“Turn right by the old spruce tree”

April 28, 2020

 Adding informal place names to Ukraine’s maps could cut emergency service response time

Photo: Oleksiy Moskalenko / UNDP Ukraine

Text: Oleksiy Moskalenko, Head of Solutions Mapping, Accelerator Labs Ukraine

Editing: Yuliia Samus, Euan MacDonald

How do you get from A to B if your map is old, and has the wrong names, or if some of the streets don’t even have any names?

What could prove an irritation to a casual traveller could be a matter of life or death to, say, an ambulance team, if they have trouble finding the scene of an emergency.

This is precisely the problem faced by the emergency services in some parts of Ukraine, where history has complicated the process of map making. That’s because swathes of the country have been governed from a number of different capitals since the past century – including Vienna, Warsaw, Berlin, Moscow, and now Kyiv. The names of streets have changes to reflect changes in rulers. For instance, in many of Ukraine’s cities, since independence in 1991 streets named after Soviet generals and politicians have reverted to their pre-Soviet names, or been renamed entirely differently.

And in the Soviet era, during which the focus was on urbanization, rural streets often went unnamed.

So maps in Ukraine, especially in rural areas, can be confusing.

The map of Kyiv in 1960s with street and park names that are different now (red), and those that remained the same (green). Source: http://semiletov.org/kievograd/maps/1966-transport.jpg

Map experiment

UNDP in Ukraine’s Accelerator Lab got interested in the issue of problems with maps in Ukraine as we researched the practice of open burning of organic waste in communities across the country – which causes serious seasonal air pollution issues in the country.

When mapping solutions to tackle open burning of organic waste, we found out something very interesting – an NGO called “Gostynets” convinced a church in one of the towns that suffers from peatland fires to install HD surveillance cameras on its domes to help firefighters and the local authorities monitor the situation.

But when we interviewed local fire fighters, they complained about response delays because people often don’t know street names – if there are any at all. Ukrainians in small towns and villages, as elsewhere in Europe, rely on informal place names for navigation: churches, schools, shops, bars, and natural landmarks.

Since Gostynets NGO had already done some mapping work for the city of Novoyavorivsk (in Lviv Oblast), a partnership made sense, and we proposed that we conduct an experiment together: Add informal place names to a formal map, distribute it among the local emergency services, and ask if it cut their response times.

In fact, we found that local councils all over the country have severely outdated maps, and emergency services often need to make their own. We went to the local police, ambulance and fire departments to learn what they have already added to their maps, and recorded anything that wasn’t confidential.

Then we asked local residents of Novoyavorivsk of different age groups “How can I get to place X,” and noted the informal place names they mentioned the most. Then we merged the information from emergency services with the responses from local residents, printed new maps, and asked users for feedback.

Fire Service

The fire fighters said 30 percent of callers only mention informal navigation references: The call centre informs the fire fighters of the address of an incident (if there is one), shares informal place names to describe the site, and provides the caller’s telephone number.

While rushing to the vehicle, the duty manager checks if the street is big enough to be accessible to the fire engine, and the team grabs laminated maps with two types of informal references (churches and schools) and additional water sources (hydrant, lake or a river), that they have already printed for their own use. If needed, they dial the caller’s number while en route and ask for additional navigation guidance.

The fire service staff said our map would help new colleagues and those who come from other towns to familiarize themselves with the community, while all staff would benefit from training on using this map offline on a smartphone, and how to print smaller maps for every village in a portable A4 form.

From the fire fighters’ response to our map, we ranked this solution – four out five ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐.


Almost half of all ambulance call-outs in Novoyavorivsk come from rural areas nearby. The ambulance team receives a text message with the address, and the caller’s telephone number. The ambulance drivers said they mostly rely on online maps for navigation, although these are inaccessible in some areas.

When entering the village, they dial the caller’s number and ask for informal guidance over the phone. When asked if we should leave them the new map with informal signs, one driver said: “No need, we call them directly or just use GPS,” but another said it was better to have the new map. Then they asked how the map could be used offline.  

Based on their feedback, we thought ambulance teams would rate the informal place name map solution  as three out five ⭐ ⭐ ⭐⭐.


A local police officer said that often before investigating cases in rural areas, she needs to conduct another investigation – into where the person lives. When we visited some of the villages in the area we could not spot a single sign of a street name or a building number on houses or fences. The officer said all of her colleagues were looking forward to receiving our new map, and that they share her frustration: “There are no addresses! And then people complain why it takes so long for us to arrive. We’re regular humans who look up addresses on a smartphone.”

Ranking? Definitely five out five ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐.

A map of the village of Steni with informal place names

Despite living in the digital era, printed maps are still actively used and updated in ink with confidential information: Police officers, for instance, highlight zones of high crime risk. Fire fighters add information on hydrants, water sources, and vehicle access widths and heights. Hospitals mark addresses of their colleagues, so they can be urgently called and picked up if required. Medical staff also use printed maps to mark pandemic areas and trends: two years ago, they tracked measles cases, and now they are using them to record COVID-19 data. Our local partner commented after the last meeting: “Although we aim to become digitalized, we are still quite an offline country. People like to use traditional maps”.

The main landmark in the village of Steni, which has three informal names: “Little Chapel”, “Old Cross” and “Old Spruce”. The chances of it remaining the key reference point for the next generation are very high.

Introducing this map, we sparked a fascinating discussion with the emergency services. Here’s some of what we learned:

Making the map

  1. Someone has to take the initiative to add info to maps. In our case it was a local NGO – an advanced editor of OpenStreetMap.
  2. Informal place names cannot be added on the online platform – the map has to be downloaded, the information added manually, and then printed or shared online as a PDF file.
  3. The informal data should not violate the privacy (i.e. surnames of residents are often mentioned verbally but cannot be added to maps).
  4. The information does not need to be updated as frequent as we assumed – the memory of a bar that closed 30 years ago still lives in the minds of the residents.

Spreading the knowledge

  1. Provide easily accessible links to the map in PDF format on social media and websites, send the link to local authorities and emergency services directly (institutions don’t often share information between each other).
  2. Share a guide on how to adjust online map for printing on various paper formats – it’s not an easy task for beginners.
  3. Provide users with training on how to install the “OsmAndMaps” app, and download the relevant map so it can be used offline.

Other issues to consider

  1. Emergency service drivers are often on the phone to receive additional guidance from callers. Providing Bluetooth headsets to drivers would increase safety and cut response times.
  2. Local internet provides proved to be the best mappers of street names and house numbers – it is crucial for their job to identify addresses, and they even make street signs for free.
  3. Maps with informal place names are not so useful on night calls, when informal landmarks are hard to spot. Navigation at night is another topic of interest to explore.

This was an informative learning journey. We realized how important it is to have an easily available and readable map of your community. A good map can help you reach out to the most remote residents and encourages you to be a responsible neighbour.

Our experimental map can be downloaded via the following link. Guidance (in Ukrainian) on editing maps with informal place names is here, and help with printing is here (Inkatlas, MyOSMatic, OsmAnd).

Please share your comments and suggestions with us at acclab.ua@undp.org!