Monthly Archives: January 2012

Google Inc + World Bank = Empowering Citizen Cartographers?

World Bank Managing Director Caroline Anstey recently announced a new partnership with Google that will apparently empower citizen cartographers in 150 countries worldwide. This has provoked some concern among open source enthusiasts. Under this new agreement, the Bank, UN agencies and developing country governments will be able to “access Google Map Maker’s global mapping platform, allowing the collection, viewing, search and free access to data of geoinformation in over 150 countries and 60 languages.”

So what’s the catch? Google’s licensing agreement for Google Map Maker stipulates the following: Users are not allowed to access Google Map Maker data via any platform other than those designated by Google. Users are not allowed to make any copies of the data, nor can they translate the data, modify it or create a derivative of the data. In addition, users cannot publicly display any Map Maker data for commercial purposes. Finally, users cannot use Map Maker data to create a service that is similar to any already provided by Google.

There’s a saying in the tech world that goes like this: “If the product is free, then you are the product.” I fear this may be the case with the Google-Bank partnership. I worry that Google will organize more crowdsourced mapping projects (like the one they did for Sudan last year), and use people with local knowledge to improve Map Maker data, which will carry all the licensing restrictions described above. Does this really empower citizen cartographers?

Or is this about using citizen cartographers (as free labor?) for commercial purposes? Will Google push Map Maker data to Google Maps & Google Earth products, i.e., expanding market share & commercial interests? Contrast this with the World Bank’s Open Data for Resilience Initiative (OpenDRI), which uses open source software and open data to empower local communities and disaster risk managers. Also, the Google-Bank partnership is specifically with UN agencies and governments, not exactly citizens or NGOs.

Caroline Anstey concludes her announcement with the following:

“In the 17th century, imperial cartographers had an advantage over local communities. They could see the big picture. In the 21st century, the tables have turned: local communities can make the biggest on the ground difference. Crowdsourced citizen cartographers can help make it happen.”

 Here’s another version:

“In the 21st century, for-profit companies like Google Inc have an advantage over local communities. They can use big license restrictions. With the Google-Bank partnership, Google can use local communities to collect information for free and make the biggest profit. Crowdsourced citizen cartographers can help make it happen.”

The Google-Bank partnership points to another important issue being ignored in this debate. Let’s not pretend that technology alone determines whether participatory mapping truly empowers local communities. I recently learned of an absolutely disastrous open source “community” mapping project in Africa which should one day should be written up in a blog post entitled “Open Source Community Mapping #FAIL”.

So software developers (whether from the open source or proprietary side) who want to get involved in community mapping and have zero experience in participatory GIS, local development and capacity building should think twice: the “do no harm” principle also applies to them. This is equally true of Google Inc. The entire open source mapping community will be watching every move they make on this new World Bank partnership.

I do hope Google eventually realizes just how much of an opportunity they have to do good with this partnership. I am keeping my fingers crossed that they will draft a separate licensing agreement for the World Bank partnership. In fact, I hope they openly invite the participatory GIS and open source mapping communities to co-draft an elevated licensing agreement that will truly empower citizen cartographers. Google would still get publicity—and more importantly positive publicity—as a result. They’d still get the data and have their brand affiliated with said data. But instead of locking up the Map Maker data behind bars and financially profiting from local communities, they’d allow citizens themselves to use the data in whatever platform they so choose to improve citizen feedback in project planning, implementation and monitoring & evaluation. Now wouldn’t that be empowering?

What do Travel Guides and Nazi Germany have to do with Crisis Mapping and Security?

I recently discovered Baedekers, a German-based publisher and pioneer in the business of worldwide travel guides. Founded in 1827 by Karl Baedeker, the travel guides became soon became so famous that baedekering actually became an “English-language term  for the process of travelling a country for the purpose of writing a travel guide or travelogue about it.”

Travel guides are of course very good sources of information and have multiple uses. Indeed, whilst interning as a Research Associate at the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in Washington DC some 10 years ago, I had access to the largest collection of travel guides I had ever seen in my life. Whilst crisis mapping the Haiti earthquake 2 years ago, one of the most important references we had  was the Lonely Planet Guide for Haiti. Indeed, we bought 2 copies just 48 hours after the earthquake. They must be the most used travel guides of Haiti that have never made it to Haiti.

No surprises then that the Nazi government commissioned the publication of several Baedeker guides of occupied regions of Europe such as Alsace and parts of Poland. But I was stunned to learn that the Luftwaffe reportedly used the Baedeker guides in their operations. Indeed, the “Baedeker Blitz” refers to a series of retaliatory raids by the German air force on several British cities in April 1942. While these cities, Exeter, Bath, Norwich and York, were of little strategic importance, they were picturesque and historically important. The raids were conducted in retaliation for the Royal Air Force’s widespread destruction of Lübeck, a historic German city.

The raids were called the “Baedeker Blitz” because it was “believed the towns had been “selected from the German Baedeker Tourist Guide to Britain, meeting the criterion of having been awarded three stars (for their historical significance).”  Indeed, Baron Gustav Braun von Stumm, a German propagandist is reported to have said: “We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide.” Some 1,600 British civilians were killed as a result and some 1,700 injured.

Clearly, travel guides provide situational awareness to both the intrepid traveler in Southern France and the German Luftwaffe in Great Britain. Banning and burning all travel guides as a result would be absurd. (Ironically, Baedeker’s offices were destroyed in a December 1943 air raid). Live crisis maps also provide situational awareness for multiple actors who may use these maps for various purposes. Should we therefore ban and delete all crisis maps? Probably not, even if we could. Instead, appropriate threat-mitigation strategies need to be developed and lessons learned have to be shared quickly and effectively. I do hope that the CrisisMappers Network‘s new Security Working Group will pave the way forward on this.

How Crisis Mapping Proved Henry Kissinger Wrong in Cambodia

Crisis Mapping can reveal insights on current crises as well as crises from decades ago. Take Dr. Jen Ziemke‘s dissertation research on crisis mapping the Angolan civil war, which revealed and explained patterns of violence against civilians. My colleague Dr. Taylor Owen recently shared with me his fascinating research, which comprises a spatio-historical analysis of the US bombardment of Cambodia. Like Jen’s research, Taylor’s clearly shows how crisis mapping can shed new light on important historical events.


Taylor analyzed a recently declassified Pentagon geo-referenced data set of all US bombings during the Indo-Chinese war which revealed substantial errors in the historical record of what happened to Cambodia between 1965-1973. The spatial and temporal analysis also adds more food for thought regarding the link between the rise of the Khmer Rouge and American air strikes. In particular, Owen’s analysis shows that:

“… the total tonnage dropped on Cambodia was five times greater than previously known; the bombing inside Cambodia began nearly 4 years prior to the supposed start of the Menu Campaign, under the Johnson Administration; that, in contradiction to Henry Kissinger’s claims, and over the warning of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, Base Areas 704, 354 and 707 were all heavily bombed; the bombing intensity increased throughout the summer of 1973, after Congress barred any such increase; and, that despite claims by both Kissinger and Nixon to the contrary, there was substantial bombing within 1km of inhabited villages.”

To be sure, the crisis mapping analysis of Cambodia “transforms our understan-ding of the scale of what happened to Cambodia during the Indochinese war. The  total tonnage of bombs dropped on the country had previously been pegged at some 500,000 tons. The new analysis dramatically revises this figure upwards to “2,756,941 tons of US bombs dropped during no fewer than 230,516 sorties.” To put this figure into context, more bombs were dropped on Cambodia than the number of bombs that the US dropped during all of World War II. Cambodia remains the most heavily bombed country in the world.

Kissinger had claimed that no bombs were being dropped on villages. He gave assurances, in writing, that no bombs would be dropped “closer than 1 km from villages, hamlets, houses, monuments, temples, pagodas or holy places.” As Owen reveals, “the absurdity of Kissinger’s claim is clearly demonstrated” by the crisis mapping analysis below in which the triangles represent village centers and the red points denote bombing targets, often hit with multiple sorties.

Owen argues that “while the villagers may well have hated the Viet Cong, in many cases once their villages had been bombed, they would become more sympathetic to the Khmer Rouge,” hence the supposed link between the eventual Cambodian genocide which killed 1.7 million people (~21% of the population) and the US bombing. To be sure,  “the civilian casualties caused by the bombing significantly increased the recruiting capacity of the Khmer Rouge, whom over the course of the bombing campaign transformed from a small agrarian revolutionary group, to a large anti-imperial army capable of taking over the country.”

In sum, the crisis mapping analysis of Cambodia “challenges both the established historical narrative on the scale and scope of this campaign, as well as our understanding of the effects of large scale aerial bombardment.”