Students across the world, at one point or another, are often confronted with the fact that continental Africa is, in fact, bigger than usually depicted on maps of the world. And while narratives of power dynamics and history dictate the reasons behind this misrepresentation, accuracy and detail remain the main source of contention not only in mapping the world, but also in mapping cities.

In 2016, Vox’s Johnny Harris explained in a video titled “Why All World Maps Are Wrong” why it is physically impossible to flatten a spherical map of the globe without distorting some of the world’s countries (or in Africa’s case, an entire continent). The matter of fact is that, due to the nature of the Mercator projection, which was originally made for navigational purposes, most maps of the world based on the projection are seemingly unrealistic.

And while maps are no longer used for global navigation as they were in centuries past, they are still made to map cities. City maps, unlike maps of the world, are used for urban planning, navigation, and policy decisions, meaning accuracy is integral to maps. And with the digitization of mapping cities and the rise of platforms like Google Maps, mapping cities is easier today than ever before.

But as simple as using the Google Maps interface may be for millions around the world, it is not necessarily accessible to everyone. Since the platform is one of tech tycoon Google’s many subsidiaries, the knowledge is both created and controlled by the corporation itself. There is, however, a move to provide open-source, free, and democratic city maps for virtually everyone around the world. In the face of digitized maps and pocket-sized GPS, how can open-source maps change how we map cities?

The First Maps

Identifying the first map ever drawn is somewhat of a historical debate since what might be considered a ‘map’ today might not have been created to serve as one. Among such maps is a wall painting depicting the ancient Anatolian city of Çatalhöyük in modern-day Konya in Turkey which dates as far back as the 7th Century BCE. The oldest surviving map of the world was found in Mesopotamia, known as the Babylonian Map of the World from the 9th Century BCE, and placed Babylonia North in the center of the world.

mapping cities

The Babylonian Map, the oldest known map of the world. (CC: Katy Tzaralunga)

The usage of maps since the first ones were created has varied from one century to the other. For that reason, every map is created to serve a specific purpose. Earlier maps were used to delineate roads or paths in and around a village or tribe while later maps were used to help ships navigate the oceans and seas, as with the Mercator Projection.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, maps of Africa were used to fast-track European colonization of the continent by indicating where resources were located, and later at the Berlin Conference, to slice up Africa for European colonial powers. Another map was created when the borders of the Middle East were somewhat haphazardly drawn with swords in the desert sand by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot in a deal that later became known as the Sykes-Pico Agreement

One of the world’s oldest cartographic depictions of the City of Jerusalem is the Madaba Map, which dates back to the 6th Century AD. The Madaba Map, which maps part of the modern-day Middle East, is part of a floor mosaic in the early Byzantine Church of Saint George in Jordan. 

Although these maps may seem irrelevant in the age of nation-states, fortified borders, and controlled migration, their precision and importance in history suggest how important mapping cities to life today.

City maps as we know them to be today are generally made to demarcate urban spaces that fall within the proximity of a city by noting landmarks, roads, and transportation networks, among other urban elements. These maps are not only used to navigate cities, but they also become part and parcel of and directly inform urban life.

Why We Map Cities

When a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit the island nation of Haiti in 2010, the country’s some 10 million residents were devastated. The infrastructural damage was catastrophic as well as the death toll, which neared 200,000. Relief and aid organizations poured in to the island in an attempt to help those in need of food and medical attention. Aid workers were able to reach sizeable areas with relatively easy access; however, more remote areas were more difficult to reach simply because there were no maps detailing where these areas were.

After a nun called workers with Médecins Sans Frontières to tend to a cholera outbreak in her village following the earthquake, MSF workers mobilized. But with no knowledge of or maps noting where the nun’s village was located exactly, the workers were left scratching their heads. When they eventually found the village, victims of the outbreak were ‘piled up like firewood.’

mapping cities

Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. (CC: Logan Abbasi)

The crisis in Haiti serves as a reminder of how important mapping cities really is. No one knows how many cities remain off the map grid, but The Guardian claims that there are cities with up to a million inhabitants in the Global South that remain without accurate maps. In partnership with MSF and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), The Guardian organized a ‘mapathon’ in 2014 where Guardian readers mapped the City of Baraka in the Democratic Republic of Congo as part of a campaign to begin mapping unmapped cities.

With an army of mappers based in London and 100 mappers on the ground in Baraka, 70 percent of the city was mapped in one sitting. Baraka is just one of many cities in the developing world that Missing Maps, an open-source mapping platform, tries to map in hopes of making crisis response more effective. Aside from offering “volunteers something to do that isn’t just giving money” as Ivan Gayton of Médecins Sans Frontières said to The Guardian, open-source digital mapping is giving city residents reliable geospatial maps of their cities.

Maps In The Reign/Age Of Google

As revolutionary as the digital age has been, there remain many issues with the data that has come out of the integration of technology into daily life. In light of the growth of tech companies, a number of concerns surrounding the privacy of user data have come to light in recent years. But even before the intrusion of technology and its ongoing take over, ownership of the production of knowledge has long been an issue – particularly when it comes to mapping cities.

To return momentarily to Africa, there is nothing coincidental or necessarily intentional about the distortion of Africa on world maps. What it does point to, however, is how the knowledge that came out of the Mercator Projection was simply reproduced and accepted as fact. Some claim that the distortion of Africa and the relative magnification of Canada is a political trope, but these claims are also somewhat conspiratorial.

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An alternative depiction of the world as shown in the Gall Peters projection.

Knowledge production is at the core of open-source mapping as a form of cartography. Google Maps, one of the biggest digital platforms for mapping cities that is used by the public, does quite the opposite. With more than two billion users active on Android per month (as of 2017), Google’s maps are often seen as a source of authority and very rarely used with a grain of salt. The company is famous for deploying its Google cars on streets around the world and putting satellite images, maps, and street images up for public use. It has even become a primary means of navigation on public transportation in cities.

Google itself, however, remains in control of what data makes it onto its maps and what doesn’t. Although the company has tried to involve its user community in the mapping process in recent years, data input is done primarily by the company’s employees. Google Maps has also become a source of contention in recent years due to its unclear positions in conflict regions around the world, leaving some 32 countries without emboldened borders on their maps.

Open Source, Open Maps

Sometime in August 2004, Briton Steve Coast, inspired by Wikipedia, founded OpenStreetMap (OSM). The philosophy of the open-source mapping city platform, like many other open-source platforms, is based on ensuring that data is made readily available to everyone and encourages individuals to add to the data pool.

The maps themselves are crowd-sourced, meaning volunteers on the ground procure data using GPS-units and other technology themselves. OSM also organizes mapathons in an attempt to encourage the wider community to help map a certain city, region, or territory. The mapathon that The Guardian helped put together was part of the kind of data collection process that OSM goes about in order to collect data and add it their maps. Once the data is collected, the open-source maps begin to take form.

Since OSM maps are available to the public at no charge, the platform was published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CCBY-SA) Licence in 2004. This specific kind of licensing allows users to use and redistribute the maps for free. But OSM hit a wall when it became clear that there was looming confusion around whether it was the maps or the data that was up for free use and redistribution. OSM accordingly opted for a license change in 2012 to an Open Database Licence (ODbL) published by Open Data Commons (ODC) for emphasis on the free-nature of the data rather than the maps themselves.

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Evolution of Open Source Maps. (CC: OSM)

This shift in the ownership of data, who is collecting it, and public access to it is at the core of the success of open-source, digitized geospatial maps. Eight years after OSM took flight, tech giant Apple approached OSM to use its open-source data for Apple Maps, abandoning Google’s database which it was previously using. Alongside Apple’s ascension to OSM’s database, Craigslist, Flickr, Wikivoyage, and Snapchat all switched to using data provided by OSM since 2012. This move away from privately-owned geospatial data is indicative of the success of open-sourced maps and how it can change how cities are mapped.

Mapping Cities Of Tomorrow

The age of digital maps, however, does not come without its downsides. The sirens are being sounded for the widening of the urban-digital divide, which sees the dissociation of individuals from the physicality of their cities in the face of the the digitization of cities. Nonetheless, open-source mapping continues to be a victory in the face of big corporations and big data working against the public and for the benefit of other big corporations.

In the past, those who drew maps, like those who wrote history, produced dominant narratives of how the world looked. Today, with open source maps, the power is in the hands of those who map. The move towards open-source mapping has also completely revolutionized what is being mapped and who the maps are catered to. As more women begin to map cities, more health centers, abortion clinics, and safe-houses for women are popping up on city maps.

The success of open-source maps in the age of digitization can confidently be attributed to the fact that they work primarily for the benefit of the public, while privately-run mapping platforms like Google Maps work to perpetuate their ownership of that knowledge. With the growth of OSM and projects like Missing Maps on the rise, the age of digitization seems to be ascending from the ivory tower of data towards the clouds of free data.