Facebook and Google Maps in Iran

Following up from my previous post on the use of new media and citizen journalism in Iran recently, I came across two more powerful examples today.

Presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi
Presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi

Facebook it seems, in Persian, is now an important means of mobilising and disseminating information produced by polity and society opposed to the Presidential election outcome. The very fact that Persian is available on Facebook is because of its heightened use in Iran. As Facebook notes,

Since the Iranian election last week, people around the world have increasingly been sharing news and information on Facebook about the results and its aftermath. Much of the content created and shared has been in Persian—the native language of Iran—but people have had to navigate the site in English or other languages. Today we’re making the entire site available in a beta version of Persian, so Persian speakers inside of Iran and around the world can begin using it in their native language.

View Embassies Accepting Injured People in Tehran in a larger map

This Google Maps mashup shows a list of foreign embassies accepting injured people in Tehran, with information sourced from the Huffington Post. It’s certainly not innovative in the sense of using Google Maps to display information critical in a crisis. However, with well over 6,831 views in less than 24 hours, it means that those on the ground in Tehran and elsewhere in the world communicating this information back to friends, colleagues and loved ones back in Iran find this information critical.

This is another simple and powerful example of the self-organisation of protest groups and dissent made possible by mapping platforms on the web.

Location based information in real time: Help or hindrance?

Looking at this Google Map created by Omar Chatriwala, a web journalist at Al Jazeera, and the plethora of location aware devices plus options to put up geo-referenced information and news on the web in real time, I wondered whether this was helpful or not in times of crisis?

Ushahidi’s leading the field in addressing this problem, and their application to the Knight News Challenge (disclaimer: I’m an Ashoka News and Knowledge Entrepreneur Fellow) is provocative reading in this regard, since it treats crowed sourced unfiltered information in real time as essentially helpful in understanding, assessing and reacting to a crisis. Could this work the other way I wonder, when information disseminated by individual for parochial reasons, or by groups for equally blinkered ends, may exacerbate the crisis?

For me, this is a problem that is both a technical issue (engineering / design / technology) as well as a sociological challenge (verifying information from untrusted / unknown sources as well as responding to actions generated on account of such information, a sort of domino effect of citizen to citizen, unmediated information dissemination).

What do you think?

Colombo and Kandy the first in Sri Lanka to get street level information on Google Maps

Colombo on Google Maps

Up until now, I’ve used Colombo eMap whenever I’ve wanted to plot a route in Colombo. Now there’s a better option.

Although it’s yet to percolate to the mobile version, Google Maps on the web now has street level information in Colombo and Kandy. Click the image above for a higher resolution screenshot. Google Maps also features photos and videos from users, so it’s only a while before Colombo and Kandy are nicely geo-annotated and referenced.

Compare Google Maps to the information available on Microsoft’s Virtual Earth, and the difference is evident. Click the image below.

Colombo on Microsoft's Virtual Earth
Colombo on Microsoft's Virtual Earth

With the Ministry of Defense ban on GPS on mobiles now lifted (it’s unclear if the ban was ever official and gazetted) we may see later this year the growth of the same types of location based services available in places such as New York that combine the power of GPS, Google Maps and mobiles. At the very least, it’s now much easier to tell someone exactly where one is located in Colombo. On the downside, the Google Maps only has the current road names – Flower Road for example is Sir Ernest De Silva Road – a name which few know and use.

Still, I’m excited at the prospect the information that allows one to discover a city and explore its features (bars to restaurants, temples to museums, parks to bargains) is coming home.

Google Latitude: Real time location awareness through mobiles


At the time I last wrote about the potential of location aware web / mobile mashups and services, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence disallowed the sale of GPS enabled mobile phones. That seems to have changed in the past month. Airtel and Dialog both sport the Blackberry Bold, which has in built GPS, and Dialog’s Crescat shop now showcases the Blackberry Curve 8310 again – which was taken off the market because it also had in built GPS. 

I find GPS and location aware services fascinating. In the insecure environment for human rights defenders and other NGO staff in Sri Lanka, this sort of technology potentially holds much value in tracking staff movement in high risk areas. Brightkite.com on the iPhone pretty much defines this genre of software. The iPhone’s UI coupled with the social networking and location aware services of Brightkite open up a range of possibilities that were unimaginable just a year or two ago. 

Google’s now got in the act with Google Latitude. Unlike Brightkite.com which is only available on the iPhone, Google Latitude works on:

  • Android-powered devices, such as the T-Mobile G1
  • most color BlackBerry devices
  • most Windows Mobile 5.0+ devices
  • most Symbian S60 devices (Nokia smartphones)

with support for iPhone and iPod touch devices and many Java-enabled (J2ME) mobile phones, such as Sony Ericsson devices coming soon. 

Google’s video on Latitude sums it up nicely. 

I’ve used Google Maps on my Blackberry Curve 8310 (with GPS), the 8320 (without GPS) and now on the Bold (with GPS) and have been blown away by its accuracy in cities where location data is on Google down to street level. In Copenhagen, I was able to find my hotel just by using it. In Salzburg, I was able to find Mozart’s birthplace using it and the most heavenly chocolate gateaux I’ve had from a local patisserie. It’s fast on the Curve and faster on the Bold. 

With Latitude built in, the version number on the Blackberry goes up to 3.0 from 2.3.x. One annoying thing is that you have to sign into Latitude even though I have Google Chat running on my Bold. Given that I have an over 15 character alpha-numeric-symbolic password that I can’t even remember off-hand, it’s a pain to type it in all over again. And at the time of writing this, Latitude fails to verify my mobile number, despite several attempts. 

Not that these glitches detract from what can be a very cool tool. As the video shows, you add friends and you can then follow them as they meander through their cities. It’s a bit weird to be tracked thus, and it’s a relief to find privacy settings that allow you to update location data manually. For the moment, I’ve put it on automatic, to see how well GPS works in Sri Lanka. Proximity alerts I guess will only ever work with street level data sets, not yet available here. 

The neat thing about Latitude is that it allows for web based tracking of mobile phone location information. As the screenshot from my iGoogle shows, you get a Latitude gadget that links to a Google Maps mash-up. Very cool. Potential uses for this for real time election violence monitoring, IDPs and refugee movement tracking, Human Rights and Ceasefire monitoring, peacekeeping, humanitarian relief and disaster management are impressive and beg to be explored.

The new Google Maps for mobile

Google Maps (on the PC or on mobiles) is not that useful in Sri Lanka, but I was in Copenhagen this week and using it on my Blackberry I was able to locate my hotel as I was walking along. The street level detail is quite amazing and coupled with the Blackberry 8310’s GPS, the accuracy in a city that Google has a lot of GIS information on is astounding. 

Google’s now released a new version of Google Maps for mobiles, which I just downloaded. It’s more responsive than the previous version for me and the graphics, even for Colombo, seem sharper. For select cities, the new version includes street views, a feature hitherto only found on the desktop client.

My only concern – roaming data charges. In Denmark it cost DKK 75 per megabyte, and while this is quite sufficient for emails, running data hungry apps like Google Maps could run up quite a bill.

That said, can’t wait to try out the new Google Maps version in a city that Google supports street view.

A grotesque picture – Election violence in Sri Lanka

Spent the last couple of days updating a map of election violence in Sri Lanka. It’s depressing work. A culture of violence, largely perpetrated by the ruling party (the UPFA), and also demonstrating signs of mindless tit-for-tat attacks by the UNP pervades the Sabaragamuwa and North Central Provinces in the lead up to election day on Saturday.

The Google Map is so packed with markers of incidents that you need to zoom into some places (e.g. Kekirawa, Polonnaruwa or Anuradhapura) to see the degree of violence on the ground. It’s really incredible, especially when reading through the incident reports. Shooting at each other is routine. So is arson, looting and violent assault. Heck, even swords are used.

Positively medieval this.

It was interesting to note the reaction of several journalists after the press conference held by the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence this morning, who came up to me and said that the map helped them to understand better the pervasive nature of violence on the ground. They said it was far easier to understand a map than to go through a detailed report of incidents. Interestingly, they also said that they referred to the detailed reports more than before after looking at the map first, especially to find out more information on places where violence is especially bad.

CMEV was the first elections monitoring body to introduce Google Maps based incident mapping in Sri Lanka and to date the only one to use it. Frankly though, I wish I had introduced the technology for a purpose other than to help citizens understand the nature of the savage brutes they elect to power.

UNICEF and Google Maps

UNICEF uses a simple mash-up of Google Maps to highlight stories of the agencies initiatives and activities around the world. 


Google Maps and UNICEF
Google Maps and UNICEF

UNICEF is an agency that uses a range of new media mechanisms, from podcasts to vodcasts, to raise awareness of its work and the challenges it responds to. In this it differs from many other UN agencies. Reviewing a production by UNESCO two years ago I noted,

“UNESCO’s Revisiting Public Service Television offers a compelling glimpse into how public service content will be produced and delivered in the future. But UNESCO barely captures the range of possibilities made possible by ICT in the promotion of public service content – one hopes that over time, such productions will be disseminated in more ways than just through DVD and that UNESCO, and others who produce similar content, will use them not so much as showpieces that only reside on the shelves of offices within the limited confines of the UN system, but as instigators of progressive dialogues and debate that strengthen democracy and are captured and nurtured using the myriad of social communications technologies made possible by the web and internet.”