Photo Mapping Cuba: The Miraculous Havana and Beyond

A photo mapping camp in Havana kicked off the voluntary efforts to open up wonderful Cuba for everyone to explore, and a seed has been sown to discuss open data in the country.

Five months ago Mapillary heard that a couple of mappers were heading to CubaConf, the International Free Software Conference held in Cuba in April 2016, and had the goal to map the streets of the capital city. A project started to boiled up in our minds—to do this mapping on a larger scale. We had seen traces of La Havana (credit to cut) in 2015 and we knew there was a small active community of mappers in the area.

Thanks to our community member humano we got in touch with the community of OpenStreetMap Cuba and started a conversation about providing more Mapillary coverage of the city. We knew about the infrastructure challenges the photo mapping community faced: limited internet coverage and scarce equipment for providing high-quality photographs. But we were convinced that this was a project worth looking into.

Mapillary coverage in Havana spring 2016 Mapillary coverage in Havana in spring 2016, before the sprout of our project

Cuba’s first steps into Open Data

One of the discussions we had internally was whether local institutions would be interested in having access to the data that we were set out to publish. There is no legislation around Open Data in the country and having those conversations is a complicated affair beyond the scope of this project.

We were intrigued by the challenge and set out to understand how this could contribute in a positive way—for the tech community to engage in conversations with the government to legislate or at least recognize Open Data platforms as means of facilitating growth in the community.

Our group set the goal to map the main transportation routes so this data could be available for all the citizens and visitors to the island. Hopefully this will be the first stepping stone for the community to have meaningful conversations around Open Data projects with local authorities.

A tech community looking for opportunities

In Cuba there are many mobile applications like ALaMesa and KeHayPaHoy that rely on maps to provide services to their users on mobile devices. We had the opportunity to talk to the founders and offered to provide access to our API. But the reality is that most of the apps provide offline maps and data for their users since having a data service in your mobile phone is expensive in Cuba.

We discussed several ways of serving the needs of countries like Cuba that lack connectivity, since we know that the Mapillary platform can provide relevant information that technology startups or governments can leverage to build great experiences for their users/citizens. This is an interesting challenge that we need to address and the team is making an effort together with local communities to facilitate access to Mapillary data.

Photo mapping streets and alleys in Havana

A team of 12 people set out to map Cuba’s capital city and so I landed on September 21st to kick start the mapping. We rented a car and the local group provided two motorcycles plus two bicycles, with which we ended up mapping 80‒90% of Old Havana.

A magnificent walk around Old Havana - a UNESCO World Heritage Site

The car was used to map the longest routes and the main highway of Primer Anillo, which circles around the city of Havana, and the main routes of transportation from the South of La Havana where most of the daily commuters to the city center come from.

Volunteers on foot mapped the streets of Old Havana where no bicycle or motorcycle is allowed. Using phones, action cameras and 360 cameras in combination with chest mounts and selfie sticks, they provided some great shots of what is happening in the center of the city.

The people on bicycles mapped the Center of La Havana with their phones, dodging both potholes and cars to get some great photos from the heart of the city. Their experiences proved the need for more robust phone mounts in future projects.

In addition to infrastructure we also wanted to show unknown locations that the world has never seen but are culturally important in Cuba. For example, we photo mapped the Church of San Lazaro. In mid-December a pilgrimage starts from all parts of Havana to visit the saint San Lazaro who is known to perform miracles for people with health issues. The church is located in Rincon in the southern outskirts of La Havana.

The Church of San Lazaro in Rincon, nearby Havana

Another big part of the culture in Cuba is baseball, the main national sport and what Cuba has been know for in professional sports. So photo mapping the Estadio Latinoamericano of La Havana, one of the most famous baseball stadiums in Latin America, was a must on our to-do list. Near the stadium is the Colon Cemetery, where all the most important historical figures of the country are buried.

It was a great and fun experience covering some of the most important places and locations in La Havana. The community was eager to find out how to use the Mapillary platform and we made some progress talking to government officials about what we set out to do with the OpenStreetMap community in Cuba.

So feel free to explore the streets and locations of La Havana; we will be uploading more than 140 GB of image data. The local community in Cuba will continue to map on their bikes and motorcycles so make sure to come back to see the progress.

Happy photo mapping!


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