Technology for Development: Open Street Map in Nicaragua

By Conor Sanchez

Without maps, we’d be pretty lost.

Maps do more than orient us; they fuel our desire to go places, to discover the unknown, and to envision our future. They allow us to follow in the footsteps of others, while also giving us the confidence to blaze our own path and see what else is out there.

And yet, Peace Corps reminds us all that much of world continues to live without decent maps. Natural disasters like the earthquakes in Haiti and Nepal have demonstrated the important role maps play in responding to emergencies, especially when aid is coming from outsiders. But even at a basic level, not having good maps makes city planning, tourism, and business so much more challenging than they need to be.

When I got my site assignment, I did what all trainees do when they get their site – I Googled it. Besides a basic grid of the major streets, the map did little to orient me. When I arrived at site, there weren’t any maps for visitors. That’s ok, I initially thought; it’s my job to map it and locals obviously know their way around town, so why should it matter?

During my first few days in site I started mapping out my community by hand and the entire time I couldn’t stop thinking that there had to be a better way of doing this. Then I remembered Open Street Map (OSM), a wiki-like map service that crowd-sources information and allows anyone to contribute (as opposed to Google, which has a hierarchy of who can add information). I jumped online and looked up Nueva Guinea on OSM.

My first instinct was to start mapping the city myself. But then I remembered that part of what makes OSM so awesome is that anyone can contribute. And since they know their city better than anyone else, why not train community members to use OSM? This would not only ensure that accurate and reliable information is put online, but it would also build local capacity by teaching those who have a strong interest in improving Nueva Guinea’s online data.

I also emailed MapGive, an initiative run by the U.S. Department of State’s Humanitarian Information Unit, which works to promote community-based mapping. The satellite imagery for Nueva Guinea was terrible, which made tracing roads and building nearly impossible. Just before Christmas, I got a response saying they’d be willing to contribute better satellite imagery to help us improve the maps for this region.

Six months later, Nueva Guinea’s map is in much better shape thanks to Nueva Guineans who attended workshops at the university as the English Community Center. Main Street has more businesses listed, the roads are more accurate, and nearby communities are starting to get mapped out. But there is still so much more to do.

At a very basic level, OSM empowers community members to manage a map that is available for the entire world to see. If a store is missing from the map, a storeowner can add it. If a company is looking to do business with someone in Nueva Guinea, they can look up how to get there.

Looking further down the road, local governments could theoretically use the data to make strategic decisions across a range of environmental, economic and crisis management themes. OSM gives locals the power not only to tell outsiders about their location, but also to shape and improve that location. Best of all, no one company has a monopoly on the data; this map is a shared resource.

I’m excited to see where this project goes. Next month I’ll be meeting with the local volunteer Fire Department chief who is interested in receiving a new map for his team to use. Volunteers in other countries are using map data to reduce cases of malaria, keep track of home-based care patients, and track service provision for orphans. The possibilities are endless.

I also see this project as a wider conversation we should be having about how we can help our communities use technology to their advantage. In just a few short years, Nicaragua has seen astonishing advances in information technology. Thousands of people are gaining Internet access. These changes empower individuals through greater access to information, ease of data-sharing, and tools for networking.

As Volunteers we are in a unique position to help communities make use of these new tools. Our students might not have books to read at home, but they do have smart phones in their pockets. We might not have money to pay for a language-learning program, but there is a free option that community members could access at the local cyber.

Technology might not be a cure-all to development obstacles, but it does open a ton of doors that were previously shut tight.

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