USAID/OTI Presents New GIS Mapping Tools for 'Non-Techies'

Sep 12, 2013 by  Comments (0)

It’s probably fair to say that Andrew Wiseman loves data. Specifically, he loves geospatial data—the kind that allows development practitioners to understand geographic space in order to research, plan, implement, and evaluate humanitarian activities. Improving the quality of existing mapping tools and increasing their accessibility for development practitioners was a priority for Wiseman, so when he heard about the Learning Improvement Projects, he knew exactly how to put the  funding and technical assistance, provided by USAID’s Office of Policy, Planning, and Learning, to use.

Wiseman, a self-described “techie” in USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (USAID/OTI), decided to focus his project on—a free, open-source and crowd-sourced online map that anyone can use. According to Wiseman, OpenStreetMap “often has better and more recent data than other available data sets and maps, especially in the developing world.” Maps are constantly updated with the help of a large volunteer community, which is also dedicated to building local in-country capacity.

Since its groundbreaking contributions to humanitarian response after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, OpenStreetMap has been used around the world to map communities and create data, including for a recent, USAID/OTI-funded activity to train 30 youth to map the town of Saint Marc, Haiti, for which the U.S. Government had virtually no data. The activity produced the most complete data available anywhere for that part of the country with detailed maps of streets, houses, shops, restaurants, schools, hospitals, water points, and agricultural areas. The activity was such a success that USAID/OTI implemented another, larger activity in Northern Haiti with 60 students and a much larger area.

Although OpenStreetMap holds enormous potential to help development and humanitarian assistance, Wiseman saw many barriers to entry for non-GIS professionals: 1) it was difficult to download the data from the system to use it for research, analysis, and planning, and 2) it was difficult to take the data into the field, use it to take notes, or document specific landmarks. That’s where the Learning Improvement Project came in. As Wiseman explained, “there were problems I had noticed and thought, ‘I wish someone would fix this or make this better’ and then I saw the [Learning Improvement Project] proposal opportunity and thought, 'that’s interesting—we could do that ourselves!'” Noting that he was not alone in his concerns about OpenStreetMap’s accessibility and utility, the Learning Improvement Projects presented “a perfect opportunity.” 

Improving Geo-mapping Tools for Development

Andrew Wiseman quoteGIS (Geographic Information System) company GeoFabrik and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), an NGO that works to implement OpenStreetMap projects and build local capacity, built a portal called HOT-Export that allows users to download OpenStreetMap data for their own use. However, the system only made data available in certain GIS software formats that could be hard to use if you weren’t a GIS expert. In addition, the data were only available in English, making it hard to use for non-native English speakers. “These are tools that I can use because I’m a techie/GIS kind of person,” Wiseman pointed out, “but I wanted people who aren’t techies to be able to use this stuff. There’s all this information out there on OpenStreetMap, but it’s not helpful if the average development professional can’t use it. That was the whole idea.”

In order to make open data on OpenStreetMap more accessible Wiseman proposed:

  • allowing users to select what sorts of features they want to download using a simple, easy-to-use interface
  • making the data available in Google Earth format, meaning anyone who has internet access and can download Google Earth, which is free, can use the data themselves
  • creating an open and updatable translation framework so the data can be translated into any language

Wiseman felt that these measures would allow the data to be used by more people around the world, enable them to learn more about their areas of interest, and perform more effective and efficient project research, planning, analysis, monitoring, and evaluation.

Wiseman’s proposal also included improving, a simple, free and low-tech tool that was launched in May 2012 by Stamen Design, a tech company. The site enables anyone to choose a location anywhere in the world and download an atlas from OpenStreetMap. Field Papers then allows the user to print out the atlas, take it into the field, and take notes. The site also allows users to take a scan or take a picture of their marked up atlas and re-upload it onto the right spot on OpenStreetMap, essentially empowering non-professional mappers to document their findings. Wiseman envisioned improving and making it a more useful tool for humanitarian groups and development practitioners by:

  • speeding up the atlas creation process, which sometimes took hours to complete
  • fixing “bugs” like atlas generation failure
  • enhancing system visibility so it’s easier to track how much time an atlas will take to make, atlas size, the number of pending atlas requests, and also make it easier to monitor technical issues

Stamen Design also suggested other improvements to the tool, like allowing direct editing in OpenStreetMap from an atlas, private atlases that only the user who created them can see, and the ability to see atlases other people have created in order to reuse an existing one rather than create a new one.

Now that the Field Papers component of the project is completed, Wiseman is thrilled that it has reached its target audience and people have already begun to use the tool and comment on Twitter about its enhanced speed and utility. According to Wiseman, “performance is better and usage is way up.” Atlases that used to take 10-30 minutes or more to make often now take less than a minute.

Lessons Learned

For Wiseman, the project offered valuable lessons in project management, an area Wiseman had never experienced before.“It was interesting to think about what my ideas were and how do we explain them to people actually doing the work. It was pretty useful to see how you make a project happen.”

Reflecting on his project’s use of the learning cycle, Wiseman said it “took time to figure out.” “When I first saw it, I thought I had to plug my ideas into it, but then when I thought more about it, it actually made a lot of sense…thinking about the project, how to make sure the project gets out there and people can use it and it gets distributed.” In the end, Wiseman thought the learning cycle “was really helpful,” as it helped him think through his learning project all the way from knowledge creation to use.  “I had a plan,” Wiseman said, “but other components became much more important along the way.” For example, the project “did a lot more with how-to documentation” for Field Papers “which I hadn’t thought as much about before.”

In terms of replicability, Wiseman emphasized that “these aren’t boxed tools that no one can fiddle with. These are evolving tools that can be improved in the future.” At this stage, Wiseman feels that the project just “needs additional outreach to make sure people know these tools are available and so they can continue to improve them. Anyone can use this stuff!” 

Wiseman not only sees his project as replicable, but also scalable throughout the Agency and a model for other offices, including USAID’s Office of Innovation and Development Alliances (USAID/IDEA) and the GeoCenter. Once all of the documentation comes together, Wiseman looks forward to promoting the tools throughout the Agency, among implementing partners and through social media.

Wiseman is also eager to see PPL offer similar opportunities in the future. “I probably don’t think about learning as much as I should in my day to day work,” Wiseman confessed, “but I think there are a lot of people out there with good ideas, so really, this is a great way to get new ideas done…[and] have a forum to get ideas that are practical and helpful out there.” 


What is a Learning Improvement Project?

This activity is part of USAID’s Learning Improvement Projects, funded by PPL’s Office of Learning, Evaluation, and Research, and supported by the KDMD project. These activities aim to catalyze Agency learning by sharing lessons from innovative projects with the hope that promising approaches can be replicated and scaled up by others for greater impact.