Electronic maps, wide availability of GPS devices, cellular data speed increases, and the increased accessibility of data in the past few years has allowed for an uncanny ability to accurately map our world. In fact, some are calling it a geospatial revolution, as mapping has been used for more and more aspects of life – everything from staying safe of the way home from the bar to tracking international NGO locations, for example.
My interest in maps started with my desire to be able to find all of the 44 nearby borrowers. Even if I had met a borrower at his/her place of business, it can be difficult to re-find locations. Street names don’t exist here and a lot of the buildings look alike. But then, I realized the map could have many more uses. There are plenty of names and faces to keep track of, and I also need to know loan details. Plus, the plan is to have ~26 PCVs working with FAIJ in 12 regions over the next six years. Wouldn’t it be nice for them to walk in on day one with a tool to instantly pull up borrower locations, information, and photos so they can hit the ground running? And FAIJ could use it for a variety of planning and tracking uses as well.
So I embarked off to the internet, and was inspired by some wonderful stuff already out there, such as the Disaster Preparedness Capacity Map by Development Seed, crisis mapping by Ushahidi, and the new Stats of the Union iPad app. Sadly, I don’t have the computer science chops needed to make something quite as pretty as those examples, but I did discover two non-technical tools out there; GeoCommons and Google Fusion Tables*. While GeoCommons has the ability to make nicer looking maps, I ended up choosing to use Fusion Tables for its ability to customize the info window (the bubble that pops up when you click on an individual marker) and the ability to keep the data private. GeoCommons allows everyone to see your data – normally fine – but not good if you have confidential loan information.
Visiting everyone took some time, but what I have now is each borrower’s exact location placed on the map, along with a handy info window that contains the borrower’s name, photo, contact information, plus a whole lot of other meta-data about the borrower’s specific business and loan details. Like my database project, I’ve started with just my region, and hope to take the map nationally with all 1,300+ FAIJ borrowers, starting in the locations where other PCVs are also working with the program. FAIJ already has most of the information, we just need to standardize the data formatting and add GPS coordinates/photos for each borrower to be up and running.
Besides being just a nice way to view the database, the map will help our ability to follow-up with borrowers. Automatic changes in icon colors will remind us that it has been too long since the our last meeting with a specific borrower, for example. Employee turnover will no longer mean a loss in institutional memory. Trainings/meetings can be better coordinated. Borrowers and lending agents can help create a network where borrowers can contact borrowers from other regions for business needs and/or opportunities; such as a mango producer in the southwest shipping his product to a grocery store in the capital.
So how did I do it? With one click I exported the database as a CSV file and uploaded it to Fusion, where played around with a few viewing options, and voila, I had a custom Google map. The secret sauce is that Fusion can read location data by taking my GPS coordinates and automatically placing them on a map (without coordinates you could label cities/provinces or in the developed world with a simple street address). I could have stopped there, but because of the lack of internet speed/availability, I linked the Google map to Google Earth via a KML link for offline viewing. The hardest part for me was to learn enough HTML to make a somewhat nice looking info window, but that’s only something that has to be done once, and only difficult because I hadn’t seen HTML since high school.
Most importantly, using the product is easy to use and not difficult to update. Sure, there are a few steps, but my even my colleagues who are somewhat inexperienced with computers can easily use the map, and have even learned to add new information to it. I have seen the future, and it is location-based.
7/12/11 update: GeoCommons now allows for private data.
*If you’re interested in a further breakdown of Google Fusion Tables and GeoCommons, check out this post for some comparative analysis that I agree with after trying out both products.