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July 30 2010


Creating a Participatory, Open Source Map of an Entire Country


For the past few weeks I've been working from Tbilisi, Georgia -- the other Georgia -- with a fascinating organization called OpenMapsCaucasus (OMC for short), which has been hard at work creating the first participatory, public domain road map of an entire country.

Created by JumpStart International, and building on previous mapping work in the West Bank and Gaza, OMC employs dozens of GPS-wielding mappers who work in teams across Georgia to collect, process and publish map data. The OMC office in Tbilisi is abuzz with tech-savvy students, GIS wizards, and a fun-loving and coffee-fueled atmosphere. The sheer amount of map data flowing through it is stunning. Ten offices and over 200 volunteers have mapped thousands of kilometers of roads in over 1,600 cities, towns, and villages. And they're giving it all away for free.


Teaching Cartographic Literacy

Sure, Google Maps is free, but this effort differs significantly from commercial services in that the source data -- the points, lines, and polygons -- are being released without restriction. Any individual, business, or government agency can download it and create their own maps, use it for research or promotional materials, etc. The technologies OMC is deploying come largely from the Wikipedia-style OpenStreetMap project, though OMC has chosen to hire and train mappers, who then recruit volunteers, in a kind of turbocharged collaborative model. They expect to finish the map by the end of July.

Based on my work with Grassroots Mapping (you can read more in an earlier Idea Lab post) -- especially in Lima, Peru -- OMC and I have many common goals. We share an interest in participatory and open-source mapping and a desire to teach cartographic literacy as an enriching and empowering activity. The opportunity to use Grassroots Mapping tools -- such as aerial photography from balloons and kites -- to support such an ambitious project was too much to pass up.

We started with an ambitious goal -- to use a balloon to map an entire city as fast as possible. In the mountain town of Mestia, we collaborated with local OMC staff and a half-dozen kids from the area to photograph a 5.5 km stretch in just 3 days (see the results in the image at top). The six-foot-wide balloon rose to a height of 1.4 kilometers, and the attached Canon point-and-shoot camera snapped pictures almost a kilometer wide. An overturned bicycle helped us quickly reel in the fishing line tether and recover the equipment. A thrifty shopper could assemble our entire kit for as little as $200. Here you can see the flight path of our balloon on day one, captured with a small GPS on the balloon:


More Than Just Maps

The possibility of making a high-resolution map of an entire city so quickly opens a variety of exciting possibilities. In places where the rate of change outpaces our ability to map from satellites -- Port au Prince comes to mind -- maps could be made once or twice per month and, more importantly, they could be made and published by the people who live there. This emphasis on placing the authorship of maps in the hands of residents is more compelling to me even than the stunning resolution we're getting -- in some cases up to 100 times better than what's available on Google Maps.


OMC's goals go beyond maps, however. The idea of engaging volunteers and tech enthusiasts in public domain works is intended to build participation in civil society, in addition to promoting the use of free and open source technology. Be sure to check out the 'big map' as it reaches completion by the end this month: opencaucasusmap.org

March 19 2010


NGOs as newsmakers: Russian-Georgian conflict edition

VIENNA — In August 2008, two wars unfolded in South Ossetia. Georgian newspapers and television stations reported an aggressive, unprovoked Russian invasion of their country. Russians, meanwhile, watched images and read tales of Georgian troops committing genocide.

For a brief period, Georgians could flip between TV stations to watch both versions. Soon, access to the Russian media ended. (Russians could not access Georgian TV and few Russians would be able to read Georgian print media.)

Margarita Akhvlediani, a longtime war correspondent and editor in chief of Go Group/Eyewitness Studio, studied the coordinated PR campaign by Georgia, the ensuing media coverage of the conflict by both Georgian and Russian media, and the role of NGOs in the information cycle. She presented some of her findings and related research at the Milton Wolf Seminar on the future of news and NGOs here in Vienna this morning. Her conclusion: International NGOs are critical to the dissemination of information in war and crisis zones.

Akhvlediani described a tale that came to symbolize the conflict for many Russians. According to the war story, dozens of Georgian villagers, seeking safety in a local church, died when Georgian soldiers burned the church to the ground. Human Rights Watch looked into the story, spending three months traveling to villages throughout the region looking for the church. Eventually, Human Rights Watch concluded: “…numerous Ossetian villagers interviewed by Human Rights Watch in [the] village said they never heard about, let alone witnessed, such an incident.”

Akhvlediani argues that this independent research serves as an important fact check on one-sided reporting happening by both sides of the conflict. Local NGOs, Akhvlediani explained, found themselves in a similar situation as local media — unwilling or unable to report a rounded look at the conflict, instead presenting a single point of view.

Western media, which parachuted in to cover the conflict, by and large provided a biased take, too, especially at the start of the conflict, according to fellow panelist Andrei Zolotov, editor-in-chief of Russia Profile (and a former Nieman Fellow). Many journalists seemed happy to latch onto the underdog narrative the Georgia government had pushed, he said. (Two dozen press releases went out in the first few days of the conflict, seeking to shore up Western support for Georgia). “It’s a very easy story to sell,” Zolotov said.

The work of Human Rights Watch, which took three months, is an unlikely project for any outlet, even the best-off newspapers. It’s an example of an ongoing theme we’ve covered this week: How can NGOs be newsmakers?

March 16 2010


Fake news report of Russian invasion causes panic in Georgia

English language TV station Russia Today reports:

A Georgian TV channel has caused nationwide panic with a fake news bulletin claiming Russian troops were on their way to the capital, Tbilisi – and that President Mikheil Saakashvili had been killed. Many viewers missed a short warning that the thirty-minute report was a mock-up, and rushed out onto the streets.

Hat-tip: Daniel Bennett on the Frontline Blog.

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