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Mapping Georgia from scratch

Until an NGO took matters into its own hands, Georgia was literally uncharted territory.

Georgian refugee man at ministry
Until the NGO, Open Maps Caucasus, began mapping Georgia, no comprehensive open-source maps existed of the country. Here, a Georgian refugee man walks up stairs inside a Soviet-era defense ministry building in Tbilisi, Sept. 3, 2008. (Olivier Laban-Mattei/AFP/Getty Images)

TSMINDA TSKALI, Georgia — Finding your way around Georgia can be a tricky affair.

The only maps available are obsolete Soviet maps, expensive collector maps or nearly-useless outdated tourist maps of the major cities. There are no maps of the bus routes in the capital city. No maps of the new highways. And no comprehensive maps available on the internet.

As it is, Google Maps shows Georgia as an empty, light gray swath of territory squeezed between Turkey, Russia and the Black Sea, devoid of highways or train tracks or rivers. Its absence from Google Maps is a dubious honor shared only with North Korea, where an authoritarian regime has refused to share government maps, and actively thwarted cartographers from entering its borders.

In Georgia, the lack of data has more to do with the tiny country’s history of violence, political unrest and the general disorganization of a post-Soviet state in transition, but regardless of the reasons, one U.S.-funded NGO, Open Maps Caucasus, has taken the mapping of Georgia into its own hands.

The plan? “The idea is to teach people all over Georgia how to make accurate, street-level maps of the places they live,” said Austin Cowley, one of five founders of the organization. “Our other goal is to actually make an accurate, street-level map of the entire country that will be useful to the people who live here.”

The map from Open Maps, which will be completed by the end of this month, will be an open-source map — meaning anyone can contribute to it, edit it and tweak it to their needs: It’s Wikipedia-meets-cartography, developing world-style.

The implications of Open Maps’ work — both the creation of a grassroots, map-making community, and the legacy of an online, open-source map itself — are yet to be seen. Initially, they’ll probably be used for traditional navigational and transportation needs, and in businesses and tourism development.

“And then there will be uses in research, environmental development, agricultural development and in facilitating the distribution of humanitarian aid,” said Jeff Haack, another founder of the organization.

“Because there’s not a lot of familiarity with [open-source maps], a lot of the future uses are just conceptual at this point. As people discover this map as a tool, they’ll come up with innovative uses for it,” he said. 

In the past few years, open source maps have been used to monitor election fraud in Kenya, to track the devastation of the earthquake in Haiti, and to organize democratic protests in Iran. Before coming to Georgia to work with Open Maps this summer, Jeff Warren, an MIT masters candidate, used kites and enormous latex balloons to map the spread of the Gulf oil spill.