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Finding the 'invisible' millions who are not on maps (bbc.com)
75 points by neversaydie 40 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 52 comments

> Google and Apple maps do not differentiate between a good road and a bad road - but that's so important

They also don't differentiate some closed borders! I had an idea in mind to travel across the Arab Maghreb[0] (well excluding Libya for obvious reasons) after the COVID-19 situation start to get better. However, Google Maps said that I can drive car between Algeria and Morocco, which isn't the case[1]. I chose to reroute it to pass through Mauritania instead, however it suggested a non paved road (according to the satellite images) and it seems from my research that the area that Google maps suggested in Algeria is closed for foreigners.

EDIT: OSM seems to suggest to go through Mali instead which indeed a better choice ( well road-wise, giving that I want to go through Mauritania).

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Maghreb_Union

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algeria%E2%80%93Morocco_relati...

There are all these technical solutions, but the following may lead to a better experience and more fun trip overall: Make a rough plan in advance, then as you get there, start asking around and follow the advice of locals: truck drivers, gas station operators, hostel receptionists, etc.

The Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team: https://www.hotosm.org/

It's quite easy to contribute if you've any OpenStreetMap experience -- sign up for tasks on https://tasks.hotosm.org/ and you can see a list of open projects. There are often specific requests, like taking a tile of aerial photography and mapping out the roads and buildings.

Humanitarian OpenSteetMap looks similar/complementary to Million Neighborhoods [1] mentioned today in another HN post [2]. Both articles seem to be timed with the opening of the 2020 State of the Map conference [3].

[1] https://millionneighborhoods.org/

[2] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23722133

[3] https://2020.stateofthemap.org/

I'm an OSM contributor and general map geek so I find it interesting to find unmapped areas. But the language used in this article seems unfortunate. For example:

> People are living and dying without appearing on any database.

What if they don't want to appear on any database? The motivations given later seem laudable, but it troubles me that it should be considered wrong simply to not appear on any database. Probably not what was meant, but it sounds like it.

> It's shameful that we - as cartographers of the world - don't take enough interest to even know where they are.

Shameful? Like, I should be ashamed of myself for mapping my local area, where I live and walk every day, rather than travelling to remotest Africa and mapping there? Again, I'm sure this isn't what was meant, but that is literally what it says.

When reading further down the article it seems more sensible: giving the locals the tools and training needed to map the areas themselves. I'm just getting really sick of the ongoing narrative that says a) we should be ashamed of being born in a developed country and b) all other places on earth need to develop just like us.

Could come a long way with a https://www.kaggle.com challenge.

Does OpenSteetmap have road quality? If yes, this could be used together with satellite photos for training

Yes, you can mark road quality, or more particularly, road material and number of lanes.

"It's shameful that we - as cartographers of the world - don't take enough interest to even know where they are. People are living and dying without appearing on any database."

I know. Context. Context. There's nothing wrong with the above, with last sentence in context.

But that last sentence makes me cringe, these days. The thought! The very thought that a human being may be anonymous, not counted, not known, not measured, watched, their every whim calculated and predicatively known, their essence stored for the ages.

A human! Look, over there! A human, and.. and... it's not in our database! YOUR NAME, NOW! YOUR ID, NOW! Who are you? What is your precise address? Who were your parents? Where do you bank, work, live? Write all your friends down on this piece of paper, everything you ever read or do, NOW!

In other contexts, in other paragraphs, that same sentence would be uttered by Gollum archetypes at Facebook, Google, the CIA/NSA/etc, well.. essentially, everywhere. The horror for them. Gollum, writhing at the thought, horror on his face:

"People are living and dying without appearing on any database."

How can this be?! HOW! Not tracked?!

All those that wish to profit, or mistakenly believe knowing when we take a dump, will "make them safe". Watch. Watch, spy, sneak, slither, control. Get the precious, hold it close, data is the new gold, the new devil, the new evil.

And they covet it.

All those little gollums, writhing their hands, wanting their precious, their precious data.


There are some nice essays on this concept called "legibility" -- where modern societies hate those systems that are "illegible" in the sense of not being fully mapped, characterized, understood.

In most developed countries this is the attitude towards wildlife for example. Unless all migratory birds are counted, their nests photographed, their legs tagged, their beaks measured and catalogued, it is as if they wouldn't exist. This is considered a shortcoming, a deficit, and environmentalists organize "bird tagging" events where they try to remedy the situation. In traditional societies wildlife is just there, and it is fine to leave it "illegible".

All those things that you've mentioned provide data that is used to measure the health of bird populations and can serve as an early warning if those populations start to drop. Tagging also allows biologists to determine the routes taken by migratory birds. This in turn allows them to determine what areas serve as habitats for the birds and determine if their migratory paths are changing.

How do you propose monitoring the health of bird populations, making recommendations for areas that need to be protected, or a myriad of other things without having the relevant data?

It's easy to smugly talk about how developed nations are obsessed with numbers and figure when you ignore that those numbers and figures are used to form policies that have tangible effects.

I know that this data is used in good ways. It just points at the greater problem that wildlife is about to exist only in a "managed", semi-wild way.

In my mind "left alone and given sufficient space" is better than "protected and managed". Unfortunately the choice is most often not between these two, but between "protected and managed" and "destroyed".

I absolutely agree that "left alone and given sufficient space" would be better. But that would involve some pretty serious limits on land development (whether it be for mining, forestry, housing, recreation) - or actually, a lot of land that has already been developed would likely need to be undeveloped.

This really interests me. Do you have any specific essays/references you could point me to? I've managed to find a couple things online, but I would appreciate any recommendations you have.

I think I read about it here first: https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/07/26/a-big-little-idea-call...

There are further links in the post.

I think you're missing the point and purposefully misinterpreting this statement. Its not about tracking these people, its about allowing them to participate in today's world - from healthcare to mail.

There it is: the siren call of the proselytising do gooder.

My advancements will succour thee and into the warm boosm of modernity embrace.

I think this specifically relates to a slightly different problem, which is domain experts viewing their domain as being much more important than it actually is. There’s no reason at all to presume that a cartographer would have anything insightful to say about anything aside from cartography. Society has vested interests in many different areas, but cartographers can only be relied upon to have an interest in furthering the goals of cartography.

I don't know, part of me agrees that specialization can lead to shortsightedness, but part of me also feels like this siloing of knowledge and siloing of influence is a way to divide and conquer, ensuring that only a select few have any say in society's direction.

I’d say the siloing is necessary, but your concerns about its consequences result from poor leadership.

It’s a problem that I’m sure most of us have seen play out at work. Companies tend to be divided into specialized departments, but if any of those departments gain too much influence over the rest of the company, things can go badly. Overly influential sales or security departments are a common thing people like to complain about. But if you end up with a company led by its sales team, it’s not really the sales teams fault, they’re just doing their job and advocating for the interests of the sales team. That failure would be with executive leadership, who’s supposed to listen to the advice/concerns of many different groups, each with their own specialized area of interest, and balance all their needs out according to some sort of over arching strategy.

The same thing happens in public policy. For example, police are always going to advocate giving more power to police, because it helps them do their jobs and achieve the goals of their organization. That by itself is not a problem, because the role of government is to listen to those concerns and then to balance them out with all of society’s other interests. If that doesn’t happen to your satisfaction, it’s a failure of government, not of the police.

It’s also one of the reasons why leadership during a crisis or after a tragedy is so prone to producing bad outcomes. Because those circumstances put one area of interest in the spotlight and make it very easy to forget about everything else. That’s how we ended up with the patriot act.

Another example of a virtue signaling disguised as criticism of virtue signaling.

It's a criticism of the colonialist attitude that we must save the "savage" from themselves. It's possible to honor other humans by leaving them alone.

If one hasn't worked in these places, one lacks the perspective to provide an informed criticism. If it helps one recognize a shortcoming in their world-model, I will share that being known to exist grants superior desired proximate results than being left alone.

I'm not trying to convince anyone here, merely broadcasting information that I am privy to which I suspect most here may not be.

What type of work are you doing?

In my youth I was a very zealous Christian, and went on mission trips to Peru, South Africa, Honduras, and Mexico.

When I reflect back on those times I feel ashamed of my assumptions about the people we were trying to "save". I am now hyper-sensitive to the idea that some ways of living are qualitatively "better" than others.

Certainly in South Africa, around Johannesburg the poverty I witnessed in their "townships" was truly painful, but that itself was caused by colonialism, and rough history of apartheid.

The dead sibling comment to yours does make a point, we shouldn't assume these cultures (OP cultures - not mapped, not tracked) don't want to adopt some of modernity's benefits, but we also shouldn't assume that they do.

Being an atheist, I never proselytized. My job was improving access to TB care. My girlfriend (at the time)'s job was access to banking for the poor in India. One of my close friends' worked to map poor communities so that they were visible to the instrument of the state so that the need for services was apparent. It was all very outcomes-oriented and the outcomes weren't org outcomes but outcomes for the people served. The guys we each worked for ran their stuff well.

There was no religious component to this. Only good outcomes have come from this (and the other two are still doing it). I do not regret doing it except that I clearly have far greater comparative advantage making money and giving it away than doing this myself. Also I enjoy writing code more.

I wished you honored me by not replying. Yes, the comment you wrote that is so broad as to be completely empty of any meaning is true. It's funny how you mention colonialism but all you people saying leave the primitives alone, isn't poverty and a shit life so romantic, not a single one of you mentioned what they want.

Absolutely. Let them live and die without sanitation, water and electricity.

My rights, citizenship, and entitlements are not determined by a number assigned to me. They were assigned by law at the time of my birth.

Where I am a citizen (France) those documents have had a complicated history of being mandatory (for foreigners first, to control them), then since 1955 non-compulsory. Yet, Police forces can decide to control your identity in public and if you have no means to prove it to them they are allowed to detain you until "verified" (whatever that means)[0]. Of course, not having an ID card or similar document is also preventing you from having access to unemployment services, voting/being voted in, pass exams, being registered at a bank, traveling, etc.[1]

Effectively, some citizenship rights, some entitlements, and to some extent some rights can be set aside due to not having a document that isn't compulsory. Yep..

[0] in French: https://www.service-public.fr/particuliers/vosdroits/F1036

[1] in French: https://www.service-public.fr/particuliers/vosdroits/F11601

I think it was spot on. Bureaucracies start with a good intention, then become self-serving, and then become viewed as the goal itself.

The problem is not that these people are not mapped, the problem is that you cannot participate in healthcare without being mapped.

To participate in today’s world you need to be tracked and all your stuff is under control. I think there are stories of natives being taken, visiting London and saying cool story bro no thanks. And going back. Actually, many Amish come back too.

And as far as data... yes ir is now CRACK to organizations.... the word USER has a drug meaning too, and it’s probably very appropriate. The GDPR and Cali rules are just the beginning of detox... E2E all the things is coming.


The younger people at work can't believe that I didn't have a Social Security number until I was 17. I only got one so I could get a passport.

I didn't even have a name until I was a year old. When I mentioned that to my astonished wife, I did some research, and found that it was common in that era, and even today in many communities, not to name a child for a year or two.

It used to be that you didn't have to be tabulated in anyone's database until your parents wanted to use you as a tax deduction. Mine never did.

Until a few hundred years ago, a quarter of children died before reaching a year of age. Traditions of not naming children until they reach a certain age milestone are likely outgrowths of societies processing that reality, as opposed to attempts to stay out of databases.

Something I was amazed to see as still being a valid proof of birth is a family bible. Not everyone has their birth recorded via a government-issued birth certificate.


Exactly! I generally agree with the sentiment of the article, and see the importance for issues like healthcare, but that sentence seemed so wrong to me.

"People are living and dying without appearing on any database."

Isn't this, like, a good thing? Now on the other side, of course this is the definition of a first world problem, but not having a say in whether or not I actually want to appear in big techs databases isn't exactly ideal either!

What big tech databases are you forced into just by living? Do you count banks and social security here?

Facebook tracking people who never sign up for an account with them. Don't be dense, big tech does make an effort to track people who don't want to be tracked.


seems relatively insignificant to me.

Even in context, the whole concept is a bit strange. If I read something like this, coming from just 40 years ago, it would seem absurd.

I strongly dislike the urge of modern humans to categorize and analyze everything (very non-tech sounding, I know).

Eh, we have clay tablets thousands of years old that are just lists of things.

Here, in this conversaion, the discussion is about the visceral need that people have to categorize and place other people into databases. It's not about lists of things.

“Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can't measure something, you can't understand it. If you can't understand it, you can't control it. If you can't control it, you can't improve it.”

The quote is specifically about business, but the concept is universal. In the case of this article, Ivan Gayton is interested in controlling disease & improving health. He needs to measure the population to understand the spread of disease.

Yes, but "improve" is often subjective, and systems of surveillance and control take away power from people being surveiled and controlled.

> He needs to measure the population to understand the spread of disease.

Not exactly. He _wants_ to measure the population to understand the spread of disease.

Was just strolling through a park yesterday and walked across a duck with a big tag on each leg. Thought to myself that even in seeking nature, nothings natural. We know down to the family level what the animals are doing.

It can have it's upsides, but it's also disgusting in its own way. And just like you I thought to myself how I love analysis, but I don't have enough confidence in fellow men to feel ok with them doing the analysis.

On the other hand, slight tangent, I always found it gut-wrenching that casualties in war have error bars of hundreds of thousands of people- even if you narrow your focus to just active combatants. We send hordes of young men into conflict, and somehow we can't even hold ourselves accountable for their deaths.

Even just from the blurb, a more charitable interpretation is simply cataloguing locations and understanding cultures.

It is detrimental for any country not to have a system that identifies people and stores where they live. It is a basic pillar of how the government can make people accountable for committing crimes and not paying taxes.

Don't write posts like this - it has nothing to do with the article. You know what they meant, you chose to reword it and then complain about the rewording. Now instead of discussing the article or the humanitarian crisis behind it, people (like me) have to read and respond to you.

Please respond to the strongest plausible interpretation of what someone says, not a weaker one that's easier to criticize. Assume good faith.


“He says in today's digital society, not being on a map is akin to being invisible. “

As someone who enjoys being invisible I liked their comment very much and don’t find it out of context here at all.

I'd argue that no one appears on a map. Buildings and roads do.

Where did the buildings and roads come from? Why do they serve the people they do and not different people? How does the land shape buildings, roads, and people? Maps are important tools for our understanding of the world.

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