Mapping the World

Last update on July 4, 2013.

Mapping the World

Knowing Our World

Among human technologies, maps have a unique role in the way we get to know ourselves and the world in which we live. Through maps, we develop a sense of place, a notion of the world.

As Keith Basso discovered, working with the Western Apache:

Knowledge of places is … closely linked to knowledge of the self, to grasping one's position in the larger scheme of things, including one's own community, and to securing a confident sense of who one is as a person.

Keith H. Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache, p. 34

While Basso based this statement on work he did on the significance of placenames and the stories they call upon, maps are now a major component of our sense of place. Despite being a two-dimensional representation of the world, maps include several layers of information, from placenames and waterways to “points of interest” and roads.

And though maps have been around for centuries, recent technological developments such as GPS and mobile computing allow for innovative map usage. Mapping technology is now readily available in a large number of tools, from dedicated devices to smartphones.

“Mapping Week”

At I4P, we have recently launched a series of “focus weeks” during which we turn our attention to specific dimension of social innovation. Like the proverbial elephant which is eaten “one bite at a time”, the social innovation sphere is most efficiently explored through smaller areas.

Innovative social projects related to mapping provided us with a topic for our first focus week. Part of the rationale behind this choice of a relatively technical topic was the presence of mapping experts and enthusiasts in both our internal community and our extended network. Through their interest and expertise in mapping, these social actors could potentially be brought together to discuss issues related to mapping in social projects.

Innovators, Projects, and Initiatives

Part of the effort behind this “mapping week” revolved around the identification of people, projects and resources demonstrating the dynamism of innovative mapping.

For instance, four mapping projects have been described in a previous post.

  • Standby Task Force: Changing the world… one map at a time.
  • Ushahidi: Free and open source software applications for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping.
  • Net!2Plan: Contributing to integrated management in the LDCs through interactive mapmaking.
  • OpenStreetMap: Free, editable and crowdsourced map of the world.

Mapping Shoutouts

Describing these projects was also an occasion to mention four innovators who have shared their insight into mapping and connected us with other interesting people: Christian Amougou Mbazoa (profiled here, in French), Jaroslav Valuch, Erik Hersman, and Patrick Meier.

Through our “mapping week”, we have also benefitted from exchanges with, among others:

Showcasing Mapping Projects

Apart from the mapping projects described in that previous blogpost, several other mapping projects are listed on the I4P platform, representing a diversity of mapping applications.

[Our project platform is collaboratively edited, so feel free to contribute to these project descriptions by clicking on the links and either adding a comment or clicking on one of the edit buttons.]

  1. Open Maps: Open maps in the Pays de Brest, social reclamation and liberation of geographical data by contributing to OpenStreetMap.
  2. Free Maps and “Mapoparties”: An online mapping tool developed and updated by the city and its residents.
  3. SeeClickFix: Web tool to track and report non-urgent issues in the public space.
  4. Wheelmap: Where can you go in a wheelchair?
  5. Biomapping: A graphical representation of geographical emotion.
  6. Colibri: Web 2.0 in the barrios: collaborative platform for urban development.
  7. MapLive: Collaborative social mapping.
  8. “I Am Committed to Sustainable and Solidarity Initiatives”: Online mapping portal of stakeholders in sustainable development and social and solidarity economy.
  9. Un territoire à la carte: mettre à disposition des cartes thématiques locales alimentées par les habitants d’un territoire.
  10. Urban Mobs: Emotional urban mapping.
  11. Creating a Chimères Application: Making it easier to access free cartography and multiply its use.
  12. FixMyStreet: An application that allows citizens to bring problems to the attention of their municipal institutions.
  13. OpenIR: Crowdmapping ecological features and risk revealed by infrared data.
  14. Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team: Applying the principles of open source and open data sharing to humanitarian response and socioeconomic development.
  15. Flowminder: Using mobile phones to predict population displacement during major disasters in real time.

The Great Mapping Debacle of 2012

Because maps are so integral to current technology, mapping makes for big business. So much hinges on maps that one of the main issues facing the technology world these days revolves around maps.

A key moment happened recently when Apple released a new operating system for its mobile devices, iOS 6. Through this release, Apple broke its relationship with Google on map data and focused on its own mapping solution. As a result, a large number of iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch owners experienced a significant decrease in the quality of mapping services on their devices. The situation which ensued had significant consequences on the companies involved. Perhaps more interestingly, it rekindled many people’s interest in digital mapping.

As Apple and others have realized during the past few years, digital maps are a core feature of several electronic devices, making its way through all sorts of applications. From driving directions and weather warnings to geocaching games and location-aware discounts, geographic data would seem to be a major driving force behind technological innovation occurring in the space occupied by smartphones, tablets, and other digital devices. Yet, mapping rapidly ceased to appear revolutionary. For what it’s worth, the situation some have called “Mapplegate” has had an effect we might associate with a blackout, in technology circles: helping us value those maps we now take for granted.

Google and Apple aren’t the only mapmakers around, far from it. But these two companies carry so much heft in the technology press that other mapping initiatives, commercial or otherwise, are often forgotten. For instance, Nokia’s efforts in this domain now earn it the label of “the forgotten mapmaker”, all the while seeming to struggle financially. Garmin and other makers of mapping products have seized the opportunity to update and promote their wares.

To avoid a bad pun, we may say that reaction to Apple Maps brought mapping technology into the limelight.

Yet mapping is much more than a technological issue.

World Defining

Even before the mapping debacle occurred, The Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman published a piece with a provocative title: “How Google and Apple’s Digital Mapping Is Mapping Us”. This article, which has been translated into French and discussed by Xavier de la Porte, contains many an intriguing quote. For instance:

What happens when we come to see the world, to a significant extent, through the eyes of a handful of big companies based in California?


Google’s and Apple’s maps might not just observe our lives, but in some sense come to play a role in directing their course.

But, again, the issue goes much beyond Google and Apple, if only because these corporations rely on large numbers of their users to provide them with data.

Apple has acknowledged that it relies on its users to improve its map data and rumour has it that it has been asking employees to contribute to the mapping effort.

In the case of Google Maps, we have, according to Philip Elmer-DeWitt:

been participating in a massive crowdsourcing experiment – perhaps the largest the world has ever seen.

Given the connection between social innovation and crowdsourcing efforts, discussions of digital mapping effort provide a convenient context in which to talk about creative uses of maps.

It’s Our World

Ownership of mapping data is a key issue, with a broad range of implications. Much has been said about privacy implications of the fact that mapping data can be collected by third parties. Yet the implications of data ownership are further ranging than the blurring of German houses or even the identification of Turkish prisons. Mapping data can run so deeply through national identity that Benedict Anderson described the map (along with the museum and census) as an “institution of power” playing a key role in nation-building.

While maps may depict a wide range of geophysical features, from streams and mountains to isobars and cold fronts, much map usage revolves around human and social geography. From street names to national boundaries, much about maps has to do with the way we humans deal with the land.

OSM: OpenStreetMap

Perhaps more than any other mapping project, OpenStreetMap (OSM) serves as a key building block for social innovation. Several mapping initiatives and projects rely on it. For instance, about half of the projects listed above have some connection with OSM.

  1. Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team
  2. OpenIR
  3. MapLive
  4. Creating a Chimères Application
  5. Wheelmap
  6. Open Maps
  7. Free Maps and “Mapoparties”

Founded in 2004 by Steve Coast (who started mapping his cycling routes through Regent’s Park), OSM is an ambitious project which seeks to create as complete a map of the world as possible through open collaboration. While restrictions on mapping data have made OSM all the more relevant, the number of innovative projects modeling themselves after OSM is a testament to the power of large-scale collaboration.

An OSM workshop organised by IP Burkina to help fight excision has been showcased in another post.

Apple itself made use of some data from the OSM project to create its own mapping solution. One may only hope that Apple will also contribute to the OSM project, as its users correct and complement its mapping database. Some of the possibilities afforded a world in which geocontext is ubiquitous are described in the following talk by OSM’s Coast:




Maps in the Field

Fieldwork represents a key value for I4P. While several of our activities occur through online communication, our vision of social innovation relies on direct human contact, in the field. In fact, the fieldwork imperative is part of what draws us to cartography. Direct observation in the field runs at the core of some of the most innovative mapping projects we encounter.

In cartography, “ground truth” refers to reality check through field observation. While a lot of data gathering may happen remotely through a wide range of sophisticated techniques, maps still need to be verified on location. This need for in situ work gives many mapping projects a concrete and tangible anchoring in the field.

The following video, in French, is taken from a mapping workshop held during the InnovAfrica forum in Ouagadougou. In it, workshop participants demonstrate the importance of verifying map data by going on location, identifying landmarks, and talking to people on site.

Atelier OpenStreetMap @ InnovAfrica Ouaga 2011 (Carto Party)



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  1. JD Lasica

    JD Lasica on 10/11/2012 1:36 a.m. #

    Fantastic post -- thorough, engaging, and I learned a lot.

    I must have missed that old proverbs about eating elephants, though. Perhaps it never made its way into American children's literature. :~)

  2. Alexandre Enkerli

    Alexandre Enkerli on 10/11/2012 2:17 a.m. #

    Thanks for the thoughtful feedback.
    As for elephant eating, didn’t say it was an old proverb! ;-)


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