Like Information, Maps want to be Free [4]

Segbwema, Kailahun District, Sierra Leone
Tuesday, June 13, 2017—Dispatch 4

By Randy Thomas Jones


Friday afternoon, after our visit to the Nixon Memorial hospital, we hit the ground running again, getting some possible candidates for the positions of surveyors and drivers. The surveyors have to have a working Android phone that can take a GPS point. We get them to download the Open Data Kit app (ODK for short) and install it. Then they have to find a simple survey: “Surveyor’s Registration.” Name, address, phone number, GPS point. If they can do that, they are still in the field. Five of them are successful, though the group is salted with a couple of ringers.

Alberta and Stanley were both involved in mapping projects that happened following the Ebola outbreak in 2014. They know the ropes, and it is important to get them assisting with training and informal leadership. That provides a level of redundancy, the opportunity to refine instructions in the nuances of the local language, and provides aspirational models for the other new candidates. With us also, from Freetown, has been Richard Bockarie, a Sierra Leonean with a variety of relevant skills. He’s done mapping before as well, and even knows how to do some of the programming behind the scenes; he can be an asset to the project.

Along the way, I’ve again had the pleasure of learning from Ivan some of the history of computer programming. It isn’t directly relevant to the daily tasks of painstakingly asking for a receipt for every purchase, the obligatory defeat of dehydration that forces a stop to pick up bottled water, the endless need for a catlike agility to deal with simple unexpected circumstances, but it is good to know a little bit about the subject because it is an important thing philosophically for the project and our partners.

The argument is structured around perceptions of the value of information, technology, and programming. Early on, most people in computing thought that programming would be a part of computers that no one would pay for, and that the value was in the hardware. Later, it became apparent that the programming had economic value after all. But one of the early designers of computing wanted to buck the trend that was developing toward proprietary programming.

‘Free,’ yet ‘priceless’ maps, can save lives.

getting some shade
Arrival in a village, shade is both sought after and freely offered.

There was one strong ethic in the early computing development of free-wheeling creativity—if you want it, go ahead, make it up for yourself . . . and for everyone else as well. If someone adds to what you have done, fantastic, you will probably borrow something that they have made next week. It is a share and share-alike community. Along the way, the phrase “information wants to be free” emerged as a slogan.  Information wants to be free doesn’t mean free of charge, it means free to move, be utilized, be accessible. Here is where we loop back around to the value of humanitarian mapping. Maps, Ivan would say, also want to be free. They paradoxically get more valuable as time passes when they are available to use as a part of public infrastructure, especially when used as a foundation for the improvement of public health. “Free,” yet “priceless” maps, can save lives.

Returning from one of his MSF missions in 2013, Gayton was ready for a desk job in London, England. (He had also acquired a family by this point). The year was 2014. He walked to work with enthusiasm the first day and settled in looking for the same background base maps that he had seen in Haiti 4 years earlier. But by the end of the first week, he realized that there was no background maps like there had been in Haiti from the intense contribution made by the digital humanitarians of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team and Haitians living in the US. In most other areas, there is no strong expat group of diaspora who had taken up the task. The situation was unacceptable to Gayton, and after a little more cross checking, his suspicions were confirmed—the early seeds of a plan started forming. Let’s return later to that, and jump back to Sierra Leone where we are beginning to implement some of the ideas that started developing that day back in London.

It is only our second day on the ground in Segbwema, a town of perhaps a thousand people, but we must return to Kenema in our first attempt to deal with our technical problems. There is actually no electricity during the day, though the Nixon Hospital is able to light up the town in the evening because they have a field of solar panels. We pay extra for a generator, but somehow the fuel, much to my dismay, it doesn’t actually last until the promised 7:00 am, only until 5, when I happily awake ready for coffee that I can’t make because I have neither coffee nor hot water. During a later sojourn for supplies, I manage to find powdered instant coffee (typical in West Africa), and powdered milk. It is at the electrical equipment store, which is tracked down with the usual quick few referrals, that I come upon a plug in kettle. I also manage to secure my packets of instant Nescafé coffee.

We’re not at the electrical store for the kettle that I covet; we are in a rush to set up an independent power supply so that our high tech equipment will work. Happily, they have a battery Ivan is content with, and an inverter. The inverter is a 12V to 220V Alternating Current unit. When we do have power, we will be able to plug in and recharge the battery, (a 12 V 100 amp hour unit, which is twice the size of a car battery, that proclaims its ability to operate at 25 degrees Celsius). I think we will certainly be able to manage the temperature requirement here in tropical Sierra Leone, and when we don’t have power, in theory, we’ll be able to plug in phones and computers to recharge . . . to some degree, as it is said. They also offer us a solar panel, and it does cross my mind to enquire whether it would provide enough juice for my kettle, but my attention is quickly drawn towards the next step in our adventure.