Patrick Meier: Could Lonely Planet Render World Bank Projects More Transparent?

Access, Crowd-Sourcing, Geospatial, Innovation, Resilience
Patrick Meier
Patrick Meier

Could Lonely Planet Render World Bank Projects More Transparent?

That was the unexpected question that my World Bank colleague Johannes Kiess asked me the other day. I was immediately intrigued. So I did some preliminary research and offered to write up a blog post on the idea to solicit some early feedback. According to recent statistics, international tourist arrivals numbered over 1 billion in 2012 alone. Of this population, the demographic that Johannes is interested in comprises those intrepid and socially-conscious backpackers who travel beyond the capitals of developing countries. Perhaps the time is ripe for a new form of tourism: Tourism for Social Good.

There may be a real opportunity to engage a large crowd because travelers—and in particular the backpacker type—are smartphone savvy, have time on their hands, want to do something meaningful, are eager to get off the beaten track and explore new spaces where others do not typically trek. Johannes believes this approach could be used to map critical social infrastructure and/or to monitor development projects. Consider a simple smartphone app, perhaps integrated with existing travel guide apps or Tripadvisor. The app would ask travelers to record the quality of the roads they take (with the GPS of their smartphone) and provide feedback on the condition, e.g.,  bumpy, even, etc., every 50 miles or so.

They could be asked to find the nearest hospital and take a geotagged picture—a scavenger hunt for development (as Johannes calls it); Geocaching for Good? Note that governments often do not know exactly where schools, hospitals and roads are located. The app could automatically alert travelers of a nearby development project or road financed by the World Bank or other international donor. Travelers could be prompted to take (automatically geo-tagged) pictures that would then be forwarded to development organizations for subsequent visual analysis (which could easily be carried out using microtasking). Perhaps a very simple, 30-second, multiple-choice survey could even be presented to travelers who pass by certain donor-funded development projects. For quality control purposes, these pictures and surveys could easily be triangulated. Simple gamification features could also be added to the app; travelers could gain points for social good tourism—collect 100 points and get your next Lonely Planet guide for free? Perhaps if you’re the first person to record a road within the app, then it could be named after you (of course with a notation of the official name). Even Photosynth could be used to create panoramas of visual evidence.

The obvious advantage of using travelers against the now en vogue stakeholder monitoring approach is that they said bagpackers are already traveling there anyway and have their phones on them to begin with. Plus, they’d be independent third parties and would not need to be trained. This obviously doesn’t mean that the stakeholder approach is not useful. The travelers strategy would simply be complementary. Furthermore, this tourism strategy comes with several key challenges, such as the safety of backpackers who choose to take on this task, for example. But appropriate legal disclaimers could be put in place, so this challenge seems surmountable. In any event, Johannes, together with his colleagues at the World Bank (and I), hope to explore this idea of Tourism for Social Good further in the coming months.

In the meantime, we would be very grateful for feedback. What might we be overlooking? Would you use such an app if it were available? Where can we find reliable statistics on top backpacker destinations and flows?


Hi Patrick (and Johannes). I like the idea and here are a few things to know/keep in mind:

1) International travelers may initially be hesitant from a cost perspective – depending on how much their data roaming costs. I know that when I travel, I only turn on my data when absolutely necessary. So, how could they capture the data and then report it afterwards (on WiFI). And, could they enter their planned route and be advised of possible places to stop? Or, can the incentive be big enough to encourage people to pay?

2) We may need to find an ‘opt-out’ ability for certain projects/organizations. Besides basic security reasons (e.g. medical supplies) are there projects that would not benefit from having possibly hundreds of people stopping buy as part of their tourism? [imagine tour operators bringing tour groups past development projects that they think are interesting but the individuals involved become overwhelmed with visitors]

3) Disaster tourists. Many in the humanitarian realm (especially in the early days after a sudden onset emergency) already complain about too many disaster tourists. How could we leverage this approach, but somehow ensure that too many people (with good intentions) do not try to show up and report…..which would only strain further an already stressed environment. [I am not referring to local citizens]

FYI: UN-OCHA already has a partnership with Lonely Planet where they have provided us access to all their guide books (for countries we work in) and they release guide books private to the users of the Virtual OSOCC []