In the age of Google maps, when we have detailed maps of most cities across the world, it’s easy to assume that there is little need for citizen engagement in mapping their cities.
Yet many of the most important aspects of a place aren’t mapped: how easy is it to walk around the city? Is this a safe bike route? Is this area accessible to wheelchair users?
These are just some of the questions that crowdsourced mapping can help to answer. Wheelmap is an online map and smartphone app developed by the German NGO Sozialhelden, which enables people to share information about how accessible places are by wheelchair.
The app uses a traffic light system to rate accessibility. (Places without data are marked in grey.) Users can also leave reviews, on everything from toilets and train stations to pubs and theatres. Launched in 2010, users have mapped the accessibility of 500,000 locations in cities across the world.
As well as working as a guide for people in wheelchairs, the app can help to change the way city governments think about accessibility. For example, after learning about the app, the town of Böblingen in Germany recently asked student volunteers to explore and map barriers and obstacles in venues across the city using Wheelmap.
Crowdsourced mapping can also be used as a lobbying tool: once all of this information and evidence is collected, NGOs and community groups can make a much stronger case for their governments to take action.
An important next step for organisations like Wheelmap is to expand their user base. While a detailed breakdown of who uses the app isn't available, voluntary contribution of data through apps tends to be limited to the young, affluent and politically active.
If city governments begin to take more notice of crowdsourced data, this could lead to a situation where the needs and demands of these groups are prioritised over those who aren't so digitally connected. Finding ways to motivate these groups to engage, and capturing the voices and opinions of those who don't want to engage, will be an important step in making sure the benefits of crowdsourcing data are broadly shared.
Tom Saunders is a senior researcher at Nesta, the UK innovation charity. He is one of the authors of the "Rethinking smart cities from the ground up" report.