In today’s world of Google Maps, Foursquare, Uber, and Waze, it’s easy to forget that digital, localized maps have not always been available.
Several hundred years ago, accurate maps were worth many times their weight in gold as they could mean the difference between a successful trading mission, or death on the high seas. Before then, most of the world was not mapped, and the few existing maps contained warnings of danger (or dragons!) beyond a very narrow horizon.
Just as recently as 10 years ago, maps were generally regarded as large pieces of paper with many folds that had to be spread out on a large surface to even be useful for navigating a new destination or even your hometown.
Surprisingly, there are still large parts of the world that are not well-mapped. When U.S. ambassador to Turkmenistan Allan Phillip Mustard arrived in the country’s capital of Ashgabat two years ago, he could not find a good map of the city. For him, this meant he could not find a gas station in a city of over a million people, and that was the least of it.
Ashgabat has not been well-mapped for many reasons: the road names are in four different languages and two different alphabets; it’s a relatively new city built on the high central Asian plains by former nomadic tribes; and Ashgabat has not historically done much business with international companies.
Thanks to millions of map enthusiasts, this is starting to change. OpenStreetMap, for example, is a community of mapmakers who are committed to improving online maps through crowdsourced and up-to-date local information. In just six months, working with OpenStreetMap and local volunteers, ambassador Mustard mapped Ashgabat and found a nearby gas station.
The international OSM community has organically produced some remarkable mapping efforts. One is called the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT). HOT has taken on the task of filling in missing maps in some of the most troubled parts of the world, and by doing so, saving lives.
I recently attended a HOT mapathon event in Brussels. We mapped parts of eastern Congo where Doctors Without Borders is working to deliver much needed medicine and medical care. We constructed the maps off of satellite images of the region donated by DigitalGlobe. The images had the resolution to reveal roads and villages, and by mapping these features we were providing a guide for the upcoming humanitarian campaign.