Results from the Karonga Mapathon

I’m sure many of you who have done work in Africa have experienced the issue of arriving in an area armed with a map, only to see that the area is almost entirely beyond recognition to what it looked like on paper.

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Insight by 
Faith E Taylor
31 March 2016

It’s a common problem that an area that looks entirely desolate on a map might in reality be a bustling little village or town. Why is this? Well, many maps are out of date, many settlements are informal (and thus the government may actively avoid giving legitimacy to an area by putting it on the map), and many organisations that make maps do so for commercial purposes - so a small town in a developing country might not be a priority area.

This issue is a minor irritation for most, but imagine you are an emergency responder, shipped out to a town in the aftermath of a natural disaster, and it is your job to work out what has been damaged and who needs to go where. Or perhaps you’re a doctor, charged with setting up clinics to respond to a Cholera outbreak, and you look at the map and realise you have no idea where people actually live. These are real problems faced by groups such as the Red Cross and Medicins sans Frontieres. But things are changing – we are no longer limited to using static paper maps, or even digital maps created by others. In recent years, the open source mapping community has really taken off, and it is now possible for anyone with a computer to join the millions-strong community of mappers in contributing to Open Street Map. If you’ve not heard of Open Street Map, think Google Maps meets Wikipedia – it’s an online map, but anyone can add, edit and use the data for pretty much any purpose.

This community of open street mappers has been going for a decade now, and is becoming increasingly more organised and recognised as an important tool in responding to disaster events. Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, a network of around 600 people sat at their computers around the world, and collaboratively created the best base map of Haiti which was used by responders and local government. Fast forward to 2014, at the Humanitarian Open Street Map initiative has been founded, and around 1000 volunteers add roads and buildings to the base map of the Philippines before Typhoon Haiyan strikes. This concept of preparing and gathering information before a hazard event occurs fits in nicely with the resilience paradigm – and certainly one could argue that putting vulnerable people and places on the map may have all sorts of social and economic benefits in addition to disaster preparedness. This is where the Missing Maps project comes in – their aim is to put the most vulnerable places in the developing world on the map, and develop communities mapping skills.

So, armed with our laptops and a small budget for pizza (this, I hear is an extremely important fuel for mappers!), PhD student Michele Ferretti and I organised a Missing Maps Mapathon. This is where members of the public meet up and work together on a specific mapping task. In this case, we worked on the Urban ARK case study town of Karonga in Malawi.

Karonga is susceptible to many types of hazards (earthquakes, floods, extreme weather, WASH) and is also growing in population at quite a considerable rate. But in most maps, Karonga looks little more than a couple of crossroads. This is particularly challenging for the work we are doing in Urban ARK work package 2 that looks at spatially modelling the impact of hazards on infrastructure networks. We know the infrastructure such as roads, buildings and power is there, but we do not have freely available maps to do our modelling!

We were delighted to welcome around 40 students, staff, NGO workers and members of the public to our mapathon, which took place on Monday 21st March. Although we didn’t complete the task, you can see from the before and after map that we have really added a lot of useful information, which can now also be used by our research counterparts at Mzuzu university who are working on WP1.

For those of you interested in GIS, Michele has an excellent blog post explaining some of the ins-and-outs of running a mapathon and the GIS data. Following the success of this activity, we plan to arrange further mapathons to add richness to the maps for other Urban ARK towns and cities. Until then, you can try Open Street Mapping yourself, and help complete our Karonga task, by visiting the Humanitarian Open Street Map tasking manager website. Happy mapping!

About the author

Faith Taylor is a physical geographer with interests in geographic information systems (GIS), spatial modelling, statistics and natural hazards. She is a Lecturer in Physical Geography in the Department of Geography.

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