Two and a half years in Africa, Part 1

Conducting a training exercise

Africa is undergoing a technological revolution as the spread of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) increasingly impacts the world’s least developed continent. From the dramatic role of social media in the rebellions of North Africa, to the (so far) more subtle impact of cell-phones, mobile-money and cheap GPS south of the Sahara, fundamental changes are afoot. Over the past two years and a half years, I have worked on concrete, on-the-ground projects across East Africa, leveraging these new technologies to support the development of marginalized communities. This is the first in a series of blog posts describing that experience of working in the field of ICT in Africa and my two year involvement at Map Kibera Trust, which ended a month and a half ago.

I came to Africa in 2009 seeking new challenges and to gain an understanding of how ICT can contribute to economic and political development. In Kenya, I started as a freelance-mapper supporting local NGOs, drawing on my skills as a geodetic engineer and work experience at various private and public sector institutions in Europe. The story of my involvement in Wongonyi is well documented in this blog entry.

When I returned to Nairobi I started volunteering at Map Kibera, a project whose aim was to map Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa and to introduce OpenStreetMap, a collaborative mapping project that creates and provides free geographic data and mapping to anyone who wants it. In my two years with Map Kibera, and also under my supervision, the project expanded to many other areas of Kenya, and became an official organization – Map Kibera Trust. I was more or less unfamiliar with OpenStreetMap and was in the beginning learning as much as the participants who were all volunteers from different parts of Kibera and were selected for the purpose of data collection.

During the first couple of months, I was responsible for creating a variety of printed maps. Data for the maps was collected by the participants of the program and exported from OpenStreetMap. The maps focused on different themes, mainly Health, Education, Security, Water and Sanitation. These maps were very basic and often had to be produced over night to be further used the next day at community consultations or drawing/paper mapping exercises. The main idea behind paper mapping was to collect qualitative data, such as stories about particular issues, to enrich the maps with community residents’ narratives. I advised on the color scheme and the type of questions asked at the community consultations. The color scheme was important to differentiate between the types of questions asked, and consequently the types of data collected from these questions, such as the stories behind the issues, residents’ movement patterns, dangerous areas, etc. See this blog post for more on the significance of the color scheme. The main aim of these community meetings was to create a detailed security map, in particular focusing on girls security. For this map, I compiled, digitized and merged the quantitative (GPS) data with the qualitative (interviews) data to produce the most detailed security map of Kibera (see below).

Security map of Kibera

As the thematic mapping of Kibera’s amenities came to an end, I started another mapping venture. Kenya was holding a referendum on a proposed new constitution, and I traveled to Mount Elgon as a National Democratic Institute (NDI) consultant to map all the areas polling stations. The new constitution was overwhelming favored by Kenyans, and was enacted on 27 August 2010. This was a great historic moment for the country; it marked the end of a twenty-year struggle for reforms, and it initiated a new relationship between the Kenyan government and its citizens. In its election monitoring work, NDI needed information such as the geographic location of polling stations, their accessibility (e.g., could people reach them easily and quickly? how readily available was mobile phone service at each of the stations? what was their infrastructure?). In recent years, elections in Kenya have been cause for violence and fragmentation. The country has had serious institutional problems which makes it hard for the elections to be completed smoothly. The new constitution was expected to improve the election process, particular with regard to efficiency and transparency. It was hoped that mapping of polling stations in remote areas such as Mount Elgon (also a hot spot for violence during past years) would help the NDI – and as a result the Kenyan government – understand and address the problem of accessibility in rural areas. I had to design the entire mapping project, which covered a vast area, from scratch. This included coming up with a reasonable timeline, estimating (almost on a hunch) the amount of funds needed, planning day-to-day logistics, organizing operations, managing teams, and networking in the community. This experience, together with the Wongonyi experience I discuss elsewhere, was the inspiration for my first blog post: Steps into mapping the unmapped – Mapping on Mount Elgon.

Shortly after I returned from Mount Elgon, I journeyed to Diani Beach in Kwale County, where – with my colleague, Jamie Lundine – I co-lead the training of Plan International‘s senior management and staff members and youths from Kwale. An important partnership between Plan International and Map Kibera Trust emerged from this training. Plan was interested in the potential utility of Information Communication Technologies in their work throughout Kenya. I will write more about the mapping in Kwale and the relationship with Plan International in future blog posts.

This was a period of traveling for me. A few weeks after the Kwale training, I traveled to Swaziland as an UNICEF consultant on the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey programme (MICS). The purpose of MICS was to collect data on the situation of women and children in the country. My task was to help with the design of a training manual and train MICS surveyors on GPS data collection to enhance the quality of data with geographic locations, for the purpose of spatial analysis. I traveled all over this small but beautiful country, accompanying the surveyors to the field in order to help them solve any immediate problems and offer on-the-ground support.

MICS Surveyors

The interest in OSM and the work we were doing grew throughout this time, and I both led and assisted with training exercises in Diani beach, Karura forest, Mukuru, Mathare, Kwale, International Livestock Research Institute. Approximately in August 2010 ended the first, eight-month long phase of my engagement with ICT in Africa and the start of more comprehensive involvement with Map Kibera, from mapping remote rural areas to mapping crowded and hectic urban centers, training people in participatory GIS, GPS data collection, OpenStreetMap, to speaking in front of hundreds of people, working with government representatives, NGO’s and communities, creating mapping outputs, and initiating new ideas. I learned a lot during the first months in Kenya but felt I could do even more, which is why I was thrilled to receive the opportunity to lead and design Map Kibera Trust’s programs. In this role, I could incorporate my own visions and ideas into different initiatives, and work with various stakeholders. My next blog post (Two and a Half Years in Africa, Part 2) will detail these experiences.


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