Ways of the world: mapping technology

New technology is changing the ancient skill of cartography, giving us tools that can not only help us find our way around but change business and society

Where are we going? How are we getting there? The power of information in our hands is of paramount importance, with more and more people around the world adopting smartphones as their daily companions, and as more mobile devices find their way onto the global markets.

Smartphones have seen an exponential rise in popularity since 2010 and have become a central fixture of the current digital economy. From 2010 to 2012, Apple and Samsung collectively doubled their market share, and it is estimated that people now reach for their phones up to 150 times per day. Since most smart-phones come with GPS mapping technology, nearly every smartphone owner now has access to a GPS map.

Mobile-mapping app Waze was founded in 2007, and offers social traffic and navigation help. It is a community-based app in which the world’s largest community of drivers, all share real-time road information. By 2013, more than one billion miles were driven per month with the Waze app open, according to Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, an investment firm in Silicon Valley. Waze, alongside HERE Maps, Google Maps, and MapQuest, have made smartphones the go-to device inside a car when working out how to get from A to B. Waze was recently purchased by Google for more than US$1bn.

Tracking device

At the same time that the world has become more mobile, we are also more global. Besides travel and directions, maps are also being used globally to track natural disasters, relief efforts and financial data, locate natural resources, and in the mapping of cities. ‘Big data’ is quickly becoming a central part of many industries, as companies become more sensitive to analytics and mapping as ways to gauge which way they should steer their business development.

In Africa, a mapping technology company called Ushahidi (the word means ‘testimony’ in Swahili) was founded in 2008. Initially, the company was created to map reports of unrest in Kenya. They worked with citizen journalists to collect reports, and their original platform was used to map incidents of violence and contrasting peace efforts, as they were submitted by people using computers and mobile phones. Their technology can grab text messages, videos, photos or reports online from anywhere, and then compile the data into a single map. You can monitor elections, map crisis-information during a natural disaster or political crisis, or crowdsource local resources.

Ushahidi has been used in the DR Congo, in India and by news outlet Al Jazeera. It has also been used to track the global swine flu outbreak in 2009. Being able to see the global spread of the H1N1 virus in real time, through aggregated social media data points and reports, helped to give officials a better snapshot as to where the outbreak was hitting people the hardest and where emergency resources should be deployed. “The volume and quality of crowd-sourced crisis-data has grown in leaps and bounds,” says Chris Albon, Director of Data Projects at Ushahidi. “However, this growth means that sources of crisis data have become fragmented, locked away in a spreadsheet.

Ushahidi is starting to overcome this hurdle, abstracting beyond individual tools to make the full wealth of crisis-relevant data more accessible.” Ushahidi’s open-source platform Crowdmap allows almost anyone to map anything, from eateries to emergencies. The digital platform provides easy-to-use tools that allow the user to create interactive maps that can be up and running within minutes. Users can also share data, add media, follow other maps and find real-time information.

“Our platform has been deployed 50,000 times in 159 countries. Many of the biggest crisis and election monitoring projects in the world now use Ushahidi. It’s taken this large community of open-source coders and all types of deploying organisations to see it grow,” says Erik Hersman, Director of Operations and Strategy at Ushahidi.

Video mapping

In 2012, at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, Professor Andrew Curtis explored video technology that could help Haiti reduce the cholera epidemic that had erupted in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake and remained with the country ever since. Video cameras were connected to a GPS and mounted on car windows, mapping the devastation street by street. Prior to this, the Red Cross would map the damage by hand on a ‘street sheet’.

This video spatial-data collection also allowed for a deeper historical look into how the area looked after the earthquake. Curtis was able to identify high-risk cholera areas and systemic problems, such as sewage networks. He also used video mapping to support search-and-rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.

In the world of finance, maps have also proven useful in preventing fraud. Credit card companies are utilising high-level technology to sift through massive amounts of information and flag anomalies in spending patterns. Though credit card companies have always tried to prevent fraud, they are using better, automated systems to search larger data-sets more quickly.

Global mapping can also show where soy, gold, uranium, cotton, rice, natural gas, diamonds, cotton and water are most plentiful. With GIS (geographic information systems), geoscientists can bring data-sets together to calculate the economic potential of an area. As the world’s natural resources become more scarce, this type of mapping proves useful when deciding where conservation and preservation initiatives may be needed most.

Ever since 1998, the World Resources Institute has been using GIS to develop maps of threats to coral reefs. Through the historic data collected over several years, alongside new web-based tools, the Reefs at Risk project allowed the group to present a set of 15 global thematic maps, which highlight different threats, such as overfishing and shifts in ocean chemistry due to climate change.

Not only can new maps save the average person a lot of time – they also help us rebuild after disaster, redefine the way we do business, and even reshape nations.