5 Minutes

Online mapping

Online mapping as a collective project is a good practice, promoted today mostly by NGO’s (such as MapAction), which may rely on open data and volunteer work aiming at environmental, business and humanitarian goals. Given the lead of Google Maps, many cartographers realized the potential of the tiling techniques, since once the tiles were pregenerated, the map could be serve much faster. As web browsers increased in their ability to draw graphics using technologies such as SVG, the possibilities for interactivity arose. Community mapping has since arisen as a good practice involving collective projects and volunteering.

OpenStreetMap has largely facilitated online mapping projects several of which can be viewed in OSM Tasking Manager, a mapping tool designed and built for the Humanitarian OSM Team collaborative mapping. The purpose of the tool is to divide up a mapping job into smaller tasks that can be completed rapidly. It shows which areas need to be mapped and which areas need the mapping validated. This approach facilitates the distribution of tasks to the various mappers in a context of emergency and permits control of the progress and the homogeneity of the work done. One large initiative about online mapping, through OSM, is Crow2Map Tanzania, currently in cooperation with the UNV Online Volunteering service which connects organizations working for the Sustainable Development Goals with volunteers eager to contribute to global progress using their time and skills online. This programme is used to chart unmarked villages in remote parts of Tanzania is helping young runaways escaping female genital mutilation find their way to safety. As the description in UN’s site states: “The online volunteers will liaise with volunteers in Tanzania and worldwide and add data to openstreetmap, buildings. This will allow better delivery and monitoring of services, and improved navigation and visibility. We are currently concentrating on the area around Mugumu, Serengeti to help protect girls at risk of Female Genital Mutilation. This is a flexible, ongoing project which can be done at any time to fit in with volunteers schedules”. One such case of to-be-mapped area is Simiyu, a district in eastern Tanzania which has a high incidence of Female Genital Mutilation, early marriage and Gender Based Violence. NGOs on the ground need better road and residential area data to facilitate their outreach work. The Missing Maps project aims to map the most vulnerable places in the world (affected by humanitarian crises: disease epidemics, conflict, natural disasters, poverty, environmental crises). At the start of 2016 there were 735 buildings and less than 5,000km of road mapped in the Serengeti district. Thanks to the efforts of thousands of volunteers, the map now counts 277,198 buildings and nearly 22,000km of road. Current mapping projects are available here and here.

However, there are other possible uses for online mapping, other than humanitarian, that have not yet been developed adequately. One such case is agricultural mapping, namely mapping all points or areas that have certain significance either to farmers and/or consumers and/or the state authorities. One such example is mapping cases of diseases or pests that have caused damages in areas, so as to caution all nearby farmers of imminent hazard, consumers as to the implications of products with origin from these areas and state authorities as to possible compensation schemes necessary or designing a preventive policy. In this field, there is a project run by the Queensland Government’s Department of Agriculture and Fisheries which:

  • records information about location of weeds and pests,
  • produces grid-based annual distribution maps for over 40 pest species, detailed distribution maps to aid specific research or project work and predictive maps created from pest modelling programs that show where pests are likely to occur, thus assisting in resource planning and prevention activities (a visitor may browse the available pest distribution maps here).

Another example is mapping beekeeping areas and all respective information such as near plantations, available water resources, number of settled beekeepers/beehives/apiaries etc., data which is crucial for every one practicing nomadic beekeeping in order to assess the area’s suitability.

There is also the environmental dimension of online mapping. Cases of water pollution, land degradation, species scarcity etc. can be mapped by locals or volunteers in order to alarm all proper authorities as well as environmental organizations about these issues and push for their immediate action. For example, Google, in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund, released its first map, showing block-by-block air quality information for Oakland, California. Data was collected using the company's street view cars equipped with environmental sensors. The street-level insights could help community groups and scientists gain a foothold in a battle for better air quality. Another project is MapOfLife, run by an academic team, where you can view all documented animal species per region (by political boundaries) or a species’s population globally.

Online mapping has the potential of becoming a powerful tool for communities and researchers, while promoting open data, activating people’s cooperation all around the planet and contributing to environmental, agricultural, social and humanitarian goals.


  • UNVolunteers (2017), Mapping villages, roads and buildings in rural Tanzania to protect girls from FGM, https://www.onlinevolunteering.org/en/tanzania-development-trust/mapping-villages-roads-and-buildings-rural-tanzania-protect-girls-fgm

  • Crow2Map Tanzania (2016), Using Local and Satellite mapping to fight Female Genital Mutilation in Tanzania, https://www.slideshare.net/jachapman82/using-local-and-satellite-mapping-to-fight-female-genital-mutilation-in-tanzania

  • Guardian (2017), Online mapping tool gives FGM runaways a path to help, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/06/online-mapping-tool-gives-fgm-runaways-a-path-to-help

  • AJ+ (2017), How Maps Are Saving Girls from Female Genital Mutilation, https://www.facebook.com/ajplusenglish/videos/vb.407570359384477/873491619459013/?type=2&theater

  • OSM Tasking Manager, http://tasks.hotosm.org/

  • Queensland Government, Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (2017), Pest mapping, https://www.daf.qld.gov.au/plants/weeds-pest-animals-ants/pest-mapping

-Environmental Defense Fund (2017), Mapping air pollution with new mobile sensors, https://www.edf.org/airqualitymaps

  • Map Of Life, https://mol.org/