It sometimes still comes as a surprise to me that large swathes of the planet are completely unmapped. With the advent of easily accessible technology (i.e. Google and Bing maps) and satellites, I’d have thought that the entire planet would’ve been mapped years ago. I mean, look at Google Maps. It gives you the option to view almost the entirety of the UK in either satellite or traffic view. It’s this high level of accessibility to maps and the illusion that our surroundings have been fully mapped, I think, that prevent most of us in developed, urban environments from becoming fully aware of the lack of maps in underprivileged areas.
Before I became fully involved in the Missing Maps project, I always thought that satellite images equalled maps. If there’s a satellite image of an area, went my thought process, how difficult could it be to trace those buildings, roads, and the natural landscape? From my experience with Missing Maps, I’ve come to learn that the answer is ‘very difficult’. The world is a very big place, and it takes a lot of effort, concentration, and experience to remotely map an area accurately. Anyone who’s done a small grid of an urban area through the OSM Tasking Manager can probably testify to the complexity of remote mapping. Buildings in other countries are often completely different to what you are used to in your own country. Sometimes what you think is a large apartment block is actually an hospital. And the problems don’t stop there. Satellite images don’t tell you road names or where the boundaries of a district end. You need local knowledge to fill in these gaps, and that’s where the Field Papers stage of the mapping cycle kicks in. A satellite image can visually show you an area, but it’s how you interpret what’s on the ground that matters most because it’s what gives the map its meaning.
A point similar to this was made in a podcast episode I was listening to a few days ago about North American buckskin maps from the late 1700s. Buckskin maps were originally created by Native Americans to help them navigate around their surroundings and plot concentrations of forestry, animals, and water. Essentially, it reflected how they saw life around them - as a source of nourishment. But when American land companies began moving into the very same areas, they hired local Native American guides to create maps for them to plot the locations of profitable land that could be developed industrially. Unlike the Native Americans who were one with their surroundings, the American businessmen mostly sought to exploit the land for profit. The same maps of the area were being used for two, completely different purposes because of how each group interpreted the land.
I’d like to wait and see how the local populations of the places we’ve mapped remotely will use maps created through Missing Maps. What data will they input in themselves? What will they use the maps for? Will it be for navigation around their area or for negotiation between communities? At the moment, NGOs are using ‘missing maps’ mainly for disaster preparedness, assessments, and epidemiological surveys. Hopefully someday soon, we’ll see the full potential of this project of ours.