When Spanish cartographers created the Padrón Real in the early 1500s, they constructed one of the most accurate and far-reaching maps of the day. Despite its crudeness in comparison to modern maps, the document played an enormous role in allowing Spain to explore the New World. A few hundred years ago, the term crowdsourcing obviously didn’t exist, but it still took place: maps at the time were constructed from the knowledge of hundreds of explorers and assimilated over decades.
Fortunately, the speed at which crowdsourcing takes place today is just a touch faster than sending information via sailboat allows, and we have some pretty powerful mapping tools as a result. Since we already have a pretty good handle on where dry land ends and the sea begins, new maps add value by layering data sets on top of physical spaces. The fancy word for this is GIS (Geographic Information Systems).
What does this mean for development work? Better and more up-to-date information about what is happening and where. Take a look first at the Haiti Aid Map, which plots development projects over a Google Map of Haiti to illustrate where work is being done, whom it is being done by, and what type of project is involved:
The concept is great – the user can quickly drill down into project types, organizations, and locations to find just what he is looking for. But there is a major shortcoming: projects done by local NGOs (who play a massive and important role of restoring the country) seem to be omitted entirely. Furthermore, since the site doesn’t allow users to publish directly to the site itself, I assume there is some curation taking place before content is placed online. This may limit the ability of the site to scale to other countries and to post real-time information.
To see a better example of a platform that does take advantage of crowdsourcing, take a look at Ushahidi, who “…built [their] platform as a tool to easily crowdsource information using multiple channels, including SMS, email, Twitter and the web.” On the surface, the mapping mechanism looks the similar to Haiti Aid Map, but dig a bit deeper and you’ll find a multitude of layers, filters, and reports that allow you to slice and dice the data in myriad ways. Uploading reports right through the site only takes a couple of clicks. Whereas Haiti Aid Map is built around what happened, Ushahidi is built on what is happening. Big difference.
Finally, let’s take a look what a big-name GIS firm can put together. ESRI, an Australian-based company, created a tool for assessing disaster relief (not longer-term development work) starting with the recent floods in Australia. ESRI’s map does a better job of crowdsourcing, too; in fact, they actually partnered with Ushahidi on this project. A more in-depth post at O’Reilly Radar provides the full background.
As mobile technology becomes more accessible to the rural poor, platforms like this will play an increasingly meaningful role in promoting collaboration and efficiency during times of disaster relief and during multi-year development efforts. I’m hoping to see further investment in this area (as I discussed further last Wednesday). Using mobile and social tools to build connections among disparate, remote locations in undeveloped regions of the world is a powerful mechanism indeed.