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Need better maps? Take it to the crowd!

Charles Fox's picture
A detailed map of the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya. Open Street Map
Amateur mappers the world over have long known that they can support global development, from the comfort of their homes, through one simple tool: OpenStreetMap (OSM). What has been less clear is how we can build this effort into the fabric of World Bank operations.

OSM has revolutionized geography. It is the ‘Wikipedia’ of mapping: anyone can edit the map by tracing features such as roads and buildings against free, high-quality satellite imagery. In contrast to other map services, the platform is entirely open:  anyone can download a layer of the roads and buildings that make up the map. It is built for the people, by the people, in all regions of the world. It epitomizes the best features of open digital collaboration: leading-edge technology made freely available to all, regardless of location. Because everyone can contribute, OSM maps are often much more complete than commercial alternatives—especially in areas that are hard to survey, such as informal settlements.

The World Bank makes frequent use of OSM for research purposes, and occasionally supports one-off initiatives to complete OSM maps in specific areas, e.g. after natural disasters (Nepal and Haiti are recent examples). But we have put less effort into nurturing the community of altruistic mapping volunteers who make OSM so special, and play a critical role in keeping the map updated over time.

A recent series of initiatives, however, is bucking that trend. The Bank’s Digital Development team, working with DFID’s UKAid, TeachOSM, and the Geospatial Operations Support Team, is spearheading an Open Data program in the Caribbean that includes introducing client countries to OpenStreetMap—not just in theory, but in practice.

The team previously delivered trainings in Jamaica and St. Lucia; but its most ambitious training to date has just concluded in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Each training has evolved to become more in-depth and involved than the last. In Saint Vincent, the 4-day program went well beyond OSM viewing and editing to also include teaching on mobile mapping, and data visualization basics in QGIS (an open-source software package for working with geospatial data). The team worked with the National Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (NTRC), the telecoms regulator in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, to deliver the training to 47 public and private sector participants with the right blend of skills, interests, and vocations to form the kernel of a sustainable OSM community in the country.  

A challenge for the team in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines was involving the geographically disparate Grenadines. Transport to the islands can be expensive, irregular, and time-consuming. Eventually, due to the hard work of NTRC and the World Bank team, participants made it to the training from Mayreau, Union, and Canouan islands. The outcome, however, was well worth the logistical effort. The images below speak for themselves: while orange buildings had already been mapped, all the buildings in blue were added during the month of March 2018, when the training occurred. 



Indeed, across the whole of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, a lot was achieved over the week:
 
  New Buildings New Roads (km)
Union 1,000 31
Canouan 360 31
Mayreau 217 10
Mustique 88 0
Bequia 146 14
Saint Vincent 1,448 205
Total 3,259 291
Engagement doesn’t just stop at the end of the training. The program put an emphasis on community building – including setting up a Facebook Group, Instagram group, and mailing lists. It is early days, but the Facebook group in particular has seen considerable activity. Most encouragingly, local users are still editing and even adding entirely new communities to the map. It looks as if a real, vibrant OSM community has formed to carry this important work forward. The team are also pursuing plans for a ‘Map Saint Vincent and the Grenadines’ day later this year, which would be a nation-wide day of mapping on the OSM platform, with several mapathon events held across the country, designed to spur further local community development. This would be an open-to-all OSM festival, much like that held in St. Lucia in February 2016. Here’s to a productive year of mapping for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines!