Ukrainians clean up open source maps to keep Russian military information


Andrey first entered the world of mapping in 2009. He bought a GPS device from his friend and embarked on an effort to correct mislabeled areas around his hometown of Dnipro, Ukraine. Eventually, he came across OpenStreetMap (OSM), a broadly crowdsourced mapping platform that underpins products and services from Amazon, Apple, and Grab and relies on volunteer contributions from mapmakers around the world.

When Russia launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine in February, Andrey, who asked to be referred to by his first name for security reasons, shied away from adding detailed information to the OSM to keep as much information off the map as possible.

Filling in the open-source map of Ukraine, Andrey said, “helps the enemy.”

Andrey is one of more than 100 OSM Ukrainian mappers who this week issued a request to other contributors: no changes to the Ukrainian map during the conflict. Open source technology, like Wikipedia and OSM, is known to be vulnerable to manipulation, especially when it comes to politically sensitive topics and disputed territories. OSM cartographers said Rest of the world that they are concerned that contributors will add potentially compromising details such as roads, dams and other types of infrastructure into the platform. On March 27, the Ukrainian government passed a new law making it illegal to broadcast the location or movements of the country’s armed forces.

Ukrainian OSM members said they would “take action to amend (delete, modify, revert to previous state, etc.) [Data Working Group] and other [OSM Foundation] workgroups to ban users who systematically make similar (several) changes.

Some members of the Ukrainian cartographic community fear that it is too late. Alex Riabtsev, Kyiv-based OSM contributor since 2015 and one of the leaders of the Ukrainian contributor community, said Rest of the world that other contributors believe that after updating “some military objects on the OSM” they were targeted by Russian airstrikes soon after.

“We are not able to prove it 100%,” Riabtsev said. “But we firmly believe this is no coincidence.”

These examples were enough to convince Ukrainian cartographers that it was safer not to allow further modifications. “Projects like Bellingcat are closed systems,” Andrey said of other mapping projects tracking the conflict in Ukraine. “But we don’t know who is adding to the card.”

Tyler Radford, executive director of Humanitarian OpenStreetMap (HOT), which works with development and humanitarian organizations around the world to use maps to help organizations deliver aid, says OSM’s Ukrainian road data was downloaded more than 300 times since the beginning of the conflict. But there is no way of knowing who is doing the downloading. “It’s being used, and we want it to be used by humanitarians,” he said.

“One of the things you do is try to put yourself in the shoes of the person doing the wrong,” said Ivan Gayton, senior humanitarian adviser at HOT. “If your job is to wage an artillery campaign in which you try to demolish and demoralize a population, what better gift could someone give you than daily feedback on how your campaign is going?”

But the decision to stop updating the map of Ukraine has also opened up a series of new questions for the OSM Foundation and the wider community about the use of maps for conflict and humanitarian aid. Several people from the OSM community who spoke to Rest of the world pointed out that similar issues regarding mapping in OSM had not arisen during conflicts in places like Syria, Afghanistan or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Often these locations are not mapped as well as Ukraine, and the benefit of populating the map for humanitarian reasons outweighs the potential risk.

“One of the things you do is try to put yourself in the shoes of the person doing the wrong.”

“There have been situations in the past, in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, where we see potential for harm to the vulnerable communities we are mapping,” Gayton said. “And we have good and due diligence reasons to believe that [armed actors] already have information on where their targets are. But people who try to provide medical care or nutritional support to people who are starving in the context of the conflict are not doing it. »

Both Gayton and Radford pointed out that the strong Ukrainian OSM community has forced the issue of ethical mapping into active conflict.

“This is not the first time that mapping issues have arisen during conflicts within OSM, but we now have a strong local community engaged,” said OSM Foundation Board Member Mikel Maron. . “So this is something new for the OSMF, and we aim to be responsive to our community members.”

The decision to report and ban users from modifying sensitive data in Ukraine has not been universally welcomed. On March 29, a user by the name of saigon2k2 posted on the OSM community forum, saying that his other account had been banned from the platform “because I changed some military land uses in Ukraine” and asking if it was right.

Gayton said HOT would comply with requests from Ukrainian mappers, although it might make it harder to get help in some areas.

“I am sure that after the active phase of the war we will be able to map everything we need in Ukraine,” Ryabtsev said.

In the meantime, there’s one thing Andrey says Ukrainian mappers could add in the coming weeks: mass graves.


Comments are closed.