From global to local: Mobile, mapping and action

11/23/2009 | Christian Kreutz

Location, mobile phones and the Internet, combined together, are becoming an attractive amalgam for new opportunities. There is a fascinating trend to see the convergence of mobile technologies connected to the Internet and the rising importance of location. This is not just another hype, but could really be interesting for the non-profit arena.

I have already written about the potential renaissance of the Internet of Things – how low-cost technology can be used for better transparency. In a recent paper Tim O’Reilly calls it the information shadow, which simply means “offline” things and their information are increasingly connected to the web. "All of these breakthroughs are reflections of the fact – noted by Mike Kuniavsky of ThingM – that real world objects have “information shadows” in cyberspace."

At the recent KM4DEV conference, I tried to summarize my thoughts on these developments and their potential implications on development work and activism. I have uploaded the presentation, which is hopefully as self-explanatory as possible and, in this blog post, I would like to add some more remarks:

My initial attempt for the presentation was my reflections on "what would happen if the Internet becomes locational aware? What are the implications of the boost in geo-data? And, what are the consequences of the ubiquitousness of mobile phones?"

View more presentations from Christian Kreutz.


I start with two interesting quotes:

"It is estimated that as much as 80% of data contains geo-referenced information." (Liping Di)

“It is not about mobile any more. It is the convergence from the social web with the mobile. The mobile let you interact within a network in a highly contextual way.” (Teemu Arina)

A jump to Uganda, where Google, Grameen, MTN and Brosdi have established an SMS service for health and agriculture tips. It has attracted over a million in the first months. I have heard that it was free in the beginning and maybe that was also a reason for such high use. Interestingly Google needed local institutions to get the content as it is not as easy to collect in the African context. For example, statistical data is not widely collected and, in particular, local content rarely digitalized. That might be a reason why Google has sponsored the Kiswahili Wikipedia Challenge.

Citizen journalism (action) from anywhere

The famous initiative around the mobile African reporters is just one way to use the mobile phone and report from everywhere. "Fix my Street" in Great Britain shows how citizens can report on street damages through their mobile phones and emails are send to public institutions. "Stop stockouts," a recent project running with the Ushahidi software, allows citizens to report medical stockouts in pharamcies, which are obliged by law for a certain stock in Southern African countries. I have wondered for a while how these efforts can help to monitor and evaluate development projects in a different way?

What makes digital maps different?

I was recently invited to moderate an online dialogue on human rights and geo-mapping. It is fascinating to see how mapping can help to advocate human rights and also empower local communities to share their environment. One such project is Green Maps with projects all around the world or a Google Earth project with indigenous communities in the Amazon. Maps can reflect different perspectives, interests, constraints and demands for change. What are the implications of people worldwide mapping their environment and having access to these in any place through their mobile phone?

To get a further understanding of digital maps, we need to forget about the usual paper maps with typical street information. Digital maps can offer all kinds of information, but different to paper maps, they have all the underlying geo-data, which can be used in many other contexts. There are countless things that can be mapped and might help others in the local context:

  • Surveillance cameras in my neighborhood

  • Accessibility of facilities

  • Bike tracks in my city, etc.

  • Environmental pollution

  • Cheapest shoe stores

So we have:

  1. Increasing geo-data available
  1. Access to these data through maps or other applications on mobile phones wherever we are, and
  1. Increasing contributions to this information base.

Such efforts can lead to all sorts of services such as the traffic information or to find public bus connections in Chennai, India, for instance, which I highlighted in my post on Maptivism.

Explosion of location-based services

There is an “explosion” in location-based services these days, and all big players have been buying map services. Apple has just bought a mapping company and Google has announced that they will offer free navigation services for Android phones.

The geospatial web

In recent years we have been able to see huge efforts to offer maps and geo-data. Big names such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft offer maps. OpenStreetMaps offers the geo-data behind it even for free because it is a worldwide voluntarily run project. Although Google has done some remarkable efforts to offer maps also in developing countries, I believe it is very important that such maps and the data behind them are a public good. A nice example is Kabul, which is only accurately mapped through the voluntarily run OpenStreetMap, and it is much better.

The geospatial web for development work

It is striking to see that so many development organizations seem to be sleeping when one looks at the potential for geo-referenced information. The World Bank is heading in this direction and the humanitarian and relief sector is doing a lot, as the recent crisis mapping conference showed. But many development organizations are still overwhelmed to offer their data in universal standards such as RSS or offer Application Progamming Interfaces to mix data.

We are struggling daily for better filters, particularly in development organization, but location could be a decisive third filter: Information

  • Filter 1: Topic

  • Filter 2: Person

  • Filter 3: Location

I finish with a great image by Andrew Turner, who has an inspiring, albeit rather technical presentation about the geospatial web. From global to local - lets get the Internet location aware.

Location aware Internet