Navigating Nepal with new digital mapsThe future is location, location, location for drivers and trekkers
Nama Raj Budhathoki was doing his PhD in the US when he came back to Nepal in 2009 and made plans to have dinner with a friend. He received a long, complicated email from his friend with directions to his home.
Detailed as his friend’s instructions were, it was still difficult to find the house following landmarks.
“Navigating in Nepal was a nightmare, I remember it being a waste of time and energy,” Budhathoki recalls. “I hoped that one day we would be able to solve this problem.”
In 2011, Budhathoki completed his PhD with a focus on OpenStreetMap, an open-source global geographic database maintained by volunteers and contributors from across the world. He came back to Nepal, and in 2013 founded Kathmandu Living Labs (KLL), a mapping initiative to build on the OpenStreetMap movement that he had introduced to Nepal.
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“Governments make maps, but more from their perspective to govern and make their own decisions,” says Budhathoki, who is currently with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) as the Regional Director of the Open Mapping Hub – Asia Pacific.
“OpenSourceMap is necessary for a country like Nepal because we do not have other relevant free maps accessible to people, its value lies in people being able to map what they are interested in,” he adds.
Kathmandu Living Labs eventually worked on disaster response, using crowdsourced mapping to aid relief agencies and volunteers to plan and target their relief efforts in the aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquake.
While the importance of digital navigation tools and technologies was better realised after the earthquake, their uses have expanded in the last few years — especially during the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns which led to an e-commerce boom in Nepal.
After the lockdowns, delivery and ride-sharing services have seen significant growth, and digital navigation is central to such services.
But navigation in Nepal is trickier than in other countries. The streets are not consistently named or numbered, and house numbers are either poorly assigned or not assigned at all. Most Nepalis rely on landmarks like temples, historic buildings, trees, and even garbage dumps to find their way around.
“Localised maps are crucial to Nepalis because the way we navigate is very different to the way people navigate in the West,” says Budhathoki.
Recognising the unique navigational challenge in Nepal, civic-tech companies have begun to develop navigation applications that are contextualised to Nepali communities.
Baato Maps, developed by Kathmandu Living Labs itself, is one such service. It was introduced to the public as a navigation app in 2023. Galli Maps, another nav app was first launched in Kirtipur before spreading across Nepal.
“We started Baato because there is a huge problem not only in navigation in Nepal but also in mobility,” says Prithvi Jung Khadka of Baato. “There is a huge gap in mobility infrastructure and it was clear Nepal needed more reliable maps.”
Raj Bikram Maharjan, an aeronautical engineer, built drones in his spare time which proved to be useful in the aftermath of the earthquake when Nepal required them to map out heritage reconstruction work.
Maharjan left his job in aviation to work on 3D heritage mapping full-time and also made maps for local governments. When the pandemic hit in 2020, it took some personal experiences with delivery services for Maharjan to realise the challenges Nepalis and navigation-based businesses faced because Nepal’s alleys and buildings were not properly represented by global navigation services like Google Maps.
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“Other countries use navigation-based technologies such as delivery and ride-sharing services because they are convenient, but in Nepal, it has expanded because it is a necessity," says Maharjan. “And localised maps are crucial to such services. If there are inefficient maps, neither navigation-based businesses nor everyday life in Nepal can be sustainable.”
And so Maharjan along with his friends Janam Maharjan and Ashon Shakya set out to develop a navigation service that recognised alleyways, small road networks, and buildings in Nepal.
They collected mapping data from OpenStreetMaps, GPS, 360-degree cameras, their own drone imaging technology as well as from local governments, who were loath to share data initially even as they had begun to number houses — something that the general public had no idea about.”
“Nepal does not necessarily have a culture of sharing data, and we spent a lot of time explaining to government agencies and local governments why open data was crucial,” notes Maharjan. “That was a challenge, but once Kirtipur agreed to share its data, other municipalities followed suit.”
However, since local navigation apps are still at a nascent stage, not only are Nepal’s institutions hesitant to share data, they also do not want to use the data provided by such services.
And while individual users seem to be taking to the applications, most services dependent on navigation technology still rely on established global navigation software and applications.
There are other challenges. Crowdsourced mapping as well as Nepal-based navigation apps are meant to be participatory, say digital mapping experts, but the fact that individuals and institutions are using those services has not necessarily meant that they contribute back to mapping at similar levels.
Although much of Nepal has access to mobile technology, internet use is stuck at 65%, which means the flow of information and data is such that cities and densely populated areas with robust infrastructures are better mapped than rural Nepal.
Additionally, open-source mapping also means that data might be collected by ordinary people in a way that is not always accurate or updated.
“Maps are constantly changing, and keeping that in mind, we have to work to make sure that our virtual maps better reflect the reality of Nepal while encouraging users to contribute at the same time,” says Khadka of Baato.
But navigation services are making progress. Baato Maps has digitised public transportation and made transportation information available on the application. Galli Maps is preparing to introduce a crowd-sourced ‘reporting’ feature that allows users to input information about traffic, as well as issues of infrastructural damage and upkeep that will go directly to the dashboard of local governments for them to address.
Not only do Nepal’s localised navigation services help Nepalis and navigation-based businesses, but they could also help enhance the tourism sector. Both Baato and Galli apps include Nepal’s major trekking routes.
However, navigation experts do note that the availability of trekking routes, as helpful as they are, must be reconciled with the fact that trekkers, both foreign and domestic, rely primarily on the experience and knowledge of trekking guides and tourism professionals.
Nama Budhathoki notes that Nepal-based navigation apps are an infrastructure themselves, with tremendous opportunities to enable and enhance the lives of individuals, start-ups, institutions as well as the government.
Adds Budhathoki: “The future is location-based.”