An interesting NYT story (“With Simple New Tools on Web, Amateurs Reshape Mapmaking“, NYT, 7/27/07) describes how individuals are collectively using available mapping software to help create community maps.
The article describes how a Federal Way, WA resident created an online map that individuals could contribute to to chart the growth of graffiti in his town.
But such approaches have been used in many other instances not described in the NYT story.
For example, this community mapping is being used to track the extent of flooding in British areas.
A UK site has a map where people can map potholes that they find so that the localities can fix them or see a map of the hazards here. [A related UK website lets individuals report downed trees, etc. that block trails and see the map of hazards here.] Or this site in Bakerfield, CA shows the location of citizen-reported potholes with notes when they are fixed [note: Rochester, MN or Sioux City or Houston have somewhat similar sites]. Bakefield users can add photos of the potholes to the map locations, but only a few do.
This site (by a Dartmouth student) shows the extent of recovery in the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans for Katrina victims; one can zoom in to see a block or the condition of specific houses.
These mash-ups (as some call these mixtures of maps and reporting) can be used by citizens to describe areas where properties sell for less than the government thinks they are worth or pintpoint the location of bombings in Iraq (as described in this presentation by Dan Gilmour.)
One could imagine the same mapping software being used by community residents to report where they spotted prostitutes or drug dealers (to help law enforcement authorities), etc.
Wikimapia offers software that lets residents describe places in their community, but so far those efforts have been far more granular and less dense in contributions at the level of a block or community. This site describes 8 other interesting community mapping programs, including Platial. Another effort, Urban Tapestries, is something of a cross between GIS systems, knowledge mapping and sharing.
This blog site (Google Maps Mania) describes many other such efforts, like efforts to map crime statistics in cities, free summer meals for school-age children in NYC, etc.
This software offers the potential to create useful tools to spur local participation in caring for their neighborhood, and in creating tools that foster citizens or government being able to respond more effectively.
For more on this phenomenon, read Advocacy mashups harness power of mapping: Google Earth Outreach is a new service aimed at non-profits and activists.
It’s not clear that the software will lead to greater social capital, but it might lead to increased civic engagement and a stronger sense of shared collective norms.
The challenge with many such community mapping approaches, as Dan Gilmour notes, is ensuring that they are accurate and can be trusted.
See also this follow-up post on a related topic on gauging trustworthiness of such community information.
Let us know through comments about other interesting examples of community mapping on the web or your thoughts on the social promise of this technology.