a need for a critical mass of mappers to enter and cross-validate data in order to achieve a satisfactory degree of accuracy. The dilemma is that where maps are needed most, not enough volunteers are available and in other countries such as in Europe, maps have been developed the furthest. The transparency of maps can also be used for critical issues and lead to discrimination as the Times report from Japan.

Nevertheless digital maps have catapulted cartography into new dimensions in recent years. As a most information is location-specific, mapping offers great opportunities to support communication in development. In the past mapmaking was the realm of a few. Today mapmaking has become a widespread activity accessible to experts and non-experts, well minded and otherwise. Collaborative mapmaking offers great opportunities for development organizations to share and collect data.

Words of Caution

Said that a few words of caution are necessary: Users of online mapping facilities should have a close look at the terms of service they sign up before submitting their contributions. In the case of Google Map Maker upon submission of the data, the service provider acquires “perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display, distribute, and create derivative works.

Further, the frenzy of geo-tagging and online publishing of images, videos and other type of information without obtaining prior informed consent from the concerned parties may result in the infringement of privacy and intellectual property rights. With Open Street Maps in the old and new license, the contributed data is free for reuse and can be used for commercial purposes as well.

At WhereCampAfrica, a gathering which brought together geographers, cartographers and mobile mapping specialists to discuss the potential – and difficulties – of the ‘geographic web’ in Africa, participants expressed their concern that indiscriminate online mapping could feed tensions over land ownership and resource use and control (BBC).

The Inportance of Good Practice

In times where online mapmaking has reached exponential growth rates, there is the need to be increasingly aware of the implications and impact of making geo-located information publicly available and on the need to adhere to the ethical principles of privacy, confidentiality, of obtaining prior informed consent and avoiding exposing knowledge holders at risk.  Practical ethics in the context of participatory mapmaking are discussed on an article published on Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) in 2006. The article is available in 12 languages.