Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
By crowdsourcing more than 65,000 photos, Mapillary and a team of Cuban mapmakers are creating the first “street views” of the capital city.
Try dropping Pegman onto Havana on Google Maps, and the most you’ll see is a sparse collection of panoramic photos taken at a few intersections and town squares around the Cuban city—all uploaded by contributors. The company has yet to send its fleet of Street View cars to the once isolated country—and between legal and security concerns, Google hasn’t publicly mentioned any plans to to do so. (The company has not responded to a request for comment.)
But rather than waiting on Google, members of a local Open Street Map community have been working with the Sweden-based company Mapillary to create their own 3D map of Old Havana. The effort kicked off in September when Claudio Cossio, the head of Mapillary’s Latin American user growth, flew from Mexico to Cuba for a six-day mapping marathon. The dozen local mappers who participated took GoPros and their own Android phones to the streets, mapping the city by car, by bike—and where vehicles aren’t allowed, on foot.
So far, they have more than 65,000 street-level photos (and counting) covering nearly 200 square miles of Cuba’s capital city. They’ve mapped Old Havana proper, as well as parts of the city center, the main public transit routes, and the main highway that wraps around Havana. The photos are stored on SD cards and sent via post to Mexico, where Cossio uploads them to the company’s server.
The photos are then analyzed and stitched together by Mapillary’s team of developers. “We first blur faces and license plates, and then we start a serious extraction of info,” says the company CEO Jan Erik Solem, speaking from the CityLab 2016 conference in Miami where he’s showing off the technology. “The first [extraction] is traffic-sign recognition [to do] 3D reconstruction. Based on the things we detect, we can actually position these objects on the map with real 3D coordinates.” The algorithm can also detect which objects in the photos are streets or sidewalks.
The result so far look similar to Google Street View, with arrows on the ground that guide you on a virtual stroll along the roads:
According to Cossio, maps of Havana haven’t been updated since the Cuban revolution. Even Google can only provide a satellite map of the city, with scant information about what sits on each road. That’s a problem not just for travelers, but for locals. “The references of all the buildings and what they're used for have not been updated since 1955,” he says. “So they’re lacking all this information that is basic for any of their citizens.
It’s a fitting project for Mapillary, one of Google’s many up-and-coming competitors in the digital mapping market. The company hopes to become an alternative to Google Street View, reaching areas that the tech giant has yet to explore. Instead of sending out a fancy fleets of souped-up cars or working directly with government agencies, however, Mapillary builds its maps by crowdsourcing photos from local mapmaking communities. For the most part, the company takes a “bottom-up” approach, says Solem.
He and Cossio envision the final product for this project to be integrated into useful apps that will help locals look up public transit information or help aid workers direct efforts to areas that need them most. Soon, says Solem, the technology might also help local governments automatically detect potholes and other areas that need repairs. “We’re a source for imagery and data,” he adds. “What they do with it is really up to them.”
Mappers are still collecting photos from Havana, and Mapillary is starting to map the Isle of Youth, to the south of the city, as well as an underwater archaeological site nearby.
The project comes at a time when the Cuban government faces growing pressure to expand internet access in one of the least-connected countries in the world. The government has installed hundreds of public wifi hotspots across the island since 2015, but still only about 5 to 26 percent of households have internet access today (and it is costly and heavily censored). Of the roughly 2 million people who own mobile phones, very few have data plans.
And despite a growing entrepreneurial and tech community, authorities still haven’t quite warmed up to the idea of crowdsourcing and open data. Both remain legal gray areas. While photographing the streets, for example, local mappers tried to stay low-key, keeping cameras inside cars and making sure not to enter any restricted areas.
“Things are changing, but at the same time there's a lot of nervousness and guardedness” from the government, says Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College in New York, who has studied the internet and entrepreneurship in Cuba. Projects that aren’t done in collaboration with authorities may be viewed with suspicion. And the topic of maps is a particularly sensitive one that is regarded as a national security issue.
”In the tech area, people aren’t waiting,” he adds.“They’re doing stuff that they don’t think is threatening, or even political, and people are very careful.” The general rule of thumb: Push the limits, but don’t stand out too much.
For local Cuban mappers, documenting their city is worth the risk. “One of their [main goals] was to have at least 80 to 90 percent of Old Havana mapped,” Cossio says. “They’re interested in the history, and in leaving a trace of how it was and how it’s changing today—what nobody is recording.”