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Accurately Mapping Mongolia’s Sprawling Capital With Satellite Imagery

October 15, 2014

By Michelle Chang, Tomas Apodaca

Almost 60 percent of the population of Mongolia’s sprawling capital, Ulaanbaatar, lives in informal settlements, known as ger areas. In 1989, 26.8 percent of Mongolia’s population lived in Ulaanbaatar; by 2006 that number had risen to 38.1 percent; and by the 2010 census, 45 percent of Mongolia’s population lived in the capital. Looking forward, population growth in the capital city is expected to continue at the same pace. Such rapid growth has severely challenged the city’s ability to deliver quality services such as solid waste management and public transportation to residents – particularly since the majority of these ger areas are unplanned settlements. Compounding this challenge is that the city government lacks reliable data on many of these expanding urban areas, and this lack of data – including road conditions and accurate topographic measurements – has contributed to insufficient service delivery.

As cities like Ulaanbaatar grow more complex and dynamic, so do the challenges of managing a city’s economic, social, and structural development. Cities have always needed sound data to make smart policy decisions. New, faster, and lower-cost tools are now making it easier to collect large volumes of useful data. Data collected using remote sensing technologies such as imaging satellites and aircraft is increasingly used in development contexts.

Satellite imagery from the Khan-Uul district

Satellite imagery from the Khan-Uul district shows a dense neighborhood butting up against the Tuul River. © 2014 DigitalGlobe / Mapbox

Collecting and analyzing high-quality satellite and aerial imagery is becoming more efficient and more affordable, making it easier to keep street maps current, to identify watersheds and drainage networks, and to generate land classification and topographic maps. These technologies can establish a baseline framework to help cities prepare for and respond to disasters, provide access to critical social services, and manage urban development. Sensing technologies can provide this imagery and help make it possible for city residents and local leaders to navigate rapid change and work together to solve increasingly difficult development challenges.

To plan for Ulaanbaatar’s continued growth and to deliver these vital urban services, city officials need accurate and up-to-date interactive maps. To advocate for a higher quality of living in their neighborhoods, ger area residents also need reliable and accessible maps. Building upon our existing community mapping project (read more about this project), The Asia Foundation is partnering with the City Municipality of Ulaanbaatar to use aerial imagery and open source tools and services like OpenStreetMap (OSM) – a free, online “Wikipedia-like” map of the world created by 1.6 million contributors – to develop a more complete and accurate online, open, and free map of Ulaanbaatar.

This approach will enable citizens to actively engage in documenting where infrastructure is changing: it can capture activities such as new construction and demolition of buildings, paved and unpaved roads, hospitals and schools opened, and bus stops established. And the City Municipality can subsequently use this information to help inform urban planning and policy-making, much like New York City and other cities are doing.

The Selbe River separates a ger area in the Bayanzurkh district and retail development in the Sukhbaatar district.

The Selbe River separates a ger area in the Bayanzurkh district and retail development in the Sukhbaatar district. © 2014 DigitalGlobe / Mapbox

DigitalGlobe, a leading provider of global commercial Earth imagery and geospatial information, recently granted The Asia Foundation high-resolution satellite imagery for tracing in OSM. The new imagery is more recent and of higher quality than anything previously available to OSM editors, who will use it as a guide: adding roads, buildings, rivers, railways, and other features to OSM’s map of Ulaanbaatar. Mapbox, which provides a powerful and diverse platform for the creation of custom online maps, has processed the raw satellite imagery to prepare it for use in OSM and is hosting the resulting map tiles.

There are now more than 2,000 square kilometers of high-quality satellite imagery of Ulaanbaatar available for viewing and editing in OSM. With this DigitalGlobe imagery, Mongolian citizens and the rest of the world will have an opportunity to build a map of Ulaanbaatar that is more comprehensive than any other publicly available map.

In the coming months, we’ll also be introducing even more high-resolution imagery of priority ger areas in Ulaanbaatar that we captured using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Stay tuned for more on this.

The aim of the mapping project is to provide urban planners and citizens with reliable, complete, and up-to-date data to make more informed decisions, and ultimately improve urban planning and urban service delivery, particularly for Ulaanbaatar’s ger areas.

Using DigitalGlobe satellite imagery to trace residential roads in the Bayanzurk district into OpenStreetMap.

Using DigitalGlobe satellite imagery to trace residential roads in the Bayanzurk district into OpenStreetMap. © 2014 DigitalGlobe / Mapbox

With the City Municipality of Ulaanbaatar, The Asia Foundation will be hosting a map “edit-a-thon” in Ulaanbaatar on Saturday, October 25 at 10 am. The event is open to experienced map editors and newcomers who want to learn how to map in OpenStreetMap. Check back here for location information.

New to OpenStreetMap? Learn more about how to use and contribute. If you’re already familiar with OSM, you can start a task here, or follow these simple instructions to start mapping Ulaanbaatar.

1. Go to and login to your account.

2. Add this URL to your OpenStreetMap editor as a custom background layer to start tracing:{z}/{x}/{y}.png

3. Start tracing, and watch the changes take shape in real time!

Michelle Chang is ICT manager and Tomas Apodaca is Data and Application specialist, both for The Asia Foundation’s Digital Media and Technology Programs unit in San Francisco. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].

Related locations: Mongolia
Related programs: Good Governance, Technology & Development
Related topics: Urbanization


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