OpenStreetMap for Diplomacy: MapGive and Presidential Innovation Fellow

Posted by Joshua Campbell
March 7, 2014

On March 6, 2014, the White House announced the U.S. Department of State was selected to receive a Presidential Innovation Fellow. This position, focusing on expanding the use of crowdsourced mapping in the Department, builds upon existing efforts to bring a geographic dimension to digital diplomacy.  In conjunction with the announcement is the start of the MapGive campaign, an extension of the Imagery to the Crowd initiative.

The Office of the Geographer’s Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU) began the Imagery to the Crowd (IttC) initiative to help support and grow the use of OpenStreetMap (OSM) for humanitarian response, disaster risk reduction, and sustainable development.  Not every place in the world has quality map data available; in fact in many places it doesn’t exist at all. Former Geographer of the State Department William Wood stated, “… such maps are often taken for granted or assumed to exist, when more often they do not."

IttC addresses significant data gaps for humanitarian and development needs by publishing high-resolution commercial satellite imagery purchased by the United States Government in a format that public volunteers can easily map into OSM. To date, mapping projects have been completed for disaster risk reduction in Nepal, disaster response in the Philippines, community resilience projects in Uganda, and refugee camp mapping in Ethiopia and Kenya. This data helps empower organizations and communities to make important, informed decisions across a range of environmental, economic, and crisis management issues.

OSM, described as “Wikipedia of maps," provides a mechanism where volunteers can contribute geographic data to create an accurate, detailed, up-to-date map that is free to use, edit, and share.  The use of OSM in disaster response emerged with the Haiti earthquake in 2010. In just two weeks, over 600 volunteers from around the world crowdsourced their efforts to build a detailed basemap for the affected area.  The OSM data quickly became the best map resource available and was widely used as the operational basemap for the response teams on the ground. Since that point, OSM has been used across a range of humanitarian efforts, not just disaster response – and has been powered entirely by volunteers.

Thanks to the support of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) and a relatively small cadre of volunteer mappers, each of the IttC projects has been successful.  In most of the mapping projects between 25-100 people participated, and most of them were already familiar with mapping concepts, geographic information systems (GIS) software, and OpenStreetMap.  As we thought about how to scale up IttC, we asked the question: How much more good could we do if we were able to unlock the mapping power of a crowd of hundreds, even thousands of people?

In response to this question, the Office of the Geographer’s Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU), with technical assistance from social media and digital communications experts in the Bureau of International Information Programs’ Office of Innovative Engagement (OIE), created MapGive, an educational campaign bringing people around the world into the OpenStreetMap community by teaching them about the importance of creating open map data, giving them the skills to map, and helping them get connected with mapping tasks through a user-friendly website.  The project aims to turn the Department’s vast social media following into a community of social “do-gooders” -- or digital humanitarians. However, anyone can map with connection to the internet. Through MapGive people can donate their time on projects that can have a major impact on humanitarian and development efforts around the world.

We look forward to sharing the power of MapGive at the South by SouthWest Conference (SxSW) 2014 in Austin, Texas, on March 9. In the coming month, MapGive will be publishing requests on the MapGive website for mapping tasks to be completed.

Here is how to get involved:

  • Visit to join the cause.
  • Follow us @MapGive on Twitter to keep up with the latest projects.
  • Spread the word!

Let’s find out how much good we can do together.

About the Author: Joshua Campbell is a Geographer and GIS Architect at the Humanitarian Information Unit, a Division of the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues, in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

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Nama B.
March 10, 2014
Great to know the selection of US Department of State for Presidential Innovation Fellow. This indicates that governments are beginning to see OpenStreetMap as a valuable source of geo-referenced data, which is encouraging. Thanks Joshua for sharing this with us! While Nepal has made a good progress in OpenStreetMapping, the statement "to date, mapping projects have been completed for disaster risk reduction in Nepal" is vague and little misleading. We believe that we have just started the work. There is much more to be done: e.g. develop mapping community, expand the coverage of map, enhance the quality of data. More important, we need to work to aware first responders and decision-makers and build their capacity to use OpenstreetMap data in case of crisis. After all, we need to make sure that they remain prepared to use the map in crisis situation. Over the last some time, Kathmandu Living Labs has been working with local youth groups, colleges and universities to build OpenStreetMap community in Nepal. We have also collaborated with international universities and organized a number of remote mapping sessions. These on-the-ground experience suggests that a vibrant in-country mapping capacity and community are crucial to create quality data, effectively use the data and sustain the whole effort. Contribution from remote mappers are helpful. But we should also remember that ground-truthing is essential as geographic information is inherently local. Hence, there needs to be a good balance between remote and local mapping. We should begin this discussion to create a synergy between the enthusiasm of remote mappers and the deep local knowledge of local mappers. This suggestion is coming from our experience on the ground.


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