For the past year, a group of university students in Niger have spent most of their free time mapping their country using GPS technology. And in a country with very limited Internet access, creating a digital map is no little task.
The “Mapping for Niger” project was launched by Orsolya Jenei, from Hungary, who had previously worked on mapping projects in Chad. She won a grant from the Rising Voices Foundation in order to train geography students at Niamey University in digital mapping techniques. After several months of training – some of them started off with little computer skills – a dozen volunteers starting mapping towns all over the country.
Their maps go far beyond what’s available on paper maps or even Google Maps, with details that can only be discovered by going to these remote locations in person.
"We mark important buildings like schools, hospitals, etc"
Lots of countries in Africa are rapidly becoming digitally mapped. We wanted to get things started in Niger. Students in our group come from all around the country, so whenever we go home for vacations, some of us take GPS trackers – which we have four of – in order to map towns in our areas. This mainly includes geo-locating important buildings like schools, hospitals, etc. We also map roads – even though these show up on old-fashioned maps, we often find errors. While we’re there, we also take photos and interview the local population about various subjects like the economy, culture, or agricultural practices, so that we can write little articles later for our blog.
A volunteer getting the GPS coordinates for a dam in Tahoua.
So far we’ve gone to all seven regions of Niger, and mapped the capital, too. However there are some areas, for example near the border with Mali, that we would like to map, but can’t at the moment due to security problems.
The volunteer's first task was mapping their university in Niamey.
"It's a lot of work, because Internet connections here are very slow"
We upload all our information into OpenStreetMap, which is a global, collaborative map. It’s a lot of work, because Internet connections here are very slow, and there are frequent power cuts. Sometimes this makes us lose our work work and we have to start all over again. We only have one computer, and we each pitch in to pay the internet subscription, which costs 15,000 CFA per month (about 22 euros). But we’re happy with how much we’ve accomplished so far – all the students at our university is excited about our work! It makes them proud to see their towns on the map. Young people are increasingly using smartphones here, so I think the importance of mapping is quickly going to grow. And just think of the implications for the people of Niger if we were able to do things like map all of our country’s schools!
Volunteers getting ready to do some mapping.
We want to expand the project. We’ve had tons of applications from other students to join the team, so much so that we had to create an entrance exam. We’re prioritizing people who have some Internet skills and their own computers. But we also hope to find some funding so we can get more equipment.
For more examples of the team's work, check out the following maps: Niamey University, the city of Zinder, the village of Azerori, the city of Tahoua, or the town of Dosso.
"Mapping wells could reveal the distances rural dwellers have to walk to get water"
Before coming to Niger, I worked on the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team in Chad. The mapping we did there helped both the government and NGOs in many ways. They use it to get data on roads and buildings in remote areas, which weren’t marked on outdated maps. And digital mapping is being used with great results in many other countries in Africa too. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Doctors Without Borders is using it to local hospitals in remote areas.
While we’re just starting out and it’s a small, grassroots project, there could be many applications for digital mapping in Niger, too. Flooding is a big problem here, washing away many people’s homes every year. Creating maps of flooded areas would be a great way to help figure out who needs to be relocated. Mapping wells could also reveal the distances rural dwellers have to walk to get water, and help figure out ways to improve their access. What’s great about these maps is that you can also add more than just geographic data – with hospitals, for example, you can note whether there is an emergency room, whether it has electricity, when it is open… Potentially life-saving data.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Gaelle Faure (@gjfaure).