Putting Syria on the Map

I have been doing some intensive cartography lately. Yes, I’m literally putting Syria on the map.

Going to college in Damascus was a frustrating experience for quite a long time. I did not know the city nearly as well as I should have. I didn’t live in the heart of Damascus, but 30 minutes by servees (a microbus used for commuting in Syria) on a good day. When meeting people in parts of the city that I did not know, I was often too stubborn or too ashamed to ask for directions or help getting somewhere. That always ended with me asking questions to people I’m more comfortable asking, but also less likely to be able to help me; or walking aimlessly and asking people in the street who were as clueless as I was. Going to a new theater or cultural center was always a process of finding out the address and the best way to get to and fro the designated activity location.

Well, not for long. Thanks to Google’s Map Maker, other location-recognition-impaired people won’t have to suffer like I did. I’m now one of a group of volunteer users, or citizen cartographers as Google likes to call them, who  have been drawing the entire map of Syria on Google Map Maker. We’re highlighting points of interest, businesses, streets, neighborhoods and just about everything in between. Eventually it will be available on a high quality, easy to search Google map that’s free to use for all people and platforms that have an active internet connection. There’s an intimidating learning curve to Map Maker; roads are hard to draw and they disappear after you first draw them because they need to be moderated before they show up. This means having to draw roads with no visual clues of your previous work. Drawing on water is a close analogy.

Some Background

Googling a couple of keywords on comprehensive directories and guides of Syria (think Yellow Pages) returns a plethora of unfinished projects that were started by people hoping to monetize on their investment. When that failed miserably, they bailed on their half-baked guides. Here are a few samples of local and national attempts at creating a comprehensive directory:

The best failed attempt for a directory for my home town As Suwayda. [click image to enlarge]

eSwaida: The best failed attempt for a directory for my hometown, As Suwayda. (click image to enlarge)

eSwaida has some info in certain categories, but the coding of the website is so horrible that makes it impossible to get to those categories from anywhere on the site. A Google search is likely to better help you land the listing you need.

Looking for the Commercial Bank of Syria lands no results on Syria Directory. (click image to enlarge)

Syria Directory looks like a really well done site: clean design, modern looking, and the links and infrastructure all work as intended. Looks like the people behind it did everything right… apart from the part in which one actually enters some data to the database. Searching for Commercial Bank of Syria in Arabic yields no results. Too bad developing the directory died out with the final touches on the design.

Yellow Pages Syria relatively has the better database of all. (click image to enlarge)

Yellow Pages Syria can probably claim to be the most comprehensive directory in Syria. But their claim only stands on paper — the print version. The search algorithm on the website is a mess, and their listings offer nothing more than a name, a phone number, and the neighborhood where the listing is located. No websites, no emails, and no detailed street addresses.

Unfortunately, in Syria street names are not commonly used by the locals, apart from major roads within a city. When you’re in a cab you ask him to take you to a well-known point of interest (a square, a theater, a mall etc.) or you just ask him to take you to an area or neighborhood and once you get there you become his turn-by-turn navigator. 10 years ago, most  streets had no name plates. Now almost every street has name plates and buildings are numbered numbers, but none of the locals know or memorize them, let alone use them.

To have better understanding of the situation, you can look at an official map of As Suwayda issued by the Syrian Ministry of Tourism. It’s bad enough that they chose to name just around 10-11 streets, but also they had to make the map using a ridiculous orientation of North being to the left, as opposed to every other modern map in the entire world that uses the north-on-top as a standard. But this is Syria, and we don’t play by the rules. If you like to acquire this gem as a collectors’ item, they’re available for free at all information tourist centers around Syria. (You’ll need a map to find those too!)

The Syrian Tourism Ministry shows us how it's done. (click to enlarge)

What’s Being Done

If you look up As Suwayda’s map on Google Maps today, all you’ll see is a gray area with minuscule number of roads intersecting in it (left image below). After some extensive work — 2384 edits, 130 moderations, 442.4 km of road added, and 263 feature edits, the map shows improvement (right image below). Those changes are in Google’s map production cycle and hopefully would be graduated to the public once the map is sufficiently detailed.

click to enlarge

The map of Damascus was recently graduated by Google and has since seen great improvements on the map maker that are yet to be reflected on the live map. The entirety of Syria’s map is being upgraded one intersection at a time. Other cities are seeing lots of work done as well. A complete full featured map would help tourists, and clueless residents like me, find their way around while in Syria. No need for extra confusion and humiliation caused by asking people who might give you the wrong directions on purpose just for fun. No need to be disappointed by an out-of-town police officer that has trouble locating his designated patrol locations.

As this post’s draft lied around neglected for two days waiting on an inspired finish, I found out just today that the wonderful platform SyriaConnect was also thinking along the same lines, by establishing a task-force for mapping Syria online. All what’s left to be said now is that when there’s a will there’s a way; despite US technological sanctions, and locally brewed censorship and bans on supposedly dangerous technology (such as GPS enabled devices), tech savvy Syrians are creating content and finding ways to make the internet a bit more hospitable to them, and to their fellow countrymen. Each in his own little, but significant, way.

Credit goes to L0uy, his blog post brought me back to Google’s map maker after I had given up on it the first time because of the frustrating learning curve. Also, props to the great volunteers working on improving Syria’s maps: Eyad N, Basil al-Daghistani, Nabil Attar, Adham, L0uy and others.

  1. Have you tried OpenStreetMap ? It’s a more open alternative to Google maps, and anyone can contribute.

    • Anas says:

      I’ve taken a look at it, it is more open, but I like the quality control Google exerts and the integration of Google maps into dozens of other services through APIs and how widely it’s available by default on smart phones. I like to support open projects but I’m also pragmatic. I feel my contributions would have more of an impact on Google Map Maker.

  2. abufares says:

    This is a great project! I, too, am a map lover (among other things) and I agree that Syria is grossly under-mapped. Your comments about the several abandoned or incomplete sites are very accurate. All the Syrian directories I’ve seen are pathetic in the way they want a return on their “investments” from day one. The way they sell advertising space and prioritize entries as per highest bidders render them totally useless as sources of independent and trustworthy information.

  3. Shadi says:

    A much needed project. Keep up the good work!
    I justy want to mention the earliest try to map syria on the net, it precedes google maps and google earth, but it is very commercially focused. http://souria.com/ar/ep/damascus.asp

    • Anas says:

      I’ve actually tried to use that map as a reference when trying to add certain points of interest, but the interface is horrible.

  4. Hiconomics says:

    Great post and thanks for referencing the SyriaConnect project (and for calling it wonderful as well ;).

    Since there are quite a few of us with the same intentions let’s collaborate and coordinate the effort to speed up the process. I do not have any personal bias to Google Maps vs. OpenStreetMap (OSM) but think that the first is probably better as a starting point. Developers and users are all accustomed to the Google Maps UI and API and I’m sure there are 100s more web and mobile app implementations of Google Maps than there are using OSM.

    I’ll drop you a note through SyriaConnect to try and work out the best way for all of us to work together on this.

  5. Dv0rsky says:

    try to use Openstreetmap – it is much better and needs less efforts

  6. Emmy J says:

    Greetings from Australia. Thanks for the useful info. I’m doing a project at uni and your stuff was quite useful. Thanks for sharing :)

  7. Firas Zeidan says:

    Hello, I work with Mr. Yasser Alfakih in “Ayna Places” project for the MENA (Middle east and north Africa region).
    I was googling and stopped by your blog, it is so interesting.
    I just want you to check our project, since we have Swaida included, along with many other cities.
    Thank you,

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