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The U.S. State Department Wants You To Go To Your Computer And Help It Make Maps

A new humanitarian mapping project will try to turn Twitter and Facebook fans of the U.S. State Department loose on the government’s massive troves of high-resolution satellite imagery.

The U.S. State Department Wants You To Go To Your Computer And Help It Make Maps
[Painting via Paul Corio]

After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, volunteers rushed to deliver food, water, shelter, and medical supplies to survivors of one of the most devastating natural disasters in the last century. At the same time, a new cadre of volunteers worked on computers all over the globe. Using high-resolution satellite imagery, digital do-gooders began tracing roads, buildings, and refugee camps for aid workers on Open Street Maps, an open-source mapping project. In just 48 hours, they built an up-to-date and fully useable survey.

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Over the weekend, two representatives from the U.S. State Department unveiled a new humanitarian mapping device at SXSW inspired, in part, by what happened in Haiti. MapGive, they say, will match the U.S. government’s multi-billion-dollar, high-resolution commercial satellite imagery with the power of the crowd. By assigning various digital mapping tasks to anyone with an Internet connection, the State Department hopes to turn its social media following (sounds weird, but it exists) into armchair activism that actually counts.

Why is this happening now? It’s almost impossible to discuss the growth of citizen mapping without the growth of the commercial satellite industry. And it’s impossible to talk about that without the growth of the U.S. intelligence and national security apparatus in space. In 2010, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency issued a 10-year $7.3 billion contract to two commercial satellite vendors. Digital Globe, the primary vendor that later bought its competition, cited $97 million in 2013 fourth quarter earnings from the U.S. government alone, a 29% increase from the year prior.

“We buy [satellite imagery] under a license that allows us to share it,” explained State Department geographer Joshua Campbell. “So the idea was: Can we replicate what happened [in Haiti] and do it consistently? And tie it to efforts that will directly impact humanitarian assistance situations?”

Right now, MapGive is asking volunteers to work on two projects in South Sudan, tracing roads, buildings, and rivers on satellite images with clicks of the mouse that will be added to the Open Street Maps database. The tasks, Campbell says, came directly from two NGOs, like British organization Map Action, asking for support on the ground. Soon, MapGive will have four or five more projects in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and two in Honduras.

Campbell’s department, the Humanitarian Information Unit, holds hands with the defense community and various aid partners. MapGive, he says, will largely coordinate with humanitarian organizations and agencies like the UNHCR, UNOSHA, and USAID.

“Our goal isn’t to own the data,” Campbell said. “Our goal is to leverage the satellite imagery we already purchase to catalyze existing mapping efforts done by … the broader humanitarian community.”

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The State Department is also considering using MapGive as an alternative donation route in the event of major disasters. In the future, rather than texting to send $5 to the Red Cross, a person might be able to donate a few hours to tracing roads and rivers online instead.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.

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