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Ukrainians are scrubbing open-source maps to keep intel from Russias army

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Andrey first entered the world of mapping in 2009. He bought a GPS device off his friend and embarked on an effort to correct the mislabeled areas around his hometown of Dnipro, Ukraine. Eventually, he stumbled on OpenStreetMap (OSM), a widely crowdsourced mapping platform that underpins the products and services from the likes of Amazon, Apple, and Grab and relies on volunteer contributions from mappers 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 safety reasons, switched his focus from adding detailed information to OSM to keeping as much information off the map as possible.

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Read more: Ukraine off the map

Filling out the open-source map of Ukraine, said Andrey, is “helping the enemy.”

Andrey is one of more than 100 OSM mappers from Ukraine who, last week, put out a request to other contributors: no edits to Ukrainian map during the conflict. Open source technology, like Wikipedia and OSM, is known to be vulnerable to manipulation, particularly in regard to politically sensitive subjects and contested territories. OSM mappers told Rest of World that they’re concerned that contributors could add potentially compromising details like roads, blockades, and other kinds of infrastructure into the platform. On March 27, the Ukrainian government passed a new law making it illegal to disseminate the location or movement of the country’s armed forces.

Ukrainian OSM members said they would “take action to amend (delete, modify, revert to the previous state, etc.) any found cases of mapping related to military or critical social infrastructure facilities as well as contact the [Data Working Group] and other [OSM Foundation] working groups to ban the users who systematically make similar changes (more than one).”

Some in the Ukrainian mapping community worry it may be too late. Alex Riabtsev, a Kyiv-based OSM contributor since 2015 and one of the leaders of the Ukrainian contributor community, told Rest of World that other contributors believe that after “some military objects on the OSM” were updated, they were targeted by Russian airstrikes shortly after.

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“We aren’t able to prove it 100%,” said Riabtsev. “But we strongly believe that that’s not a coincidence.”

These instances were enough to convince Ukrainian mappers that it was safest not to allow any further changes. “Projects like Bellingcat, those are closed systems,” said Andrey of other mapping projects tracking the conflict in Ukraine. “But we don’t know who is adding to the map.”

More than 100 Ukrainian OpenStreetMap members have requested a pause on new edits during the conflict. cinemaboxhd.org/changeset/118971656

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 that Ukrainian road data from OSM has been downloaded more than 300 times since the start of the conflict. But there’s no way of knowing who is doing the downloading. “It is being used, and we want it to be used by humanitarians,” he said.

“One of the tricks you do is you try to put yourself in the shoes of the person who’s doing the harm,” said Ivan Gayton, senior humanitarian advisor at HOT. “If your job is to run an artillery campaign in which you’re attempting 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 community more broadly about the use of maps for conflict and humanitarian aid. Several people in the OSM community who spoke to Rest of World pointed out that similar issues around mapping in OSM did not surface during conflicts in places like Syria, Afghanistan, or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Often those locations are not as well mapped as Ukraine, and the benefit of filling out the map for humanitarian reasons outweighs the potential risk.

“One of the tricks you do is you try to put yourself in the shoes of the person who’s doing the harm.”

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“There have been situations in the past, in places like Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, where we see a potential for harm to the vulnerable communities that we’re mapping,” said Gayton. “And we have good, duly diligent reasons to believe that [armed actors] already have the information as to where their targets are. But the folks who are trying to deliver medical care or nutritional support for people who are starving in the context of the conflict don’t.”

Gayton and Radford both pointed out that the robust Ukrainian OSM community has forced the question of ethical mapping in an active conflict.

“This is not the first time mapping issues have come up during conflicts in OSM, but now we have a strong local community engaged,” said Mikel Maron, a member of the OSM Foundation Board. “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 editing sensitive data in Ukraine has not been universally well received. On March 29, a user by the name of saigon2k2 posted on the OSM community forum, saying that their other account had been banned from the platform “because I edited some military land uses in Ukraine” and questioning whether this was fair.

Gayton said HOT will be complying with requests made by the Ukrainian mappers, even though it might make getting aid to certain areas more difficult.

“I’m sure that after the active phase of the war, we’ll be able to map everything we need in Ukraine,” said Riabtsev.

In the meantime, there is one thing that Andrey says the Ukrainian mappers may add in the coming weeks: mass graves.

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