Category Archives: Mapping

OpenStreetMap: OpenStreetMap is the ‘wiki-map’ which is jointly-owned by the people of the world. It depends on the digital revolution to empower people within their own communities to take control of how they are represented, mapped, and seen by the outside world. The project finds its heart not in the technology or tools it uses, or commercially interested organisations backing it, but in the Open Street Map itself, the publicly owned wiki-style platform, accessible to anyone via Smartphone or Computer, to edit, use or develop.

It is a transparent, cost-neutral project by which donors can engage and collaborate with their field counterparts, giving time rather than money to support the production of commonly owned visualisations from satellite and field data. This enables the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the form of engineering, medical, and cultural intervention, in areas generally considered ‘inaccessible’ and ‘precarious’.

Potentially, it changes everything.

‘Modalities of United Statelessness’ Chapter 9 Abstract:

Book Launch: Monday, 14th September, 2020, Mapping Crisis: Participation, Datafication and Humanitarianism in the Age of Digital Mapping.

To safeguard human lives quickly and effectively in humanitarian disasters, OpenStreetMapping (OSM) interventions generate life-saving maps whilst placing the governance and authorship of the field data into the hands of the communities where it originated. 

Institutional data often does not exist in resource poor settings, and even where it does, hyper-local ‘expertise’ of citizen-generated data has an argued advantage of ‘trustworthiness’ over this more formal top-down information.  (Muttaqien, Ostermann, Lemmens: 2018

Although OSM may hold the dynamic potential to radically connect the physical with the digital, linking ‘situated knowledge’ in communities (the ‘specific’) with humanitarian overviews (the ‘universal’), this does not justify the indiscriminate mapping of ‘every corner of Africa’ simply for its own sake.

Exaggerated trust in new technology, too, can sometimes turn out to be dangerously ‘techno-colonial’, and actually detrimental to the safeguarding of human life. Where useful interventional maps depend on well-chosen words, often simpler and more lo-fi solutions have a more measurable impact. 

Digitally-enabled mobile infrastructures can now prove highly resilient, refuting traditional assumptions linking mobility with ‘disadvantage’. Across cultures, demonstrations of chosen itinerance are beginning to query ‘digital realism’, imposing plural ontologies of ‘place’, re-visiting traditions of ‘language-code’ in which technology manifests as ‘taxonomy’. In this, ideas of ‘locale’ emerge more as process than place.

This chapter draws upon experiences of refugee-mapping using ‘local knowledge, local people, and local tech’, and on attempts to convey data in a way that universally translates. It will use field-derived perspectives to debate the multiple narratives which OSM mapping (and OpenDataKit tooling) enables.

Mapping Crisis book launch

Mapping Crisis: Participation, Datafication and Humanitarianism in the Age of Digital Mapping (University of London/Chicago Press, Human Rights Consortium) Editor: Doug Specht.

Who knew that a book about personal data ethics, track and trace, government handling of life-saving disaster mapping data would become so topical? 

Deo coaching new OSM members taken from surrounding neighbourhoods

My contribution is the final chapter, ‘Modalities of United Statelessness’: about bottom-up, ‘hyper-local’, community-owned motorcycle-mapping data in Uganda’s ongoing refugee crisis. Local Ugandans and international refugees together ‘wiki-mapped’ disease outbreak and social protection data, in the Congolese/South Sudanese refugee settlement areas. 

As members of the Ugandan Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, they adopted OpenStreetMap usernames. Then, using their own android phones, created a trailblazing resource of life-saving health, food, and water map data, now broadly used by UN, NGO, and Government emergency and development coordinators. 

Humanitarians being part of ‘the solution’, rather than part of ‘the problem’. 

Live Map Data
Live Map Data (Credit: Kobo Toolbox/Kobo Collect)

I argue  this valuable ‘Data Preparedness’ to be a solution to many pandemic issues, and this view seems borne out by Uganda’s excellent COVID-19 record to date.

Chapter Abstract Here: Modalities of United Statelessness

I’d love if it got way beyond just academic community, as scholarship on the politics of representation and contemporary humanitarian ethics is scant, but really really important. 

I liked this bit of the blurb, finding it particularly topical for the current times:

‘….Some have argued that representation has diminished in humanitarian crises as people are increasingly reduced to data points. In turn, this data has become ever more difficult to analyse without vast computing power, leading to a dependency on the old colonial powers to refine the data collected from people in crisis, before selling it back to them.’

Book also available through Open Access.

Hurricane Irma Call to Action

Hurricane Irma Clean-Up

To all those with time and willingness to come down to Florida but wondering, as I did, how to be part of the solution rather than the problem, I thought it might be useful to write a few words.

I watched the weather avidly as I was flying into the northern US as Irma was bearing-down on the Florida Keys. It was weird to attend a disaster mapathon at OSM Canada, and hear people discussing buildings and features of my beloved Boot Key Harbour. Live-aboard lfe in the Keys is another part of my life, which seemed remote from my work in Africa, and it was eerie to think of places like Sister Creek and Big Pine Island as disaster zones to be mapped.

Community Mapping Florida Keys Disaster Zone – Screenshot from a Mapathon

I thought I should come down self-contained, and knew, in fact, that I might be more useful within the local communnity, rather than as part of an NGO relief intervention which might, or might not, reach the communities who really needed it. But how to have a low personal impact? I miss the Keys, and was concerned for the place – so devastated by the 1932 hurricane – and my friends. Since arriving, I have discovered that not one of my friends did not lose their home. Some have found them again, washed up damaged, impossibly high in the mangroves or well inland. Many have never seen their boat/home since the storm, and now don’t really expect to ever find it. None of it was due to their bad seamanship and preparation. There is a hint that some people were unprepared. One boat with the sails left on, or badly lashed-down, can wreak havoc as it hurtles through moorings and anchorages, taking well-secured boats with it. There are huge efforts going-on to raise not only boats, but houses, too, from the sea-floor. Huge inflatable bags are pumped full of air down below, slowly bringing these structures to the surface where they can be floated into shallower waters.

Boats lost and broken in the harbour and out to sea.


How could I be effective, if people didn’t know my skills already? I hired a car. Boat-people are often short on cars. I shopped for enough food and water to be self-sufficient, and a sleeping bag; I could sleep in the car. I got in touch with a few boat-folk on facebook, and finally got the message back that there was a job for me, helping with supply. So I came.

The way down USA Route 1 and the Overseas Highway was littered with evidence of the storm, from Miami down the next two hundred miles or so. A friend, Diana, had hooked up with a church community. I made a beeline for here, and on the way another friend, Charles, got in touch, saying there was another place to stay. Nobody needs food or water. Not really even building materials. The Government and Non-Government agencies have showered the Keys with these. But they do need helping hands. People. Possibly more in the coming weeks, as the focus turns from Keys Recovery efforts to other current crisis elsewhere. Willing hands are needed. Easy-going people who can lend a hand and are accustomed to putting themselves to work are very-much still needed.

Many of the still-working hostelries are taken-up with FEMA workers and other charity groups. But it was initially unclear to me whether I could help. At the church, the main body of work is led, unsurprisingly, by sailors. Sailors live much of their time in crisis, and know how to focus on the important practical things. I spent the first two or three hours here clearing out an old thrift store which had lost some of its roof. Mould climbs the walls very quickly here. The water-logged carpet squelched as I moved around it, pulling out masses of heavy filing cabinets, stacks of sodden paperwork and waterlogged cheap office furniture. It was straightforward but not glamorous work. Perfect. Yesterday, I went with another volunteer to tarp-over a roof with nails and duct-tape on a parishioner’s house which again had lost some of its roof. It was windy with another small storm, but we worked in the sun and gusts to get the tarp nailed down.

Business as Usual

Today has been reconstructing docks, clearing a crumpled mass of metal sheet which was once a shed, some tree surgery too. There are a couple of places to stay in the church hall. But these people can’t afford to offer accommodation until they know how effective somebody will be. They are refugees themselves.


Out in the Gulf

However, I had my car, and never needed it yet. The community spirit of the Keys couldn’t be stronger. ‘Welcome Home, Keys Strong’ was the message sprayed onto a plywood sheet as I crossed into Key Largo from the Mainland. Everybody is gathered, Florida-style, in shelter, around a big table, passing round rum and moonshine, and disappearing periodically to attend to a fallen tree, a smashed house, or a boat-recovery project. Hot showers are not a feature. But they don’t need to be. The main tasks are clearing and cleaning masses of foliage and household junk. The waste is phenomenal. But it is imperative to get dirty broken things away from living-space. For health reasons. A Northern hemisphere society accumulates material incessantly, and when this becomes detritus, it becomes hazardous very quickly. The Live-aboard community are the exception, and most treat the loss of their usually ininsured home – their boat – with a readily philosophical outlook. ‘The ocean gives, and the ocean takes away’. But they can inventorise every single item on their boat if pushed. One of everything. Many are living proof of William Blake’s maxim that ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’. But that excess is an excess of life-experience. They are life-rich, material-poor.

Getting intimate

For many land-lubbers (‘dirt-dwellers’), this is a surreal new world of community contact and co-operation. For many a boat-dweller, this is just another big storm. The waves will keep coming, the trade-wind will keep blowing, and the days will pass. It is not 1932. Please get in touch with me if you need any guidance or opinions on how to be most effective. Organisation, construction, manual and legal skills are needed.

There are two other boats under the one visible…

The houseboat may have brought some boats with it onto the shoals

Waterworld: A diver retrieves a lifetime of personal belongings. A dinghy stands guard over the compressor lifeline.


Without Frontiers in Border Country

‘Kondewakoro…’. I say it out-loud without meaning to. The young lad responds in Krio. Ahmet translates, although I’m starting to understand Krio. It is what I thought:
‘He says still three hours. 16 kilometers.’
We don’t have time. We have to turn back, but if I’ve got it wrong, there will be nowhere to stay back where we came from either.

Kondewakoro is a border village in the far reaches of the Toli Chiefdom of Kono District, Sierra Leone. AKA ‘Diamond Country’. On OpenStreetMap, the only map of this corner of Africa, the road we are on shows as a decently defined yellow line. In England or Wales, it would be a tarmacced trunk road. We are not on tarmac, though. No, these roads, for all their ancient status, are not even really roads, more determined cuts through the bush.

The Guinea Highway

I am attempting to track down Sulaiman Charles, the teacher, but am wondering if this is a wild goose-chase all these hours down this bush track in ‘Zulu One-Five’, our trusty and iconic MSF Landcruiser. Getting battered about hour after hour, rock after rock, river after river. I have learned to trust Ahmet’s driving through these unlikely passages. I made an arrangement with Sulaiman to meet on the road to Kondewakoro over a broken phone conversation more than six hours ago. Sulaiman is an energetic spokesperson, a brilliant teacher with presence and vigour. He is one of my Field Team Leaders, in charge of six Sierra Leone Red Cross volunteers who are methodically surveying the missing, mis-named, and un-represented villages of the border region for the Post-Ebola Community Rebuild project. Spearheaded by Missing Maps (American Red Cross, MSF, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap), it is a fundamental vulnerability assessment of at-risk areas where epidemics and natural disasters can run and spread for weeks un-checked.

Working the Map (Sulaiman’s Chiefdoms)

We are here to correct the map, or more accurately, to leave the capacity for the inhabitants of Toli to map themselves. We have trained four other team leaders like Sulaiman – the best and brightest that the national border regions have to offer. We have also been training a cohort of supervised volunteers. Trained them in the classroom. But this is the bush. And now it is a question of finding them, as they map what can’t be mapped, and we, hampered by the very resistance factors which have prohibited this mapping for so long, are trying to support.
Volunteers Putting the Health Centres on the Map in Koinadugu District, aka ‘The Land of the Powerful Mixture’

In another chiefdom in the North I came across a border crossing into Guinea made of rickety palm-wood bars. I was reluctant to ‘snap’ the sleepy photogenic border-guard in his vest, standing under the words ‘Immigration’ pencilled on the flaking cement above the’office’ doorway. Things can escalate easily here. There are strict security protocols, and the sensitivity of this ‘porous’ borderland domain dictates that we follow strict MSF radio-contact schedules. We are in two-hourly contact with the radio-room in Freetown. A day away. Now, I would like to meet Sulaiman at the border, but we have a lot of ground to cover, and a six o’clock travel curfew to observe. This is no-man’s land. I am aware of the need for caution.

And here we are with this young biker now, deep in the forest, on the way to Kondewakoro. His chinese-built 125cc road bike has toppled, as he has tried to come up the impossible rocky slope which we, somehow, are attempting to go down. He is laden with six large jerry cans of cow milk, but amazingly there has been no spillage, and we help him re-tie the load. The motorbike is low on its suspension, and the sweating rider is using all his bush-riding skills to snake the bike between the rocks, load and all. But where is Sulaiman? I note that he is young. Young enough to have recently been in school. As we help him get going again, I have a last-minute thought – he might know Sulaiman.

‘Red Cross Motorbike. Sulaiman the teacher. Have you seen him this way?’
How to Load a Motorbike

Imperceptibly he nods, and says something. Ahmet interprets a Krio mutter and throw of the head.
‘He is here. Up ahead.’ A huge grin. Somewhere, down these rocks, through the next river, we will find him. Ahmet is visibly relieved. I knew I could trust Sulaiman, my ‘brother from another mother’, he has called me in the training sessions. But I’m relieved too.
‘…and is there another road?’ No. No other road. This is the only way to Kondewakoro. We get back into the Landcruiser which flops down the track between the boulders. It doesn’t feel possible yet, but we have somewhere to stay tonight. One hour to go until curfew. No turning back, but now it is certain that we will find him.

And ten minutes later we literally almost run-over Sulaiman on his motorbike. Komba, the isolated volunteer tasked with this spur of the project is interviewing the Village Chief in a clearing. It turns out Komba is a star surveyor, with an amazing grasp of the job in hand. It is difficult to deliver the detailed survey, with its questions about water availability, its carefully crafted cross-referencing of Sanitation and Disease questions, road conditions and Healthcare access. But it has been worth coming to see how it is done properly.

Missing Maps Field Consultation: Wiring Motorbikes to Charge Phones

There has been a ‘Loma’ Market here today. It has been a hive of activity. As I look around this village, seemingly thriving in its own right, I can’t help wondering how on earth some of this actual concrete came to be here, given the impossible nature of the only road in. It will be a long time before these villages have convincing vehicular access, despite the fact that they are located on this footpath they call ‘The Guinea Highway’. This track, for better or worse, protects this village in some way, from invasion, but at the same time makes it vulnerable to a changing world around it.


As we photograph wells and water sources, with different surveys, the bigger picture which emerges is the sparsity of consistent water, and the dangerous propensity of water-contamination at source. Villages look well-ordered sometimes, but once surveys start to show exactly how many people actually use the water-sources, how often they dry-up, and how close to latrines (another resource we survey) they can be, the data starts to tell another story; desperate need and hard-boiled living in this disowned and precarious border area. I later geo-photograph two pumps in Kpetema – an ‘India MkII’ and a ‘Bush’ Pump. Neither of them dries up in dry season, which makes Kpetema regionally important. We have come across several villages where women are washing in the ford we are crossing, and children carry water from the same river up the hill for drinking.


These communities are susceptible to so much disease from so many quarters. When disaster occurs, their location needs to be traced. Whatever way the locals want it, it needs a name – particularly when some desperate community mobilisation team in the capital receive a dying patient and are trying to pinpoint the place they came from. Local names are important. Geo-tags are critical. Terror spreads as fast as the epidemic itself in these communities, and there are many instances of death resulting from panic as well as actual disease. The enemy is the unknown.


It is the end of the day now, and gaving gathered for council on wooden benches, and sat through typically long-winded introductions with Mami-Queen and Chief, solemn nods were closely followed by furious handshakes (post-Ebola protocol thankfully now permits careful physical contact) and gentle curiosity. Part of the meeting ritual involved the explanation of the corrected name of this village. It moved because of forest fires decades ago, so what I have on my OpenStreetMap, ‘Kekeya’, compiled from old military or colonial data, needs adjusting and renaming. The Chief and the Youth Leader peered curiously over my shoulder as I renamed the village on my phone screen. Approving grunts at me spelling-out the proper village name give way to open-faced enthusiasm and laughing recognition of Chiefdoms and Sub-Chiefdoms so carefully researched by our team and now so available on our own ARC-developed OpenMapKit App.

Screenshot with my GPS tracks from OpenStreetMap on Android – The Everyman SatNav.

It has already been established that I am the evangelist in my team, and the people here, perhaps more than a proprietary-thinking western audience, get the publicly owned ethos of our OPEN StreetMap. Our data tools are not concerned with this one-time survey event. Our tools are what you could call ‘culturally scaleable’. They can be used by anyone who understands them, anyone with an android phone, and what we are fundamentally here to do is to spread the word. ‘Communities, map yourselves, on your own terms, [Arguably] before you become mapped by outsiders…’, is our message. This is the OpenSource Global Digital Revolution which can empower the marginalised across cultures.

And now the dim shape of the Landcruiser looms in the gloaming as I look out into the village from the Out-Patient’s waiting bench. Night is falling. Ahmet, my driver, is preparing the Landcruiser for the night. The sound of crickets and other forest insects almost drowns out the quiet african consonants being murmurred over food amongst the houses across the track. The cool crescent of the moon is a welcome sight beckoning the forest woodsmoke to rise and meet it. In another part of africa it has celestial pageantry which I know. I wonder, through the dusk, how they read the stars here. The old navigation envisaged by the new.


I shall sleep in the mud-built health outpost tonight. The nurse cooks under the palm kitchen roof, and I am sitting, fresh-washed and waiting for what will turn out to be a huge bowl of sweet rice and yoghurt. The pot is simmering on the fire already, gently steaming. I have done ‘Community Entry’. There are rules with village contact here, and society dictates that strangers initially approach the Chief. The performance of this tradition goes back in time, reflecting how outsiders have always been received into these isolated communities.


Later-on I lie under the mosquito net thinking. So: the terrain was too tough for even Zulu One-Five to make it to the border by curfew. Kondewakoro will wait for another time. But it is good to be here, and to have made contact with surveyors on their home territory. Despite the magic of mobile phone network when it is available, Sulaiman has made sure messages are sent through the traditional channels of communication (although drums here, it seems, are a thing of the past). Much as I trust the message of the digital innovation we have come to live by in the west, I know that tomorrow I will meet with Alice and Daniel for motorbike charging instruction and mapping survey technique and evaluation. Without fail.

The comforting village noises have given way to evocative night bush noises, and I drift off to sleep wondering who it was that first surveyed this village all those decades ago…