Phnom Penh maps receive a crowdsourced makeover

My Sovan, project manager, Nget Vanna, intern and Phom Ravy, filmmaker, pose with an Urban Voice map.
My Sovan, project manager, Nget Vanna, intern and Phom Ravy, filmmaker, pose with an Urban Voice map. NICK STREET

Phnom Penh maps receive a crowdsourced makeover

In a city as dynamic as Phnom Penh, it is difficult to map the continuous change. To keep up with the fast pace, 10 residents have teamed together to create Phnom Penh’s first crowdsourced mapping project.

The project, whose campaigns have already included mapping areas prone to flooding and the city’s innumerable potholes, had its formal launch at Meta House last night.

The people behind Urban Voice, whose website uses online mapping software that can be updated by anyone, intended to create a forum for residents to share information that can be used to facilitate the city’s development.

“One day you’d see a building somewhere, and then the next day it would be gone,” said Nora Lindstrom, the project coordinator who founded Urban Voice with two others in February 2012.

“Who knows exactly what’s happening? There seemed to be no place to go where you could find out.”

All sorts of facets of urban life are mapped on Urban Voice’s website, ranging from road quality to areas prone to political demonstrations. More permanent features, such as schools and heritage sites, are also documented.

Its most consequential mapping campaign to date was Save the Internet Cafés, which was launched last year in response to a Ministry of Post and Telecommunications order to close all internet cafés within 500 metres of schools. The campaign had participants map the city’s internet cafés in relation to schools to determine the effects that the order would have if enforced. It soon became apparent that almost all the city’s internet cafés were within the prohibited radii.

Although Lindstrom refused to accept full credit for the order’s ultimate death, she said that it was telling that the Telecommunications Ministry publicly denied that the government would shut down internet cafés, citing their usefulness to the economy, weeks after the campaign’s launch.

“The map we made, which was very graphic, showed very clearly that all the internet cafés were inside a 500-metre radius of a school.”

The website’s mapping software is provided by Ushahidi, a Nairobi-based company that was first started in 2008 to map Kenya’s 2007-2008 election violence. It has since been used to map flooding in Pakistan and bombings in Libya. It also drew inspiration from a similar US-based urban mapping website called SeeClickFix, which allows users to report urban issues directly to city governments.

It is not just maps, however, that Urban Voice hopes to produce, Lindstrom, who added that Urban Voice aims to be a multimedia project, said.

“It started off as a map, but we want to widen our focus because we have realised that [online] maps are not necessarily accessible to everyone,” Lindstrom said.

To expand the project’s output to other mediums, Urban Voice contributor Phom Ravy directed a short film that made its premiere at the launch last night. The film, titled The City Speaks, explores the perspectives of ordinary Phnom Penh citizens.

“The video is talking about youths in the city, what they like, what they don’t like – what they want to improve, and what they want to see Phnom Penh look like in the future,” Ravy said.

Next, Urban Voice intends to form a task force to clean the city’s streets.

Eventually, Lindstrom hopes that Urban Voice reports will go directly to city authorities to allow them to take action on pressing city issues.

The staff members hope that interest will spread to other urban centres, and even beyond Cambodia’s borders.

“Half of the world’s population lives in cities,” Lindstrom said. “That’s really why urban voices exists – because we really need to focus more on cities and how they are developing.”

Urban Voice’s Meta House exhibition, which features samples of its work and a map that allows visitors to pin their own homes’ location to be uploaded onto the site, runs for two weeks.

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