Open mapping for development

December 1, 2014
Willie Schubert discusses Third Pole: a group of environmental journalists based in Asia and covering the region's water crisis.

(Willie Schubert, Senior Program Coordinator for Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, is interviewed in this SciDevNet podcast on mapping for international development.)

In this month's programme, we discover how technology is turning mapping into a powerful tool for supporting development and tackling humanitarian crises.

Listen to the Third Pole segment excerpt (text transcript):

First, at the launch of the Missing Maps Project in London, United Kingdom, we join volunteers as they help to map two vulnerable areas in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, using satellite imagery to create basic maps to which local volunteers will add place names.

Then we speak to Anna Mason from MapAction, a charity that provides mapping services after disasters, to learn more about the satellite technology underlying open mapping work.

In Congo, we discover how mobile phones help researchers fight poaching. An icon-based phone application enables people — who may be unable to read and write — living in the forest to record and map areas at risk.

Finally, we discover how a data repository is helping journalists and policymakers understand the complex water system of the Tibetan plateau, also known as 'the Third Pole', which provides water that more than a billion people rely on for drinking or to irrigate crops.

Listen to the full SciDevNet podcast.

Transcript of Third Pole Segment

Willie Shubert: “Our belief was that creating a common set of publically available information was really critical in building a common evidence pool for these different actors to respond to and act on.”

Narrator: The Himalaya Hindu Kush mountain range and the Tibetan plateau are widely known as the Third Pole. Its ice fields contain the world’s largest reserve of fresh water outside the polar regions. But the Third Pole is not only a precious natural resource, it’s also the source of unique climatic and environmental data that today are available on the Internet for free. Lou Del Bello is back with us to tell us more. So, what exactly is this project about and why is it important?”

Lou Del Bello: “This project is important because it helps understand the natural system of one of the highest regions on earth and a source of over ten major river systems that provide irrigation, power and drinking water for over 1.3 billion people, nearly 20% of the world population. But the area is endangered by climate change and knowing more about this geography and climatic patterns is important to make predictions on the impacts of extreme weather events. Willie Shubert is a Washington-based geo-journalist expert at the Earth Journalism Network. I asked him how climate instability affects the life of people in the pole.”

Willie Shubert: “We’re doing this in collaboration with a network of journalists called the Third Pole, and they’re a group of environmental journalists based throughout the region who are trying to write about Asia’s water crisis and in one of their stories – there’s a wealth of examples – but in one of the stories, it includes an anecdote about a farmer in Nepal and how the unpredictable monsoon led them to an increased reliance upon irrigation water which slowed down their ability to harvest. And this is incredibly important as an individual story because Nepal is a nation where agricultural production is not on pace with population growth so there’s a tremendous pressure. This isn’t something that’s new – it’s becoming more and more typical as shifting temperatures and seasons mean that water doesn’t often arrive when it used to or in the expected quantities.”

Narrator: “So scientists are investigating these changes.”

Lou Del Bello: “The problem here is the science is there, it’s just very difficult to understand for analysts and policy makers. So the Third Pole platform simplifies complex science and data sets through maps, animations and visualizations. By collecting a huge amount of data from different sources in the area, comes with a set of challenges. And that’s also part of the reason why the platform is one of the first of its kind.”

Willie Shubert: “Well, actually the region is an interesting case because access to data is segmented and often constrained by licensing schemes, so you have many different countries who have their own infrastructure for managing data, for responding to climate risks, for allocating resources but what you also have is a situation where rivers are crossing national borders and the headwaters is in one country, the delta is in another, it passes through multiple countries. So it’s really an issue of collective management, of collective response. So since these threats to water are common, what the climate change issue represents is a common threat to the current status quo.”

Narrator: “Ok, Lou, so who will be the users of this new evidence pool – the general public or just other scientists?”

Lou Del Bello: “Well, according to Willie, the platform will be a useful tool for everyone but in particular for journalists. Here’s why.”

Willie Shubert: “Well, I think that it’s certainly interesting in and of itself. If you go through and you look at each of the data sets, on every page they display automatically so you can see an interactive map of say where all the dams in the Ganges or the flood prone areas in Bangladesh or what’s the status of all the glaciers, of all the basins. You can click on that and just see very quickly what is the status. Now, that’s important for people who are analyzing or interpreting this information, but with this catalogue, it’s a first step because, in order to make this into having some real knowledge value, you need that interpretation, you need that design, you need that expertise as media to simplify these issues, to combine them in interesting ways to tell stories. So, the next step for us after the catalogue, of building a database that is a common resource among many different partners, is the interpretation, is providing that next level of understanding by combining these data sets in interesting ways to tell stories. In a way that has both evidence and the human context. What’s at stake here? Because that’s really what’s important and what’s really necessary for regional cooperation on tackling these critical issues especially the climate change issues.”

Narrator: “Well, that was Willie Shubert of the Earth Journalism Network speaking to Lou Del Bello about the new platform Third Pole.”