NOÉ Diakubama is one of this century’s intrepid explorers. An emigrant of the Democratic Republic of Congo, now living in Paris, he created the first-ever map of his village, Mbandaka, using online map-making tools and simply adding what he knew.
Since 2009, Mr Diakubama and his wife have made 100,000 edits, literally putting the Mbandaka community on the map. And he is not alone — there is a vast and growing community of online mappers creating useful maps that are accessible to all and changing people’s lives in the process.
Three centuries ago, during the Age of Exploration, adventurers explored the globe, drawing detailed charts of their voyages.
Today, cartography is undergoing a second golden age thanks to the web. This 21st-century revolution promises to generate giant economic and social benefits. It will empower individuals to find what they want at any time and will allow businesses to reach consumers anywhere.
Online mapping will not only fill gaps in our understanding of our globe, but provide new perspectives.
Regular people — dubbed citizen cartographers — are today’s map-makers. They use online tools to build the digital map of the earth and constantly improve it with layers of useful information.
In addition to mapping the nooks and crannies of a neighbourhood or coastline, they are building maps that reflect our human geography and things that interest us. Rather than two-dimensional drawings of lands and borders, we are now able to mark our favourite cafés, add a local walking trail or plot a route for a jog.
This volunteer map-making is making people understand the evolution of their communities — paper maps cannot reflect a changing and dynamic landscape.
Rivers and mountains might not change, but new buildings are built, roads are rerouted, restaurants open and close. Online maps can be updated as the world around us changes: anyone can add features. And what is more, these maps reach far beyond locals, enabling a visitor to feel like a native in a place they have never been before.
Digital mapping technology is transforming lives, especially in Africa. Road coverage on Google Maps in Africa grew from 20% to 75% between 2008 and 2012; the number of towns and villages mapped in good detail increased by 1000%.
Maps are crucial for business; for example, they save the agricultural industry $8bn to $22bn a year globally just by helping farmers build more efficient irrigation.
Accurate maps reduce emergency services’ response times; modern geo tools like maps and satellite navigation save 3.5-billion litres of petrol and a billion hours of travel time every year.
The growing momentum around mapping will ensure that every inch of the world is accurately represented by road data, pictures and business listings. And as maps come online, it becomes possible for each of us to produce maps specialised for our unique tastes.
• McClendon is vice-president for engineering at Google.
• This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times.