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Mapping Social Inclusion : The Strength And Passion Of Google’s Local Guides
By Saada Branker

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Ermes Tuon, a mobility advocate who lives in Treviso, Italy tells a story about his determination to help rebuild a part of his country that was destroyed by an earthquake in 2016. The world remembers what happened then—the loss of lives, and the scope of devastation relayed by the footage and photos of rubble where homes and buildings once stood. 

Helping became Tuon’s personal goal. “My research led me to Local Guides Connect, Google’s Local Guides community, where I finally found people to discuss my project with,” he says. “Local Guides have been extremely important in the earthquake area: Reporting closed businesses, geolocating businesses that had moved, and interacting with businesses to inform them of the tools at their disposal. In a few months we radically changed the map of the area, by adding all the roads of the new villages built after the earthquake.”

Tuon’s experience speaks to the power and potential of Google Maps and its system of user-generated reviews which debuted 16 years ago. The idea – that anyone using Google Maps to travel could share information and reviews about venues and locations – was an inclusive initiative that brought millions of people together globally.

By the time Google Maps launched their Local Guides program in 2015, the dedication of contributors was something to recognize as well as celebrate. To learn more about the Google Maps intention to work with its contributors to improve accessibility for all, we posed questions to Kevin Reece, Director of Product, Google Maps. Click here to find out more.

Today, Tuon is a celebrated Local Guide; so is Emeka Ulor who lives in Owerri, Nigeria. Ulor has earned a reputation as host of accessibility meet-ups for his fellow guides. Here is what Tuon and Ulor shared about the impact of being a Local Guide and how it shapes the way they approach mapping as a tool for inclusion and change.

Q: What does it take to be a Local Guide?

It takes almost nothing, just a passion and determination to help make Google Maps more helpful and useful for users. To become a Local Guide all you need to do is sign up, follow the rules, and keep contributing on Google Maps. – Emeka Ulor, Local Guide

From my point of view being a Local Guide means being ‘local,’ i.e., contributing in places of which we have experience, and being ‘Guides’ for others, i.e., providing through our contributions information that can be useful in ‘guiding, or directing’ other people’s choices. – Ermes Tuon, Local Guide

Q: Can you speak about the benefits of being a Local Guide and how it impacts your way of seeing the world?

Emeka Ulor: As a Local Guide, I don’t really look for benefits but I have been lucky to learn about new tools and technologies by attending Local Guides events. In the course of mapping places, I have visited three continents and learned about other cultures, architecture, and food. The Local Guides program has provided a platform to meet many wonderful people from various countries, some of whom have become friends and go-to people when I need solutions to matters within their fields. 

As a Local Guide, I became more aware of inclusion and accessibility by mapping accessible points of interest. This has led me to become an advocate and encouraged me to take on more studies as an advisor. So, you could say I have benefited from learning, making friends, and being inspired to pursue a cause.

Ermes Tuon: Being a Local Guide for me means knowing the tools. Then, you can choose how you want to use them. If you use them correctly they will surely be useful to many people. Seeing the world through the eyes of a Local Guide means seeing “information” and wanting to share it, whether it’s an image of what they served me at a restaurant, or information about an accessible toilet, or correcting the opening hours of a store.

I have always tried to be proactive in proposing changes in what I think are also fundamental elements in mapping tools: Territory, social inclusion and the environment. Google Maps helps us turn our goals into reality. I’ve always thought that Google Maps has enormous potential, and in addition to using the existing tools, I try to propose new ones to Google Maps.

Accessible Life in Google Earth is a project born from the way a Local Guide sees an area: the idea comes from the discovery of an unknown and unmapped accessible path created on top of a mountain which was made during our interventions in the earthquake area – hence the idea of talking about outdoor accessibility and inclusion. A couple of years later, Google Earth opened the ability to create projects with its program, and I immediately jumped into it. It took a year to create a consistent structure, and another year to test it and start creating the first content. In 2021, at Geo for Good, the official Google Earth forum, the project was presented as one of the four projects of the year. I’ve been invited as a speaker on the “Accessibility Panel – Adventures in Disability Equity” and on the Social Inclusion Lightning Talks. In 2022 the project was temporarily paused to focus on supporting our Ukrainian friends, but we will start again soon with new initiatives.

Q: Anything else to add about the program?

Emeka Ulor: Local Guides are [a community of] over 150 million and through our voluntary contributions around the world, we help to ensure information on Google Maps is useful to users, including people with disabilities. I was inspired by Local Guides to start the One Accessibility initiative that focuses on adding places with accessibility features on Google Maps, and the team is now made up of Local Guides in six continents. We are always excited to find inclusive and accessible places around the world while teaching people the need for inclusion at work and home. The goal is to promote accessibility everywhere for everyone.

Ermes Tuon: Being a Local Guide for me means supporting and improving information in the area where I live.  I like to contribute to the mountain villages in the area where I live, or even add roads in the mountainous areas of the Andes, where hundreds of villages in Google Maps are not connected by roads. These are mostly invisible contributions, but of enormous impact for the area. In the same way, I like to push local authorities towards inclusive tourism that respects the territory.


Advice from Two Guiding Stars

Develop your niche:

To become a stellar guide, or what we call a Guiding Star, you have to be dedicated while focusing on a niche where you want to make an impact in your community. There are Local Guides who have made great contributions in health, environment/sustainability, photography, gender equality and accessibility. They add locations, photos and write reviews on Google maps ensuring that the information is visible and accurate. Some Local Guides go further to create awareness about their chosen niche thereby making their communities and the world a better place. 

Cultivate your community:

Community building is another skill to have as a super guide; bringing other local guides together to learn, relearn, share and contribute is key to sustaining the community. Anyone who wants to become a stellar guide would have to be prepared and passionate about helping others.– Emeka Ulor, Local Guide

Embrace the passion and the collaboration:

The secret is believe in what you do and do what you believe in. As you may have noticed, in my replies I have often spoken in the plural, using we instead of I. This is because my luck is that I am not alone in this adventure, and that I have always traveled it together with my wife Antonella, who at the end of 2022 was declared Guiding Star together with me for our Sustainability initiatives, while at the end of 2021 I was chosen as a Guiding Star for Accessible Life

The fact that we are not alone, has allowed us to make our contributions consistent in Google Maps. I don’t think any of the Guiding Stars chosen by Google so far have contributed “to become a Guiding Star”. They contributed in the way they thought best and they did it because they liked it. There is a lot of passion behind Guiding Stars, and many have used Google Maps tools to create a positive impact in their local area. This is the beacon that guides this group. – Ermes Tuon, Local Guide

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