Posts Tagged ‘mapping’

In India Just Because You Can Map Something, Doesn’t Always Mean You Should

It’s easy to get stuck in a mental rut, to think that everyone thinks and feels the same way you do about a subject. But sometimes you need to get away and visit another country and another culture to find out that maybe there’s more than one way of looking at a subject. For me that subject is, unsurprisingly, maps and the other country was India.

Some countries are easier to map than others. Up to the end of the Cold War, it was commonplace for the UK’s Ordnance Survey to not show prohibited places, although this practice has been effectively stopped due to the widespread availability of satellite imagery. Further afield, there’s contested borders and territorial disputes which makes mapping some administrative boundaries something of a challenge; a proof of the old adage about pleasing some people some of the time but not all people all of the time.

It’s easy to think that not mapping an area is a thing of the past. That we can and should map everywhere. That mapping is simply the combination of human effort, a bit of technology and a lot of data. Indeed OpenStreetMap’s beginner’s guide states upfront that the data you add improves the free world map for everyone. But as I found out, in India, there’s a lot more subtlety and nuance behind this admirable creed.

Firstly there’s the act of mapping itself. As with pre-Cold War Britain (and to be fair, some parts of Britain today), India has placed restrictions on what can and cannot appear on a map. When working for Nokia’s HERE Maps, I ran a program to use crowd mapping to improve the company’s maps in India and came across these restrictions first hand. My point here is not to agree or disagree with a government’s stance on mapping restrictions but merely to point out that they exist.


But it’s not just the government who would prefer you not to map places, it’s the people as well in some cases. According to recent figures, India has a population of around 1.27 billion people; of these, over 65 million live in slums. Sadly this wasn’t a shock; I’d been well prepared for slums from my visit to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania at the end of 2012.


In Dar es Salaam, you map slums to help the occupants find vital facilities; fresh water, sanitation, health care and so on. You use the map to bring the slum to the authorities attention so they do something about it. Making a map is vital. But not necessarily so in India. Indian slums are hidden in plain sight. Everyone knows they’re there, but they don’t always bring attention to themselves. Putting a slum on the map runs the risk of bringing some potential prime real estate land to the attention of an unscrupulous property developer; some of whom have been known to raze a slum to the ground overnight and displacing the residents through the judicious use of bulldozers.

Another subtlety that doesn’t apply in the United Kingdom are the locations of the Cheel Ghar in Indian cities, which translates to Tower of Silence in English. These are the circular raised structures where Parsi followers of the Zoroastrian faith leave their dead and let exposure to the sun and birds of prey reduce the body to bare bones. Originally these towers were outside the boundaries of the city, but the rapid growth of India’s metropolitan areas have engulfed the Cheel Ghar, leaving them as small forested oases inside the urban sprawl. Even if you know where they are, and I walked past one without knowing it until it was pointed out to me, putting these sacred places on a map would not be deemed acceptable by adherents of that faith. Just because you can map something, doesn’t always mean you should.


But even if you make an accurate and detailed map, how do you cope with the vagaries and eccentricities of the Indian addressing system? I asked someone at the GeoMob meets GeoBLR meetup we ran in Bangalore how they’d geocode (turn addresses into longitude and latitude) a batch of a thousand or so addresses. The answer was blunt and succinct … “Geocode that many addresses? We wouldn’t”. There’s a long running joke in India to effect that the country does has GPS, but it doesn’t stand for Global Positioning System, instead it stands for General Populace System. You look at an address, get to the nearest spot and then ask someone, repeating the process until you reach your destination.

Given how visual and landmark based Indian addresses are, this approach makes a lot of sense. In India I stayed at 3 different hotels in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. In Delhi, the address was Ring Road, New Delhi; in Mumbai it was Western Express Highway, Santacruz East and in Bangalore Swami Vivekananda Road, Off M.G. Road, Ulsoor. Standing outside each hotel and looking around, the addresses made a lot of sense, in Bangalore I was just off the M.G Road, named after Mahatma Gandhi; there’s a lot of M.G. Roads in India, the equivalent of High Street in Britain. Other addresses include location clues such as near, opposite and by. If you really, really need to geocode an address you look it up on a digital map and make a note of the coordinates; a very manual and not at all scalable way of dealing with the problem.


Reading all of the above back to myself before I click on Publish makes me realise that in hindsight it’s blindingly obvious that each country will have its own set of edge cases. India is no exception. A massive amount of credit for what I learned in India should go to Sajjad, Sumandro and Kaustubh, the team behind Bangalore’s GeoBLR geo themed meetup. Thank you all, you taught me a massive amount and expanded my horizons considerably.

Tower of Silence (for Parsi Sky Burial): Mumbai by James Oleson on Flickr.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

Having My Eyes Opened, My Heart Broken And Finding The True Meaning Of Maps In Tandale

In a really perverse way, first impressions were not unlike the opening lines from Will Crowther’s Colossal Cave Adventure game on the PDP-11. But rather than those impressions being this …

You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building. Around you is a forest. A small stream flows out of the building and down a gully.

.. my first impressions were this …

You are standing in a gap between concrete buildings south of the equator. The sun beats down. Around you is a mass of similar buildings with corrugated iron roofs. A small stream flows in a gully between the buildings. The stream is made up of water and human waste. A river tries to flow nearby, but it’s blocked by tons of rubbish and what water there is is black and bubbles noxiously. The smell is overpowering and overwhelming. People live here.

But this isn’t a game and this place really exists. It’s called Tandale and the polite way of referring to it is an unplanned development. Tandale is almost a city in its own right. It occupies a small area to the North West of Tanzania’s capital, Dar es Salaam. Tandale is an enclave, surrounded by the growing suburbs of Dar es Salaam. In 2002, a census showed there was a population of just over 45,000 people living here. Now, towards the end of 2012, the number must be much much higher.

There really is a river running through the centre of Tandale and it really is full of rubbish and waste, both industrial and human in origin. There’s also a thriving market and a massive open rubbish tip where children play and chickens and goats wander. That a market exists in the midst of Tandale is impressive enough but makes sense, after all, people have to eat. But when you then consider that Tandale market supplies food to a significant amount of the city that surrounds and encloses it. Tandale and Dar es Salaam as a whole have a uniquely symbiotic relationship. There is much irony here.


Surrounded by parts of Dar es Salaam which show no sign of moving out of the way, Tandale has very fixed borders and is growing by the day. It has nowhere to grow but inwards. So the buildings edge ever closer to the river and the rubbish tip. Look closely and you can see plastic bags and other pieces of trash poking out from underneath the buildings and you soon realise that the rubbish tip used to be much much bigger and Tandale is cannibalising itself, building on the only open land there is. The rubbish tip itself.

Tandale Market, Dar es Salaam

Tandale really exists and my descriptions over the last few paragraphs aren’t in the abstract, formed from impressions gleaned from second hand conversations and research on the interwebs. Those descriptions are real, first hand experience, because at the end of November 2012 I stood in the heart of Tandale, letting all of these impressions wash over me.

There’s an old cliche about a life changing experience, but cliches end up as such because they’re often based in fact. I can say hand on heart that visiting Tandale was one of those very life changing experiences and not, as you might first think, in a bad way at all.


I stood in the middle of Tandale because I’d been asked by Mark Iliffe and The World Bank to be a judge at the Sanitation Hackathon in Dar es Salaam, or #BongoSafi as the event’s Twitter hashtag described it. Bongo Safi is Swahili for Clean Tanzania, but more about that in a later post. The Hackathon had a strong community theme and a strong mapping theme and was aimed at tackling several problems that places like Tandale suffer from, one of which is what is politely termed open defecation. As a judge, Mark thought it would be a good idea if I actually saw with my own eyes the problems that the Hackathon would be trying to solve. A good idea. That is possibly the understatement of the decade.

You see, most houses in Tandale don’t have toilets, let alone a sewerage system to connect the toilet to. In fact, most houses don’t have a water supply. Fresh water arrives inside the sort of tanker you’d be more used to seeing used to carry petrol in British or in the US and from the tanker, the water ends up in massive black plastic tanks where people can buy fresh, clean and safe water.

There are some public latrines, but like most things in Tandale, they’ve come to be in an ad-hoc, organic, unplanned fashion. But there’s not enough of them by a long long way.


There are also some wells, but they too have come to be in an ad-hoc fashion. They’re either too close to the latrines but even if they weren’t, the ground water is so polluted and contaminated that the stuff that comes out of the wells may have a composition that’s high in water, but you can’t drink it. It’s an opaque liquid that, if you’re lucky, doesn’t smell too bad. But as drinking water costs, this grey water, as it’s locally called, is what you wash in; your clothes, your eating and cooking utensils and yourself.

And that open defecation? That’s what happens when there’s not enough clean and private places to perform that most basic of human function and that’s why there’s rivers and streams of very human origin running in the open air between the buildings.

Tandale opened my eyes and broke my heart in so many places. There were so many examples of things which were just so damn foreign, but the one that I think will live within me forever, is seeing two of the most beautiful children I’ve seen, who were roughly the age of my children, sitting together playing. Squeals of delight echoed off of the walls that surrounded them and as I approached, they both looked up and smiled big, warm, welcoming smiles. Their toys? The remains of what looked like a broken bottle.

I mentioned earlier that there’s an immense amount of people living in Tandale. It’s these people that not only broke my heart but also made me fall deeply in love with the place. The warmth and welcome that I received from everyone I met was at once an amazing and humbling experience. Whilst I’m sure that my guided tour around Tandale meant that I didn’t meet the less desirable members that any society has, but from early in the morning to late at night, not once did I feel unsafe or insecure. I was certainly regarded with curiosity but never once felt that that curiosity was backed up by anything that could be construed as a threat.


As an unplanned settlement, Tandale has now been mapped. It needed to be. You don’t need to be familiar with the tale of John Snow tracking down the source of a cholera outbreak in London’s Soho in the 1850’s to realise that the combination of contaminated groundwater, building on a rubbish tip and unplanned latrines and wells in close conjunction to each other is a recipe for human suffering on a scale we simply don’t see where I live in London or even in the United Kingdom as a whole.

But as Tandale is unplanned, it keeps growing, keep changing and keeps morphing. This means that the map of Tandale is a never ending, growing living thing and with help, Mark and the Tandale Mapping community keep doing just that.

Tandale, Dar es Salaam

This isn’t so called crisis mapping in the strictest sense of the term. Tandale doesn’t have the high profile media coverage that Kibera in Nairobi and Haiti have been the beneficiaries of.

Maybe chronic mapping, community mapping or just humanitarian mapping is closer to the spirit of what is trying to be achieved in Tandale.

Tanzania and Dar es Salaam in general opened my eyes. Tandale changed my life, thanks to Mark and Msilikale Msilanga. I want to go back and do what I can to help the humanitarian effort in that corner of the Tanzanian capital. I hope it won’t be too long before I can do just that.

This post has been over two weeks in the writing and it’s still not right. But I don’t think it ever will be. I beg your indulgence for the slightly rambling discourse that you’ve just waded through; I’m still trying to process what Tandale is and what it’s done to me and probably still will be, right up until the moment I set foot there again.

Photo Credits: Myself and Mark Iliffe on Flickr.
Written and posted from home (51.427051, -0.333344)

The Death Of The Map Has Been Greatly Exaggerated

Just like RSS, the death of the map has been widely predicted, but to paraphrase Mark Twain, the death of both have been greatly exaggerated. Produce an online data set with some form of geospatial or location content and someone, somewhere, will produce a map of it.

Sometimes the resultant map leaves a lot to be desired, such as the recent UK government’s attempts to map crime across the country. But sometimes, the map shows something much more interesting, topical and relevent, such as the use of social media in the recent events in Egypt.

Hypercities have produced a series of maps “for traveling back in time to explore the historical layers of city spaces in an interactive, hypermedia environment” and have now produced a map showing the Tweet stream during and after the stepping down of Egyptian government.

There has been much debate over social media’s role in the recent changes in Tunisia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern states; I don’t want to get into a debate over how much significance social media and the Internet has played in these events. But almost all wildly differing viewpoints in the debate agree on one thing; that this is a new development and that we’ve never seen this sort of thing before. So I was much amused to read that before Twitter, before Facebook, before social media, the Internet played another role in a revolution.

During 1991’s coup attempt in the then Soviet Union all official media channels were cut off, much in the same way as Egypt threw their Internet kill switch recently. But in 1991, the computer networks remained up and news of the coup was spread via Usenet. Maybe information really does just want to be free.

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