Crowdsourced Spatial Project

Open Mapping Platforms such as OpenStreetMaps, MapSwipe and Missing Maps are community driven initiatives, enabling all types of individuals, from students to GIS professionals, and humanitarians to curate, co-create and share knowledge from remote locations around the world. The crowd sourced data contributed offers and maintains accurate co-ordinates and information in regards to buildings, roads, hospitals, railway stations and so on. The role of mapping is becoming increasing popular for humanitarian purposes with humanitarians being asked to contribute to mapping disaster-affected areas in poverty stricken, war torn and unstable countries. Projects such as Humanitarian OpenStreetMap ( Missing Maps and Map Swipe all fall under the humanitarian aspect of OpenStreetMaps.

According to OpenStreetMaps spatial information allows humanitarian aid agencies to organize and co-ordinate their humanitarian response more effectively. An apparent plus for OpenStreetMaps is the open data policy, which states that you (anyone) are “free to use it for any purpose as long as you credit OpenStreetMap and its contributors.”

The role of crowdsourcing, a term coined by Howe in 2006, has been defined as a method of outsourcing tasks to a large group of individuals. ‘Digital Volunteerism’ has emerged from this, with applications mentioned using this cost effective method to gather rapid  information and intelligence, data that will assist humanitarian purposes.



The Process

image source



MapSwipe is part of the missing maps project, which aims to map the places in the world ‘where the most vulnerable people live before a crisis happens.’ I found MapSwipe really accessible, easy to use and quite enjoyable. I found myself opening and using the application at various times, when waiting in a queue or for a bus, for example. The app itself is intuitively designed. It has a gaming quality to it. It requires focus and concentration, requiring the user to be present and alert as there is a sense of responsibility when mapping the disaster areas.

I chose to contribute to the Botswanna project, which aims to help eradicate malaria. For this project I was asked to map buildings, houses or huts.The instructions were simple and easy to follow. Tap once for yes (indicating there is a building, or whichever feature was asked for), twice for maybe and three times for bad imagery. I also mapped buildings in Madagascar to help NGOS and local communities ‘improve their resilience and living conditions.’


Disaster Mapping OpenStreetMaps

image source

For this I registered with OpenStreetMaps. I chose to contribute to ‘Maiduguri, Borno state, Nigeria’. This project has started a nutritional program in the southern part of Maiduguri where people are more vulnerable to malnutrition and transmittable diseases. The reasoning behind the project is that ‘As MSF is new to the area, a more detailed map would allow surveillance teams to advance faster in order to facilitate food distribution.’

The instructions asked users to map buildings and residential roads.



To begin I chose a square. The square had been previously worked on. I marked the buildings that had not yet been identified and that were clear to recognize. I chose the ‘area’ feature, lined each side of the building and pressed the ‘s’ shortcut to square the drawing. I named the buildings as ‘building’ and uploaded and saved my work each time. It didn’t take long to mark the clearly identifiable buildings however there was a lot of grey areas in the map that weren’t easy to recognize or identify. I wasn’t sure whether they were old ruins, broken walls or actual buildings. I zoomed in on a number of occasions to take a further look, however the image didn’t seem accurate enough. I therefore did not map anything I wasn’t sure about.

HOTOSM doesn’t seem to have the same ‘maybe’ feature as Mapswipe, which may be useful in these incidents.

After contributing to this project I moved onto another project to gauge the difference between the projects. I chose project #2547 Zambia Malaria Elimination 7. This project states that it supports multiple efforts to eliminate malaria and other interventions. I contributed by checking the validation of other peoples work.




I then moved onto #2572 – Osun State Road Network Mapping for Vaccine Delivery Routing, Nigeria and helped digitise the road network. For this I pressed on the line feature and followed the roads within the assigned areas, mapped by a purple square. I tagged and saved the work and wrote what I completed. These maps are stated to be used for a fight against polio, ‘to track the vaccination teams, delivery of vaccines, Internally displaced people coordination, distance matrix and plan new vaccination campaigns.’



When using OpenStreetMaps to map my area, Castlemartyr, East Cork, I was surprised to see that all the key places were already mapped. I moved to a nearby location Garryvoe and mapped the local shop, hotel and some buildings.


Implications and Observations

When observing the challenges and opportunities of spatial crowdsourcing, as discussed by Lei Chen, from the department of computer science and engineering in Hong Kong, a key technique amongst others is ‘the intelligent data quality control mechanism.

In OSM I would consider this to be the quality of mapping provided by users. I felt as an amateur I was given equal opportunity to contribute data as some of my highly experienced peers. Perhaps this is not the most effective ‘quality control mechanism’ of crowd sourced data as on many occasions my contribution was greatly flawed. I understand that part of the crowd sourced approach is that others can correct and verify work, however I too was given the opportunity to verify work. Reflecting on this I am not entirely sure if my verifications were correct. I believe my skill set to be far below that which is necessary for a trusted and credible data contribution.  Perhaps a trial and train period before contributing to real data would be beneficial. Other approaches that are being considered for quality control mechanisms are ‘self policing’. According to Shanley et al this approach would rely on a small group of trusted individuals and groups to vet the data before it is allowed into the data set. In terms of OHM I would imagine that these gatekeepers would be the only ones with access to verify work, which In my opinion would be a huge advantage to ensuring trusted and credible data.

I found Map Swipe much easier to use and much more intuitive than OSM. I was also reassured with the knowledge that many people would be reviewing my work. It seemed given the level of skill required and extra attention to detail that this application would produce much more accurate data overall.

I can see the numerous benefits of having access to maps in disaster areas for emergency responses. I want to believe in the vision “The Missing Maps tasks facilitate pre-emptive mapping of priority countries to better facilitate disaster response, medical activities and resource allocation when crises occur.” However an aspect of me feels that this vision is too over simplistic in its delivery.

The main graphic on the missing maps website seems to be designed for a very passive audience. Step three can be compared to the ending of a child’s fairytale “and they all lived happily ever after.”


image source


Step I. Remote volunteers trace satellite imagery into OpenStreetMap

Step.2 Community volunteers add local detail such as neighbourhoods, street names, and evacuation centres

Step 3.  Step 3. Humanitarian organizations use mapped information to plan risk reduction and disaster response activities that save lives.


In an ideal world I would believe that what I contributed will be used in the most positive, beneficial and useful way however given that we live at a time where war spending is increasing, with some suggesting that we are on the brink of a third world war, I would have to consider the implications of misuse of this information. Especially given the open data policy of OpenStreetsMaps. Which means that this intelligence is free to be used by anyone, which must also mean under any circumstance.


I also deeply question the ethical implication of OHM for third world countries. Are there competing interests in these countries for this data? Are there vulnerable groups who could be negatively effected by the misuse of this data? As has been suggested in Poverty Inc are the third world once again being used in a Western plot for dominance and control, all under the guise of ‘humanitarism’?

Perhaps I am being far too skeptical however after watching documentaries such as POVERTY, INC I feel there is a huge need to question all underling motives of organizations who claim to be doing good.




Image source

Another factor that I believe is appropriate to highlight is that it is apparently illegal in some countries to map military locations when using OpenStreetMaps. I was not aware of this until I asked the question in Google. Upon asking a disclaimer appeared which seems quite serious, advising the users of OpenStreetMaps to exercise caution. There is extensive discussion centering around this topic with some doubts as to the extent of these rules, however exercising caution is a must it seems. For me this is quite worrying, as this warning is not made clear on the main gateways to OpenStreetMaps and its sister projects. I personally do not know what a military area looks like and would not know if I happened to be mapping one. Also it is interesting to note how military locations can reserve the right to remain anonymous, yet all other groups of people seem to have no say in the matter. This highlights the question of our right to privacy and the big brother epidemic we happen to be living in.

I noticed through my own experience of these applications that I was viewing the experience more as a game, something to do, enjoyable in fact. Yet I knew very little about the unstable countries I was contributing to mapping. This game quality was more prevalent with the map swipe application. I didn’t deeply consider the implication of my actions, until I was asked to do so.

Of course I agree and can see the many benefits to this for humanitarian and educational purposes however I feel we are not being offered a balanced view of what this information could be used for and who could use this ‘free’ open data. I also believe users of OSM are greatly impeding on the privacy of others with little understanding of the security risks or ethical implication of their actions. I feel if users were to be given a much more accurate description of the possible advantages and disadvantages of their contribution then they could make a more informed decision and could perhaps assist in ways to combat the misuse of their contribution.


What I learnt

Although I have some reservations, outlined above, about the information or lack of information shared with contributors and privacy issues, I enjoyed the collaborative process. I found map swipe particularly easy to use, and I learnt a lot in terms of how the simplicity of use and game quality can really entice participation. For my own project, which is an immersive story that invites participation, it has really inspired me to think more simply when designing the user experience to entice users to return. It has also raised many questions in regards to the ‘open policy’ I will implement with my digital artifact, as it is similar to OpenStreetsMaps in that it is an open, crowd soured educational project. Going forward I will deeply explore the security policy and healthy boundaries, as well as ways to communicate policies effectively with users for my digital application. I will also deeply consider the ethical implications of my digital artifact in terms of crowd sourced information open data policy.


Continue Reading