Google Inc + World Bank = Empowering Citizen Cartographers?

World Bank Managing Director Caroline Anstey recently announced a new partnership with Google that will apparently empower citizen cartographers in 150 countries worldwide. This has provoked some concern among open source enthusiasts. Under this new agreement, the Bank, UN agencies and developing country governments will be able to “access Google Map Maker’s global mapping platform, allowing the collection, viewing, search and free access to data of geoinformation in over 150 countries and 60 languages.”

So what’s the catch? Google’s licensing agreement for Google Map Maker stipulates the following: Users are not allowed to access Google Map Maker data via any platform other than those designated by Google. Users are not allowed to make any copies of the data, nor can they translate the data, modify it or create a derivative of the data. In addition, users cannot publicly display any Map Maker data for commercial purposes. Finally, users cannot use Map Maker data to create a service that is similar to any already provided by Google.

There’s a saying in the tech world that goes like this: “If the product is free, then you are the product.” I fear this may be the case with the Google-Bank partnership. I worry that Google will organize more crowdsourced mapping projects (like the one they did for Sudan last year), and use people with local knowledge to improve Map Maker data, which will carry all the licensing restrictions described above. Does this really empower citizen cartographers?

Or is this about using citizen cartographers (as free labor?) for commercial purposes? Will Google push Map Maker data to Google Maps & Google Earth products, i.e., expanding market share & commercial interests? Contrast this with the World Bank’s Open Data for Resilience Initiative (OpenDRI), which uses open source software and open data to empower local communities and disaster risk managers. Also, the Google-Bank partnership is specifically with UN agencies and governments, not exactly citizens or NGOs.

Caroline Anstey concludes her announcement with the following:

“In the 17th century, imperial cartographers had an advantage over local communities. They could see the big picture. In the 21st century, the tables have turned: local communities can make the biggest on the ground difference. Crowdsourced citizen cartographers can help make it happen.”

 Here’s another version:

“In the 21st century, for-profit companies like Google Inc have an advantage over local communities. They can use big license restrictions. With the Google-Bank partnership, Google can use local communities to collect information for free and make the biggest profit. Crowdsourced citizen cartographers can help make it happen.”

The Google-Bank partnership points to another important issue being ignored in this debate. Let’s not pretend that technology alone determines whether participatory mapping truly empowers local communities. I recently learned of an absolutely disastrous open source “community” mapping project in Africa which should one day should be written up in a blog post entitled “Open Source Community Mapping #FAIL”.

So software developers (whether from the open source or proprietary side) who want to get involved in community mapping and have zero experience in participatory GIS, local development and capacity building should think twice: the “do no harm” principle also applies to them. This is equally true of Google Inc. The entire open source mapping community will be watching every move they make on this new World Bank partnership.

I do hope Google eventually realizes just how much of an opportunity they have to do good with this partnership. I am keeping my fingers crossed that they will draft a separate licensing agreement for the World Bank partnership. In fact, I hope they openly invite the participatory GIS and open source mapping communities to co-draft an elevated licensing agreement that will truly empower citizen cartographers. Google would still get publicity—and more importantly positive publicity—as a result. They’d still get the data and have their brand affiliated with said data. But instead of locking up the Map Maker data behind bars and financially profiting from local communities, they’d allow citizens themselves to use the data in whatever platform they so choose to improve citizen feedback in project planning, implementation and monitoring & evaluation. Now wouldn’t that be empowering?

21 responses to “Google Inc + World Bank = Empowering Citizen Cartographers?

  1. I read the op-ed in IHT afew days ago and it sparked the same concerns. Thank you for writing about this!

  2. Patrick, this really a good reflection with great links along. We launching soon in Brazil a project called Mapas Coletivos (Collective Mapping) using Ushahidi and our main issue on deciding which plataform to use was the chance of allowing real access to data . Best Regards

  3. Bravo for speaking out Patrick.

    I’m curious to dig into your suggestion

    “But instead of locking up the Map Maker data behind bars and financially profiting from local communities, they’d allow citizens themselves to use the data in whatever platform they so choose to improve citizen feedback in project planning, implementation and monitoring & evaluation. Now wouldn’t that be empowering?”

    What would that license be, and how do we measure it? I fear there’s lots of shades of grey in licensing which could appear to make change, but is only a minor concession, and not meet the metric Patrick has laid out? Would there be agreement that by “whatever platform”, we would think of OSM? That would, for example, allow for-profit use of the data? I agree, that could be empowering for local communities.

    Secondly, is Google really the organization to address? What role could the Bank take here potentially, in a clear stand on what open data stands for and the ethics of community collected data.

    • Such a short-sighted move by the WB. Surely they understand implications of the licensing agreement, so I assume they must see added impact in working with Google. But I’m baffled as to what that value is, given the power of open alternatives.

  4. Patrick, I agree and thank you for the thoughtful post. For me it brings up another issue, which is accountability. Who has the mandate to protect the “public interest” (a fluid term, but I’m thinking of who is actually constrained by the public either globally or in the US) when it comes to the complex intersection of multinational corporate interests, the internet, public data and information, and developing country governments? To what extent can we expect that corporations can act like humanitarians (which is not their mandate), and can we as taxpayers and voters hold an institution like the World Bank accountable? The debate many Americans and Europeans are having now over data ownership, privacy, and rights, cannot be had yet in countries where technology literacy is low and implications of tech policies are not widely understood. By the time they are, it may be too late if open standards were passed up for big-company perks long ago.

  5. Patrick, Erica, and Chris, I am in full agreement of the issues that you all bring up. What I can add is that this agreement will be devastating to anybody advocating for open data and particularly open map data in developing country situations (particularly if one is working at institutional levels at all). I spent some time doing that in Nepal last year, and can easily say that if I tried the same after this announcement, the response I would get is that “the World Bank is already doing something along these lines.” The authority of a World Bank decision (or even suggestion) is much higher than proposals by a nation’s citizens in many developing countries, and I worry that this will kill the open data efforts (or hire away citizen cartographers trying to build these efforts).

    I do see a glimmer of hope, however, in terms of lobbying possibility on this one, given the World Bank’s support in the last couple of years for Open Data, the release of, etc. Are there any efforts along these lines, and if so, how can I help?

  6. Very good points, will share in francophone community

  7. Bravo Patrick! Thanks for your excellent commentary and thanks to all for further views. This is much better (and less emotionally) analyzed than what I could’ve. License is Key (+ data availability/accessibility in Open format) — and MapMaker fails on both.

    On that note: are your post licensed with some permissive license (that allow translating)? Can’t see that (in the mobile version). I’d like to get this translated to French.

    Cheers from Haiti!

    • Thanks very much, Jaako! By all means, feel free to translate and share as widely as you can. If you don’t mind linking back to the original post, that would be great. All the best in Haiti!

  8. Heather Blanchard

    Interesting indeed.

  9. Very interesting, thanks.
    One more reason to stick with OpenStreetMap

  10. Michal Migurski

    The call to action for OSM couldn’t be more clear: improve the tools around data and publication so that Google’s licensing requirements can be seen for the limitations they are.

  11. Pingback: Google Inc + World Bank = Empowering Citizen Cartographers? « GEODATA POLICY

  12. Should we not express our disappointment and concerns to the World Bank itself and push it to correct its approach?
    Here is their blog post where we can add comments (mine is pending approval..)

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  14. Dear Mr Patrick Meier,
    really, it is very useful, I become very happy when find my country, Yemen in the list of beneficiaries countries. We are in Social fund for development, Sana’a, Yemen.
    long time I was looking for the way to publish our data for our officers that help them in management, monitoring and decision making.
    But I would like to ask; what data is there?, May I add my spatial data, such as services, SFD’s projects, poverty indicators, and schools. I have it in kml format?. how it to update my data later? may I determine my client?
    We need some help to know how to use it.
    Eng. Jawaher Al-Mohanish
    GIS officer
    SFD, Yemen
    TEL: +967 736269989

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