Sunday, December 27, 2009

Electronic maps

Good maps are an indispensable part of effective humanitarian safety and security efforts. Knowing where you are and how to get from point A to point B is essential for day-to-day operations as well as emergencies. You probably already know about Google Earth and its Web-based cousin, Google Maps, which both provide free and detailed satellite imagery for many parts of the world (with coverage expanding monthly). But you may not know about the Open Street Map (OSM) project. The goal of this community effort is to offer a free, public database (and map) of all the world's roads and streets. Volunteers enter map data for areas which then becomes part of the OSM data set. You can access the maps online or print them out. Keep in mind OSM isn't just for developed countries; there is a growing amount of map data for places humanitarian organization staff often find themselves.

Besides the obvious benefits of OSM, I want to mention two benefits that may be useful for technologically savvy security practitioners.

First, it's possible to use OSM map data to create maps you can upload to Garmin GPS receivers. Check out this link for a list of maps that have already been converted as well as instructions for making your own maps.

Second, there is an affiliated project called Walking Papers. This Web site started out as quick and easy way to create printed maps that use OSM data. It's recently expanded its functionality and offers a simple way for people to add updated information to the OSM database. It works like this. You print a map then hand draw in detailed features. Once you've finished your enhanced map, scan the map, save it as a JPG file and upload it to the Walking Papers site. Your scanned map appears and you can use a simple, drag-and-drop editor to add roads and points of interest that will become part of the OSM database; which everyone will have access to. It's slick, and recently I've seen UNHCR-related data starting to appear on Africa maps thanks to Walking Papers.

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