The man who mapped Kazakhstan


Itching to reconnect with his native country a couple of years ago, University of Minnesota graphic design student Kyril Negoda decided to look up his hometown of Shakhtinsk, Kazakhstan, on Google Maps. He got an unpleasant surprise: His old haunts in the former Soviet republic were largely unmapped.

“The town was an empty spot on the map,” Negoda said.

In fact, the whole of Kazakhstan – the ninth largest country in the world – had very little detail on its online map. Negoda, 23, says Kazakhstan lost touch with its own geography when it gained independence after the Soviet Union collapsed.

So Negoda set out on a two-year map-making frenzy from his home in St. Paul using a tool called Google Map Maker. It’s sort of a Wikipedia model, in which anyone can change or add to maps, subject to approval by a community of citizen cartographers and Google experts.

Negoda figures he’s put 500 hours — unpaid — toward putting Kazakhstan on the map.

“I just want to know where I’m going when I’m in Kazakhstan,” Negoda said. “And I wanted to give something back to the country.”

Negoda loved maps as a child — he used to make maps of his boyhood travels. Those maps, and a sharp memory, formed the basis of his initial contributions to the online Kazakhstan maps, and he now uses satellite imagery and a network of volunteers inside Kazakhstan to make more changes — affecting features as large as major cities and highways or as small as businesses, parks and community gardens.

Shakhtinsk, Kazakhstan, on Google Maps: The town didn’t exist on Google Maps until Negoda added it.

View Larger Map

Map Maker is the natural evolution of Web mapping, said Ed Parsons, a geospatial scientist at Google.

“It recognizes that the experts are the people who live there,” said Parsons.

Parsons said Map Maker solves two problems. First, it provides data that’s not available in many places, including some remote countries in Africa and Asia. And in more developed places like North America and Europe, it creates a larger pool of cartographers who can keep maps relevant in a fast-changing landscape.

Amateur map-maker Negoda is still working on Kazakhstan, but he’s turned his attention to the Twin Cities as well, adding to Google Maps the tiniest Minneapolis parks, which hadn’t shown up before.

And he’s mapped the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota. The campus used to be just a blob on Google Maps, but now it looks like this:

View Larger Map

Negoda and other amateur cartographers from around the United States are meeting today and tomorrow at the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif., for a Map Maker summit.

Map-making is a hobby Negoda won’t let go of any time soon.

“You’re never done mapping,” he said.