In 2014, USAID’s embrace of open source tools and crowdsourcing projects will continue to improve the effectiveness of U.S. development assistance while creating new opportunities for the communities where we work. USAID took the unprecedented step in June 2012 to improve government transparency by hosting a crowdsourcing event to open up access to the public to help map USAID’s loan guarantee data. Crowdsourcing leverages small amounts of volunteer time from a large group of people to finish tasks too large for a smaller group to complete. Open source development is often complementary with crowdsourcing and is helping to accelerate global innovation by promoting universal access to free software and hardware designs, which anyone can use and improve upon.
“These aren’t boxed tools that no one can fiddle with. These are evolving tools that can be improved in the future.”
Geographic Information Unit
Office of Transition Initiatives
USAID’s GeoCenter recently wrote about an Open Cities and Crisis Mapping initiative. The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap team is an important USAID partner that applies the principles of open source mapping and open data sharing for humanitarian response and economic development. OpenStreetMap is like Wikipedia but with an intention to create a free and open map of the entire world, built entirely by volunteers.
In 2012, USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) partnered with OpenStreetMap to train 30 youth to map the city of Saint Marc, Haiti (compare before and after images of Figure 1 and 2). 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, as well as building the capacity of the youth. Some of the mappers have since worked on mapping projects for other donors, like ACTED and Mercy Corps in Haiti
The better data provided by these maps allowed for better planning and analysis, which eventually led to the generation of new project ideas. USAID’s Jessica Bryant who worked on the St. Marc and Limonade OpenStreetMap activities, said that the new technology is combined with “some basic, traditional development principles: projects work better when information and agency are in the hands of local community members, they are more successful when participants can see tangible results from their work, and ownership is key…[And] the areas where they have worked have become the best mapped cities in Haiti.” According to USAID’s Geographic Information Specialist, Andrew Wiseman, who was also involved with the OpenStreetMap activities, “OpenStreetMap often has better and more recent data than other available data sets and maps, especially in the developing world.”
USAID’s Learning Improvement Projects, which aims to catalyze Agency learning by sharing lessons from innovative projects, supported Wiseman’s proposal to better utilize open source mapping by beta testing FieldPapers.org within the OpenStreetMap platform. Although OpenStreetMap holds enormous potential to help development and humanitarian assistance, Wiseman saw a couple barriers to entry for non-GIS professionals and local communities that include:
- Challenges to downloading data from the system for research, analysis, and planning; and
- Difficulty taking the data into the field, using it to take notes, or document specific landmarks./li>
Wiseman envisions Fieldpapers.org as an important community mapping tool for humanitarian groups and development practitioners because Field Papers 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. Field papers also allows users to take a scan or take a picture of their marked-up atlas and re-upload it onto the right location on OpenStreetMap, essentially empowering non-professional mappers to document their findings that can be shared with a global crowd for further analysis and planning.
OpenStreetMap and Field Papers is changing the way USAID does business by freely sharing open source mapping programs and bringing in the global community to help solve local problems. 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… Anyone can use this stuff.”
By embracing innovations in open source technology and crowd sourcing collaboration, USAID will continue to improve the effectiveness of U.S. development assistance by expanding opportunities for smarter development.
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