Category Archives: Uncategorised

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Job

We are looking for a ‘Sundance’ to my ‘Butch’, a ‘Robin’ to my ‘Batman’. Please read, share, and apply. This is an extremely exciting job which is literally about changing the world.

I have ended-up in Uganda, in charge of HOT’s operations here amongst the refugee settlements in the North. The local and international community are trying to crisis-map the facilities, amenities and community needs amongst the rapidly-growing south-sudanese refugee settlements, one of which, BidiBidi, is the biggest in the world.

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.


John Roberts Farewell

J.P Roberts

I found out today that John Roberts died. He left us last Thursday. Driving through Downtown Washington D.C. in the baking heat, I had just finished bartering a second-hand folding bike for my hand-restored boat. I know how to fix this broken bike. I had the confidence to learn how to fix the boat, too, and then teach myself navigation over five thouseand sea miles around the Carribbean. I am known as a technician. Generally, I’m sure I can learn. I am sure because of John.

John was my childhood friend. When the bullies were excluding me, when I wasn’t number one in class, John was there in his workshop next-door in the ‘Back Lane’ at home. He was more interested in why the clutch wouldn’t fit into the engine of the 1920s vintage car that the family still drove around. Why the TVO, needed to start his 1956 Fordson tractor, was so hard to mix these days, and which meccanno parts I needed for my latest child-engineering experiment. He was twenty years older than me, but remained, throughout my life, ageless. He and his dad, Uncle Phil, had a ‘train room’ in the top floor of their house filled with vintage toys, ‘00’ and ‘Tiple 0’ gauge model railways round the room, and masses of intricate antique meccano.

I was part of their family like I was part of my own. One of the earliest photos of my childhood has me standing in front of a big orange tractor wheel with a paintbrush in my hand, drippping orange onto the dust of the lane.

Later in life, John was to teach me to drive on that tractor, with its grinding gearbox and wrought-iron sprung seat. I was king of the world, and, at the ‘working weekends’ which John helped organise, run by the villagers and parish of Little Casterton, I was one of the only ones allowed to plough furrows alongside seasoned old-time Lincolnshire farmers, with their traction engines, cross-field cable reciprocating ploughs, and Massey and Internation lightweight harrow rigs.

In the barn the vicar would conduct an outdoor Harvest Festival service, and the W.I. (Womens Institute) would gather alongside the ladies and wives of the parish to serve tea, scones, and finest home-made Lincolnshire sausages, while the threshing machines belched and wobbled dust and steam outside, and the Spitfires and Lancasters flew overhead (Uncle Phil, ex-RAF engineer, had friends in (literally) high places, who would orchestrate a vintage fly-by for the event.)

There were roadmens’ sheds, towed at four miles an hour behind the traction engines, assembling from across the huge county of Lincolnshire and beyond, and Lister, Blackstones and Atkinson well-pumps, sometimes retreived as four-ton lumps of limescale from Collyweston slate pits underground Lovingly restored, they would run impossibly salick and silent in their huge cast-iron piston workings, one stroke/bang every four seconds. But ‘Steampunk’- like the american term for lorry ‘truck’ – was not a word in John’s vocabulary. I never once saw a flat-cap which was accompanied by a fancy moustache or skinny jeans at Casterton. It just didn’t happen. It wasn’t a secret society. Not at all. On the contrary, it was a free-for all for enthusiasts. Dogs were given water-bowls, we ate cakes and sausages, and there was no craft ale in sight. But it wasn’t digital. It was a yearly catch-up, and alongside the low-loaders and painted and polished ironwork, old farmers would lean on the idle ploughshares of their forefathers, kicking the mud off, putting the world to rights, and baring their souls quietly in the afternoon sun to eachother. John and Phil, Arthur Hinch, and the legendary Knight family, had put the event together lovingly for just this to happen, it seemed.

And I was always an honorary member. John taught me everything he knew, and as I started buying old cars of my own to restore, he would be just down the lane with tools and know-how, keeping a brotherly or paternal distance, and allowing me to make my own mistakes. Eventually, he had me panel-beat dents out of a fifties Fordson Dexter front-grill. ‘You’re the only one I would trust to do it right, Master Rupert’, was all I needed to realise that I was starting to be able to hold my own in a world of engineering experts. I had a long way to go, and looking back now, it seems I have come some of that way. ‘Things should be used’, was Uncle Phil’s motto which he passed down to first John, then me. ‘They shouldn’t be in museums, they should be getting dirty and dented in a field or on the road.’

The family continued to go on holiday in the long black 1924 Cottin Desgoutes Sedan they had. People would ask whether it was a Rolls Royce, whenever I had the privilege of being part of the passengers pulling-up at the roadside. It was the only one in the world, was what I knew. They had once found anothor, different model in Australia, and when they found a ‘Cottin’ entry in some old ‘Observer book of Motorcars’, it turned out to be their very car in the photo! An aluminium (unusual for 1922) body on an iron chassis.

Uncle Phil had rescued it from a scrapyard in the early 1950s, as I was inspired to do with my first three mini-vans (Austin and Morris mini, not BMW – perish the thought!) There was nothing wrong with it that a bit of ‘elbow grease’ couldn’t mend, according to him. Phil had replaced the engine with a WW2 ‘Lorry Engine’ in my early childhood, and the iconic vehicle had sat in their wooden garden shed-turned garage/workshop under covers until, finally, with high excitement, it was recommissioned. I was one of the first to ride in it. I was engaged in building a mechanno steam-car at the time, and Uncle Phil was helping me figure out the parrallel steering. I was eleven.

Somewhere around this time, I became ‘Master Rupert’, and John became ‘Mister John’. It was a transition between childhood and adulthood which we negotiated through comedy ranking. My sister Juliet became ‘Miss Juliet’, and ‘Master Bruce’ was my best friend and accomplice in all disaster-making, technical and otherwise. I think we had first decided that there was a military ranking, but this didn’t stick so well, although I still sometimes referred to him as ‘Field Marshall’. But John wasn’t any kind of class, rank, or superior person. There was no consciousness of this in him. Some of his best friends were old ladies who he diligently supported, gaining life wisdom, giving lifts, help, and entertainment to, and broadening, in lateral ways, his understanding of times gone-by, when his beloved machinery was in its heyday.

Stamford has a mid-lent fair. It is famous in its own right for being possibly the only town fair which has run continnuaously from the early middle ages until now without missing a year. As children, it was the highlight of our year. I went there as a kid, as a pubescent, and as an excruciated awkward teenager, looking for the girl of my dreams in the lights and whirling. But countless times – the most memorable ones – were spent walking down with John. We didn’t ever even see the stalls themselves, and what they were peddling, or the fun they were mechanising. John would make a beeline for the generators, power units, and lorrys which towed and powered the rigs. Atkinson, ERF, and Seddon, as well as Scammel and Ford populated his mind. But his one great love, apart fromn the buses and their history, of which he had a huge knowledge and massive collection, was the Foden lorry. Indeed ‘Foden’ was one of his last words, in the jumble of what must be the scariest hours in life.

We would pick our way through Gardner and Cummins power units – running sweetly and providing a livelihood for the showmen and their families year after year. Consumate professionals, clean engines, greased cogs, griease-smeared faces, tattered clothes. But when we would find a Foden, John’s eyes would light up and the stories and history would flow. He was a scholar on the subject, and the master of quite a few histories. But he never repeated himself. He knew what he had taught me, and I took pleasure in demonstrating that it had sunk in. He was an ambassador for technology, but he had a strong belief in people, and he knew, somehow, although he NEVER spoke about it, that we were all going to better place in the end.

And I used this knowledge too. I didn’t run away with the fair. It did occur to me, but instead, hitchiking around the UK and Europe in my teens and twenties, the lorry-drivers would be impressed that I knew their rigs, the challenges they were facing, the technical decisions they made to keep going. I would get dropped-off that extra mile down the road; they would get on their CB radios and organise another lift from the next truck-stop, ‘going my way’. I would even doss-down in the cargo once or twice, if I was in a pickle. The ‘journeyman’ life was something that stayed with me. Touring theatre shows, humanitarian relief-work, and international film work were all informed, for me, with the working best-practice which John instilled. Clean up after yourself. Leave things better-off than you found them…

John once joked to me: ‘the only bright lights in Stamford go like this: Red….Amber…Green…Amber…’ after I had returned from some foreign clime or big city. But John was one of my brightest lights in my life, and for others too. We are all continuously and forever indebted to him and his humble brilliance, approachability and wit, as well as his enthusiasm for life, improvisation, and people. He will be missed in many places, by people who he never heard of, but who have hopefully benefited through the work of people he inspired. I only hope that my work, which was so fundamentally inspired by him, has done him justice.

As well as me, his friends and his later-life love (after Foden lorries), his wife Leslie(!), John leaves behind him a 1948 Fordson Major, a 1924 Cottin Desgoutes Sedan, a 1972 Jaguar XJ6, my 1969 Morris Mini Van whose ownership we tag-teamed over two decades, and various other beautiful and unique objects, all of which he made sure went to good homes before he died.

For me, he leaves behind a lifetime legacy summed up by D.H. Lawrence in a poem I often quote:

Things men have made with wakened hands,

and put soft life into
are awake through years with transferred touch,

and go on glowing
for long years.

And for this reason, some old things are lovely
warm still with the life of

forgotten men who made them.”

One of John’s favourite voices was that of Sandy Denny, who can be heard singing a favourite tune HERE: FAREWELL

John certainly left me better-off than he found me. God-speed, Mister John. Mind how you go.

(All Photos Courtesy of ‘Master Bruce’ Charlier)

West Africa Motorcycle Mapping Project

I am getting very excited about revisiting the Diamond Country of Sierra Leone next week. Last year, the Missing Maps community in this area managed to map hundreds of communities’ vulnerabilities as part of a Red Cross/MSF collaborative project in the wake of Ebola.

In Kono District, updating the map by hand: a geo-located photo.

Now, we are mapping some specific community medical needs in Kailahun, and using the project to build a prototype system which we hope will be useful across the whole continent.

It depends, as do all of our projects, on the capacity to be self-sufficient and locally governed. Locally-sourced component parts which are to be found in most african communities are smartphones, motorcycles, people with local understanding, people who can improvise, people who can draw paper maps, people who understand community priorities. These are the hard and soft tools of this project. The community of mappers in Sierra Leone gets stronger and stronger by the month, it seems, and the mapping software is available to people in small rural locations, to edit on their own terms.

I am looking forward to a study of what these terms of reference are, and how people interact with the potential to put their presence on the World Map.

Missing Maps Nick, getting ready for our talk at the Code For Africa conference in Freetown last year.



DIY Solo House Restoration in Wales – The Hard Way

Often, when people visit my mountain cottage, with its thermal store, cast iron seat/radiators, double 1920s cooking ranges, and map-room, they exclaiim how they would love to ‘do up’ a derelict like I did.

I think about breaking several pickaxes whilst digging out the scores of tonnes of clay-shale necessary for making the house a sewage system, an say ‘I hated every minute’. They are often shocked.

But, here is a moment of calm contemplation which I just found in an old archive. A vignette of an ex-cavedweller:

Nettle Soup for an August Storm.

I have met only a few people who have lived in shacks, even less who have lived in caves. Of course, all of my African, Dominican, Tobagan, Cuban and Mexican friends are excepted from this rule. Having so many exceptions may have been the reason why, at the age of 27, I think it quite acceptable to be staring out of a cobweb-encrusted window into an overgrown summer garden, peering up for a rainbow’s promise that one day, all this would come together.

The roar of the 1950s primus stove obscuring the soundtrack, I have just read Fastnet Force 10, which has helped me to start expecting that August is a time for gales. Penniless, I have harvested the only two victuals yielded by the garden; delicious black gooseberries and vibrant juvenile nettles. Hoards of them. As the rain thrashes against the corrugated iron roof, I am boiling them down into a hearty summer soup.

Happy, for the moment.

My wet trousers are hanging from a hook which threatens to pull out of the ancient fibreboard wall-lining. They are soaked from my earlier foray down through the high meadow grass as I have gone out hunting for the greenest, healthiest nettle heads. A garden fork to trip over, a grassy hole to stumble into: the hole which I dig my ‘toilet’ into each time the bucket is full. An abandoned rake and a slippery sheet of corrugated tin lying on the floor. All these things have ambushed me on my way to the nettle bed, all of it soaked from the previous ‘shower’, with deceptively glittering droplets hanging tantalisingly from each lower edge. My garden is something I try to avoid most of the time. Every couple of months I blitz it with extreme prejudice in the form of a rusty scythe. Everything is a battle. A battle against the growth or a battle against the weather.