Plotting data on maps: Who is doing what and, above all, where?

Where? It’s one of the most important questions there is. On the internet, and in a world full of smartphones, it rarely goes unanswered. Maps are also excellent at representing complex information in a way which is comprehensible.

The trend towards mapping is strong in a digitised world because plotting information on a map gives a clearer overview and orientation. It’s easier to estimate distances, for instance, and recognise geographical patterns and correlations, compared to the same data in table form with a mass of opaque figures – humans are visual creatures. Besides, we’re already familiar with maps from the non-digital world. They help us to find, to follow and to coordinate not just information but also people and objects. Alongside Google Maps, with its ever-expanding functionality, mapping apps are now basically expected as a matter of course from other providers (e.g. Apple Maps, Nokia Maps). GPS is a now standard function on almost any smartphone. The internet has a tendency to record and categorise every possible scrap of information provides the basis for a new relationship with knowledge and information. Google Maps and Apple Maps are amongst the most widely used apps in the world, with over 100 million users between them in the United States alone. Since 2009 over 40 million people have checked in on a total of 4.5 billion occasions on FourSquare. Israeli traffic app Waze is a relative newcomer on the scene, and is already used by around 50 million people worldwide. In the coming months and beyond we will see more and more movements from 2D to 3D representation of the world. Mapping also offers great potential for the philanthropic and social information. Volunteering maps (for example VolunteerMatch Map or Germany’s Action Mensch) can show socially engaged pedestrian where there is a social project nearby and give them background information.

Does an old people’s home need volunteers? Somebody walking past with a bit of time on their hands – maybe their other plans fell through at the last minute – could go and read for the residents for a couple of hours. There are also numerous eco-projects, such as TrashOut, which map information about environmental problems. In disaster relief too, maps are playing an increasingly significant role. The destruction left by Hurricane Sandy, for example, were plotted using numerous online maps including special apps built at lightning speed in response to the catastrophe. Relief services used them to coordinate their efforts and locate areas in need, whilst residents could use them to find out whether or not their house was still standing, and to find out where the closest emergency accommodation was. Mapping also helps to avoid redundancies. When information about projects is available in map form, it’s far easier for NGOs to notice over- or under-provision in particular areas. Donors are now help to map topics and budgets, and can scrutinise whether their money would be better spent elsewhere in some under-provided area. People who want to avoid Google Maps – the dominant player in the market but with question marks on issues of data privacy – have also created their own maps collaboratively (seeUshahidi, MapQuest or OpenStreetMap). In these cases the trends Transparencyand Pitch In play an important role. For example, wheelchair users enter on the crowdsourced Wheelmap which locations are accessible and where might be problematic – valuable information for those affected provided by those affected.


In more and more situations, maps and mapping tools are becoming ubiquitous. And expected – if you’re trying to put data online which has some kind of geographical dimension, people now expect to see a clear map. There must also be a value for the user, however, and the effort involved in editing must always be weighed up against the ultimate utility. If you only have three projects, showing them in map form is perhaps a bit over the top. But if you want to inform people about a decent number of projects in a series of locations, you should put them on a map. Maps are also good for stimulating participation – mapping projects in combination with GPS technology have enormous potential.