A Break in the Clouds for Open Source Mapping

The above photo shows the previous satellite imagery side-by-side with the new imagery provided by the U.S. State Department. This will be extremely helpful to the Nueva Guinea mapping community who can now make accurate edits and add data to Open Street Maps.

The clouds have finally parted. Old satellite imagery shown side-by-side with new imagery courtesy of MapGive.

By Conor Sanchez

As Peace Corps Volunteers we are encouraged to take on secondary projects, projects that don’t necessarily fit within our primary objective (which, in my case, is teaching English) but are nevertheless fulfilling some need within the community we serve. Throughout the course of integration, we’re expected to work to determine what those needs might be and how our skills can be of service. So, from day one, I kept my eyes and ears open.

The first thing I noticed about my site is what everyone first notices – it’s pretty far away. The second thing I noticed is how its presence on the Internet is almost nonexistent. I couldn’t figure out why. Cities of similar size and prominence in Nicaragua had a pretty decent online presence and yet my site was barely even mapped out on Google Maps. The Wikipedia page was pretty misinformed, and its tourism appeal was fairly weak.

The tourism part wasn’t too surprising since my site is relatively remote. The Wikipedia page was also understandable since English speakers seldom make the schlep out here. The map, on the other hand, was a little perplexing in today’s globalized world.

Then I saw the satellite imagery on Google Maps, which was a giant green blur. Bing’s map had a huge white cloud covering the entire city. This explained why so little map data existed; if a user can’t see where a road turns or where a business is located, it’s almost impossible to make edits.

I also discovered how difficult it is for people to make edits to Google Maps, which uses some sort of hierarchy to determine whose changes are accepted. It made me wonder if there was a fairer, more crowd-source-friendly, alternative.

I decided to look at Open Street Map (OSM), a wiki-like map service that I recalled a friend back in D.C. constantly telling me about. OSM simply pulls a lot of its imagery from Bing, but once I figured out that it allows users to overlay other maps to make edits I began researching how one could go about requesting better satellite imagery.

In early December, I emailed MapGive, an initiative run by the U.S. Department of State’s Humanitarian Information Unit, which works to promote community-based mapping. Peace Corps staff also helped raise the issue with MapGive.

Just a few days before Christmas, I finally heard back from the State Department that they had found a better image. And sure enough, it was much clearer than any of the ones I had seen so far. By overlaying this map, online users would now be able to trace the outlines of roads, structures, and land features to create a more comprehensive map.

Then, another problem presented itself: Who was going to do the mapping? It didn’t make sense for me to do it since I’m certainly not that acquainted with the city’s neighborhoods. More importantly, I’m a foreigner. Part of what make OSM so attractive from a grassroots development perspective is how it empowers community members to make their own map for the world to see.

The next step would have to be training community members in mapping and using OSM. This would not only ensure that accurate and reliable information was put online, but it would also help build local capacity by teaching those who have a strong interest in improving Nueva Guinea’s presence online.

In late December, I learned that my site-mate, a health Volunteer who has been serving with his wife since June, had actually been doing quite a bit of work on digital mapping as well. In fact, he already knew a few community members who were very enthusiastic about crowd-source mapping. I told him about the new imagery and we decided to team up to figure out how we could start teaching OSM to improve the available baseline mapping in Nueva Guinea.

We’ve since connected with a broader network of mapping enthusiasts that have been teaching mapping all over Nicaragua, most recently in communities like Bluefields and Bilwi. We’re hoping to host similar workshops sometime this spring, first at a local cyber café and next at a university, .

I am very excited to see how this project progresses. The inputs are remarkably simple and yet the outcomes could be hugely beneficial. If a store is missing from the map, a storeowner or customer can simply add it. If a company is looking to do business with someone in Nueva Guinea, they can look up important route information. Using the deposited data, local government will be able make important decisions across a range of environmental, economic and crisis management themes.

From a philosophical standpoint, a project like this also stands to give locals the power not only to tell outsiders about their location, but also to shape and improve that location. No one company will have a monopoly on the data. Instead, this digital map will be a shared resource for all to enjoy.

If you are interested in reading more about Open Street Map, I recommend this article that ran last year in the Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jan/14/why-the-world-needs-openstreetmap



  1. Andrew · February 13, 2015

    That is awesome! I look forward to hearing more updates. Exciting stuff!

  2. Emily · February 13, 2015

    What an awesome project! So good to hear that there’s community interest and support. Keep us updated as you go.

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