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For the past few weeks I’ve been working from Tbilisi, Georgia — the other Georgia — with a fascinating organization called OpenMapsCaucasus (OMC for short), which has been hard at work creating the first participatory, public domain road map of an entire country.

Created by JumpStart International, and building on previous mapping work in the West Bank and Gaza, OMC employs dozens of GPS-wielding mappers who work in teams across Georgia to collect, process and publish map data. The OMC office in Tbilisi is abuzz with tech-savvy students, GIS wizards, and a fun-loving and coffee-fueled atmosphere. The sheer amount of map data flowing through it is stunning. Ten offices and over 200 volunteers have mapped thousands of kilometers of roads in over 1,600 cities, towns, and villages. And they’re giving it all away for free.

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Teaching Cartographic Literacy

Sure, Google Maps is free, but this effort differs significantly from commercial services in that the source data — the points, lines, and polygons — are being released without restriction. Any individual, business, or government agency can download it and create their own maps, use it for research or promotional materials, etc. The technologies OMC is deploying come largely from the Wikipedia-style OpenStreetMap project, though OMC has chosen to hire and train mappers, who then recruit volunteers, in a kind of turbocharged collaborative model. They expect to finish the map by the end of July.

Based on my work with Grassroots Mapping (you can read more in an earlier Idea Lab post) — especially in Lima, PeruOMC and I have many common goals. We share an interest in participatory and open-source mapping and a desire to teach cartographic literacy as an enriching and empowering activity. The opportunity to use Grassroots Mapping tools — such as aerial photography from balloons and kites — to support such an ambitious project was too much to pass up.

We started with an ambitious goal — to use a balloon to map an entire city as fast as possible. In the mountain town of Mestia, we collaborated with local OMC staff and a half-dozen kids from the area to photograph a 5.5 km stretch in just 3 days (see the results in the image at top). The six-foot-wide balloon rose to a height of 1.4 kilometers, and the attached Canon point-and-shoot camera snapped pictures almost a kilometer wide. An overturned bicycle helped us quickly reel in the fishing line tether and recover the equipment. A thrifty shopper could assemble our entire kit for as little as $200. Here you can see the flight path of our balloon on day one, captured with a small GPS on the balloon:

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More Than Just Maps

The possibility of making a high-resolution map of an entire city so quickly opens a variety of exciting possibilities. In places where the rate of change outpaces our ability to map from satellites — Port au Prince comes to mind — maps could be made once or twice per month and, more importantly, they could be made and published by the people who live there. This emphasis on placing the authorship of maps in the hands of residents is more compelling to me even than the stunning resolution we’re getting — in some cases up to 100 times better than what’s available on Google Maps.

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OMC’s goals go beyond maps, however. The idea of engaging volunteers and tech enthusiasts in public domain works is intended to build participation in civil society, in addition to promoting the use of free and open source technology. Be sure to check out the ‘big map’ as it reaches completion by the end this month: openmapscaucasus.org

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