Here's the interview I conducted with Michael Schnuerle, head of the Your Mapper project.
To start, what're the top 3 social benefits you see resulting from the Your Mapper project?
1. Kickstarting Activism Enables the discovery of locations of community harm, giving current and potential activists access to information that in many cases has never been released from government databases.
eg. Releasing pollution sources to an interactive map so environmentalists can take action on newly discovered neighborhood problem locations. eg. Breakout of crimes in a community spurs the neighborhood watch to monitor and report tips to police.
2. Enabling better community action - Your Mapper allows citizens to take quicker, more effective action by presenting timely information with a high-impact visual map.
eg. Building permits are public, but not accessible. Your Mapper shows zoning or demolition permits faster than if citizens rely on word of mouth, maybe stopping an historic building from being destroyed.
3. Making Public Data Accessible - Most government info is locked up and hard to get. Your Mapper provides tools and is working on a standard to make this info accessible.
eg. Most city agencies don't have the time, budget, or technical staff to make their public data accessible. Your Mapper saves the government time, money and staff. eg. Data may be public, but citizens don't know to ask for it, like traffic accidents, bridge safety, meth lab locations.
So, for these benefits how big would you say the impact is on the lives of the individuals who participate or the community? e.g. Huge difference in quality of life or small help to govtofficials?
There is a huge benefit to every citizen in any municipality where this new information is now available. The benefits to the governments are important, but I think the people living in the town benefit more.
Citizens now have access to huge amounts of information presented in a visual and impactful way. They can use this new information to identify issues on the block or in their neighborhood.
They are empowered to change parts of their community that they may not have known about or thought of changing before.
Would you say though that the types of information that become available will make a major difference in their daily lives?
I think so, yes.
Imagine neighborhood block watches being able to mobilize and take action based on knowing specifically and quickly what types of crime are occurring around them.
Or knowing which intersections are more dangerous so they can be armed with information and talk to their metro council about how to change it.
Or children in schools using the new information to learn about their surroundings for the first time, with teachers using these tools as visual, interactive teaching aides.
Ok, so do you feel that this project is the kind of thing where people begin to benefit immediately or it needs to reach a certain scale or tipping point before it makes a real difference to people?
People will benefit when the project launches because we will load some of the available, high-impact info into maps immediately.
National examples of info that is available and made accessible include national historic sites, bridges safety ratings, sex offender locations, pollution sources, and political contributions.
We'll also have some large datasets from the more populated cities in the country.
By making the mapping tools available to the public, the benefits will increase rapidly as citizens and activists load the information they have at a local level.
Great, so what would you say are the top 3 reasons why this project is going to succeed?
Your Mapper is addressing pain points for people: Citizens and activists currently can't get data on a timely basis and in an easy to use format. Governments need to get their data out easily so they can increase transparency, and reduce the burden of Freedom of Information Act requests.
The existing Metro Mapper system is already succeeding locally at www.metromapper.org. The toolsets and interface are running, generating interest, activism, and revenue on a local scale. The Your Mapper project is the expansion of these tools nationally, making the toolsets public, and providing community and social networking on the site to make it happen.
So, how do you plan to get the word out? How do you plan to reach audiences that aren't typically very web savvy or used to using services like RSS, SMS, etc?
This is the kind of project that will get everyone talking and wanting to share it with their friends, family and community since it deals with things going on in local neighborhoods. Word of mouth is going to get the word out.
The types of data we are looking to unlock are going to be useful and interesting, so traditional media like printed newspapers and TV will pickup and use this information, thereby getting the word out to non-web users.
The embedding of maps in local newspaper, media, blogs, and personal sites will help spread the word to people who use those sites, linking back to Your Mapper for more information. Currently, Metro Mapper allows anyone to take any map and embed it into their local community site for free, thus reaching that site's audience.
We'll provide tools on the site that help in spreading the word, like emailing, bookmarking, mobile applications, and sharing the data, but also the community aspects of the site will pull some people in and help them make connections with others in their area.
Sounds good, so finally, how will this project contribute to the "tech for social benefit" space? How will it help other developers and non-profits use the latest tech for positive impact?
The Mappers and governments that will be loading the data into the system can then use the resulting maps on their own websites. Developers can come to the site to get interactive maps that are relevant to their client's web community. Non-profits can also grab the maps and share the data and discoveries with the users of their website.
Non-profits will be able to take any spreadsheet of address based information and turn it into a map, visualizing it for the first time. Your Mapper will level the playing field in terms of taking a set of data and easily turning it into a map with a lot of value-added services layered on top.
This will allow the community to leverage some of the newest types of technology to their benefit, including online mapping, social networking, and geospacial tools, using only their existing resources, staff, and skills.
Beyond using Your Mapper itself, do you think Your Mapper will advance the overall thinking of how web tools are used for social benefit or inspire more creative projects?
Your Mapper, although groundbreaking in scope and ideas, is really only the tip of the iceberg. I see this service as a taste of things to come, with even more hyper-local, geo-spacial, and mobile location-based applications coming out of it.
People will be inspired by Your Mapper to build their own services on top of it (once we release an API) and to create their own similar services for niche markets or special uses.
When the sort of government data that people crave is accessible, people will come to expect this, keeping pressure on the government to remain open. I think the Your Mapper services will be a great inspiration for citizens, non-profits, activists, and governments to do more with technology and take action locally.