Recollections from before the rains…Data Ache in the Borderlands

It’s still red-dusty, but finally cool when I open my eyes. The horns are beeping in the street outside. The town is getting back to business after the holiday. The Paramount Chief’s funeral stopped all work on friday. But the fan has stopped. The generator must have run out of fuel – probably around dawn, I suppose.

What a comfortable bed. We did not holiday yesterday. In fact we worked the whole weekend. And one of the products is this room I am staying in. I carefully pull the bednet out from under the mattress so as not to tear it. A blue decorative net. There are burns and stain on the simple ‘sepia’ african furniture. Everything I look at is monochrome. Even the bars welded onto the window (ex-concrete reinforcement bars) are painted in this cream. And the red dust of the forest adds accents, despite the obvious scrubbing the three sons have been doing since our recce on Friday. I was going to move into this ‘proper african hostelry’, as I have called it, on Saturday. We had found it through the grapevine, and visited to cut a deal. We were led into the big open downstairs cooking area – pots on charcoal on the floor, stools and cauldrons around in the mud floor of the courtyard. I had insisted on seeing the generator, to judge the veracity of ‘24 hour electricity’. Then upstairs a series of tiles concrete corridors led into rooms and balconied common spaces, with shutters against the west african heat. Echoing tiled floors. The bed I am still lying on is enough to sleep a family on. Massive. Shabby. Clean Comfortable. Like the hostel. They had to close this place during Ebola. We are their first significant customers since.

I’m tired from yesterday’s long ride into the bush. Last saturday, Ivan had been monitoring our mapping surveys as they arrived at the server from the pillion seats of motorcycles surveying the borderlands. The Africell network sends the surveys from the african bush direct to some  cupboard in a back room in a New York high-rise. Data. And now, in Dakkar, Senegal, it wasn’t making sense.

‘Gentlemen, we have a problem.’ came the WhatsApp message, just as I settled down to a longed-for cold beer at the end of a relentless week. One of our mappers was submitting bad data. Ivan had clocked it in one village. Wrong name, wrong area. But if this was the case, this surveyor could have been getting it all wrong for weeks. It is hard enough to get to these villages once, let alone for one of us to go around double-checking more than the ‘ten percent’ quality control checking we do. But without quality, our project is useless. Just another incomplete mapping attempt. This is what makes us different from ‘top-down’ mapping projects. We are comprehensive and exhaustive. So we can get around the problem that lack of complete data can mean all the data is useless in a set. People are actually inputting their own neighbourhood data, from the field, via their smartphones. The surveyors are from these very neighbourhoods. Our data is meant to be the best.

But here was the problem: somehow, the wrong names were being attributed to villages. A cross-reference to another surveyor had been made. The only way to way to deal with it properly was to find out which surveyor was correct by doing a survey myself, on-site. So yesterday, during holiday, I had got on a motorbike out into the border sections where this problem had occurred. It was a rough day, and we lost a surveyor whilst we consider re-training him.


Photo: Rupert Allan
Lifting Motorcycles through Blocked Roads

It was a tough day. The roads make biking exhausting. Especially pillion. For five hours on a 125cc motorbike down bush tracks. There is seldom a helmet, and the roads are spine-compressing. In the afternoon, I was feeling nauseous, and worried that I had what Randy had last week – Malaria. The week had included extracting him from the isolated hill town of Baama, whilst keeping the mapper-training going. So a painkiller and some doxycycline and a big bowl of groundnut soup with meat had just made me start feeling better when the ‘data-ache’ news came through.

As I start to wake up properly, I remember today’s new issue starting to rear its head: the surveyors in the north are not uploading any data at all! Why not? Three days without uploading. The money we have for this is from Ivan’s savings. If we don’t get data, and it is lost or seriously wrong, the project will fold. It is critical that we get it right for this pilot, so that we can try to get financial support for the next stage.

And this is what I will deal with today. Wish me luck. But first, I must pay the Mama of the hostel. And get out into that insistent-sounding Sierra Leonean street…


A truck sheds its load on the main North-South road, blocking the arterial route for all but motorcycles, when an over-ambitious HiLux tries to pass…

Photo: Rupert Allan



Making History

Kenema City, Sierra Leone
July 26, 2017

By Richard Bockarie—Computing

I am Richard Bockarie, born in Sierra Leone, and holder of a Bachelors Degree (Honours) in Computer Science from Njala University, Freetown [2013]. I have much field experience on data projects in Africa. In Ghana, I was involved in a project that involved citywide profiling of informal settlements in Accra in 2014. In Liberia, in 2015, I trained 50 surveyors to profile the West Point and Slip Way settlements in Monrovia city. Also in 2015, I attended a data forum program in Kenya. Here we developed tools for Slum Dwellers International. In 2016, I launched a citywide profile of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.

I’m currently working with the WAMM2017 project, supporting with computing and QGIS. For the past four years, I have worked in several African countries, implementing projects. With all my experience, working with WAMM has been exceptional. The WAMM project is not just research work to be kept in the cabinet, but it is aimed at saving lives. I’ve witnessed the data used at hospital levels.

Ivan Gayton’s initiative is really good, because getting up to date data in Sierra Leone is a problem; particularly where it has to do with provinces. That was one factor that led to the Ebola virus going out of control, and contact tracing was very difficult.

I decided to work on this project not just for financial gains, but because I believe this is what we lack as a country. In my opinion we are making history. The people of Kenema and Kailahun District will always be indebted to Ivan and all others who make this project a success.

I also hope this project can be extended to the entire country.



The Whole of West Africa

Kenema City, Kenema District, Sierra Leone
Friday, July 21, 2017

by Stanley Bockarie


Crew Leader – Stanley Bockarie

I am Brima Stanley Bockarie, people can call me Stanley; I am a native of Kenema city in South Eastern Sierra Leone. After I had field experience working for MSF as in Security and as a Labour Supervisor, I learned about GPS surveying in a position for a project by Unicef and Kenema city council. In 2014-15, during the Ebola crisis, I met Ivan Gayton when he was stationed in Magburuka in Tonkolili District. MSF sponsored some surveying and I was left with supervising over ten teams of surveyors, handling the payroll, the route management—everything.

Honestly, I think this project is very good, and history making. We go to the people’s own village, and ask them about it to put them on the map. When you go into a village, the first thing is that people want to know is, “Why are you in our village?” They won’t say anything without the Chief at first, but either way, you have to explain about the project, and if you can find the Chief, get informed consent. Sometimes the Chief might not be available, and then you have to explain that a person who knows about the village can also answer the questions, and how the project will help Sierra Leone.

The other residents of the village will also help give the information. Everyone will help out to get the proper information. They are happy to know that they will be on the map. When you start doing the survey, people gather around—the women, the children, the Elders. Sometimes there is someone among them who is educated. It could be the Speaker of the village for example. The Speaker is a person who speaks for the village, and who defends the village. The Speaker is a representative for the village, but it is only the Chief who takes decisions about the village. The Speaker can only communicate information approved by the Chief. The Speaker works under that mandate.

During the survey, I make sure to show people the spelling of the names on my phone, especially the name of the village, which is our top priority. People will be helpful. It is not only a sense of pride to be on the map, but villagers understand that there is a connection between being recognized and seen, and ultimately to be recognized by the world and included in future projects instead of being left out and unnoticed.

This survey is more difficult than the work in Magburuka, because I was more of a planner. This time I am leading by being out in the Field as a surveyor myself as well. It is important to me to set the best example for my team. Sometimes I have to be very strong in training them and to keep pushing to get the standard higher for the surveys to be completed properly. I want the surveying to be a continuous process—new villages actually come into being, and somehow that needs to be checked regularly. In my heart, not only do I want the rest of Sierra Leone to be finished completely if we can get funding, but if possible, in the whole of West Africa.

Working for Humanity

Kenema City, Kenema District, Sierra Leone
Friday, July 21, 2017

by Alberta Watta Abu

PHUs (Primary Health Units) in Gorama Mende and Wondor Chiefdoms

I am Alberta Watta Abu. I am a Sierra Leonian of course. I was born in 1990, and my educational level is that of a BSc holder in Banking and Finance. Currently I am working on my MBA in Marketing at Njala University at Bo Campus. I started surveying by working with Sierra Leone Red Cross Society as a Communications Officer during the Ebola scourge.

For the past three years I’ve been working for communities doing community sensitization and mapping for both the SCRCS and MSF. Especially, I’ve been out to the border districts—Kailahun, Kenema, Kono, Pujehun, Kambia, Koinadugu, and Bombali. I also served as a Field Team Leader for Pujehun and Kenema.

Currently, I’m working for WAMM mapping Kenema and Kailahun districts as a Crew Leader.

I like working for humanity—especially for children. For WAMM, I find we are having a very good mapping system. The questions are short, and to the point, without any time wasted. I’m learning more about my country because I’m visiting places I’ve never been before. It has made me realize that Wonder and Gorama Mende [Cheifdoms in Kenema District] have so many forests and water.

The people in the villages are really appreciative of the project because some communities are not on the map. Some of them have changed names, some villages have actually moved locations from one place to another. This project can help the whole country, and other countries as well. The names of villages will be known, and sometimes the meaning of the name tells about the history of the village!

I hope this project will not only do Kenema and Kailahun, because I think some of the other Districts might have the same problems with change of names and locations, or not even being shown on any map.

Up and Riding [6]

Countryside near Segbwema, South East Sierra Leone
Thursday, June 15, 2017—Dispatch 6

By Randy Thomas Jones

In the role-playing during Saturday’s training process I had pretended to refuse to allow the survey to proceed, but relented with a little more polite convincing by the surveyors-in-training, but I had one more trick up my sleeve, and at a random point during the survey I launched into a completely unrelated and fabricated story about some recent goings on in my pretend village, not allowing them to get a word in edge-wise. In fact, both of these situations, or ones very similar to it, were encountered within our first few days of work in the field. General discussion ensued, and all the new surveyors had been given their first notice that completing the task successfully would require some thinking at each new village.

Randy chats with villagers. [Photo Credit: Ivan Gayton]

Sunday was a “day off,” which for Ivan and me meant a full day of attempting to catch up, he mostly concentrating on giving us a reliable path for data transfer, considering that electricity and data signal both seemed in short supply. The mobile Server (that small device I mentioned earlier called an “Edison”) had also broken down, very uncharacteristically. And of course, it was only on this occasion, when we actually needed a back up, that all of the extra Edisons Ivan usually brings, were left back in North America. A solution is jury-rigged, and we will proceed on schedule for Monday morning with day two of training, a day in the field, and actually attempt to gather data, though our goal here would be training, not high production. In any event, we are interested in establishing quality first. Even with the best attempts at gathering this kind of data, it is a standard procedure to “clean the data” before sharing as a courtesy to other users, and for practical usefulness. But the original gathering must still be done with care and attention.

In short order, we make a brisk departure, which is to say we eventually depart together about 10h00, after most of the surveyors, motorcycle riders, and the usual hangers-on have been present at our guest house since about 07h00. The guesthouse is typical of many African compounds. The household is run by “Grandma,” who is the head of a variously large family that seems to include about ten children under 5 and an assortment of other relatives and friends that swells to about 20 people on an average day. The kids faithfully come down to the water pump (the famous seemingly bomb-proof India Mark II) to get water, which they carry up the hill to the big house. This task is impossible to accomplish without smiling at us and waving hello, grinning and laughing if we pretend to play hide and seek with them, or dance alongside their movements as they pump water. I never knew that it was a requirement to dance as you operate the water pump, but it makes a lot of sense.

Convoy. Photo Credit Rupert Allan

Convoy of bikes during training. [Photo Credit: Rupert Allan]

Each village has its own unique character; they have varying sizes, and of course any particular village is in the mood of the moment when we arrive in our convoy. The concept of a convoy has to be explained to the drivers; and one of the motorcycle teams is lost for a couple of hours until we meet up again. It is mostly easy to find the chief—it is not a big deal, just par for the course. Sometimes we end up at the chief’s house, and visit on the front veranda. The surveyor is often invited to sit, everyone who is able to grabs a bit of any available shade, and of course Ivan and I are offered the best chairs. I try to stand until I am specifically invited in, but only get away 60% of the time with my insistence that the chief retain the best chair for himself.

We don’t want to appear the overlords, but in practical fact, we are to some degree. We are arriving from high income places with what is a small boon to the local economy, the money that we are spending locally for food, lodging, supplies, and wages for the surveyors and riders. Especially since the Sierra Leone Leone (the unit of currency) has plummeted in value. Our guesthouse, for example, has only cost 50,000 SLL per night, the princely sum of 7USD. We get our favored “Bread and Egg” in the morning for 1USD (7500 is the current exchange) composed of the excellent local bread (shaped like a French loaf, though our morning sandwich is only about 25cm), 2 fried eggs, and mayonnaise. It is cooked locally in the market on a small burner stove; it is a typical thing to see in West Africa. Ansu seemed to frown at us the first time or two, but becomes friendlier once he realizes we will be loyal customers, and really don’t mind waiting—as long as he doesn’t make us wait longer than the locals!

At the village interviews, Ivan and I try to hang back; Stanley and Alberta, who have the more dynamic leadership personalities, and also experience, don’t need practice filling out surveys; they watch like mother hens as the trainees take turns running through the surveys, mostly successfully. Ivan clucks over his GPS points and spelling of names, my bent of expertise goes toward the stylistic, and together, along with the generous talents of Stanley and Alberta, a village is completed, and the convoy moves forward. Ivan, however, ever the technically-minded and knowledgeable manager, will get progressively more anxious, especially as the day proceeds successfully: according to him, the data is not really gathered until it is safely downloaded into his Server, and then protected by a secondary copy to a cloud location. Data quality and protection is a matter of life and death in the work we are doing.

Wandor Introductions – Chiefdom Health Catchment Areas

Wandor Chiefdom, Kenema District
July 7, 2017

By Rupert Allan


Typical homemade wall chart in PHU (Primary Health Unit) [Photo Credit: Rupert Allan]

Health Centre in Tunghie – Catchment Area Record. Wandor/Gorama Mende Chiefdom

As I look into the village chief’s eyes, I realise that he is near to that age described as ‘in your prime’. And so are many of the chiefs I have met in Sierra Leone. We are bonding in a common understanding. I am trying to show him how the smartphone app I have installed on his phone works for SatNav. My trainee mappers are asking him questions to clarify on the Open StreetMap exactly where the community is. There are many Baarmas, and resources went haywire during Ebola here. We have ridden on the back of motorbikes driven with incredible skill up these rutted and rocky tracks to get here. We are deep in the heart of Diamond Country. We are trying to establish a community-sensitive format by which to represent these communities who are so seldom in contact with the outside world.

It is always weird to be treated with gratitude here. I appreciate it. I suppose I am privileged enough to be doing something which my extremely critical outlook can justify, yet which is fascinating and ultimately mitigating some of the problematics of cultural imperialism here. But we are standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before, and it feels somehow dishonest to enjoy the welcome that we invariably receive because others delivered all that life-saving healthcare. It wasn’t me inside that unbearably sweaty HazMat suit during the dark days of Ebola. I wasn’t here. I was in some other sweaty place on the other side of the continent, I guess, and working hard on another precarious community, but this particular battle was never mine.

We are developing a mapping team which can reach far into the forest and mountains of this area, to establish the basic facts of how to reach people, and how they can express the challenges of Water, Sanitation, Disease and Healthcare which encounter them at every move. To update and improve the medical map.


Memory drawn sketch map of PHUs in MSF project area, the best current map of health catchment area held in the regional Health Centre, northern Kenema District. [Photo Credit: Rupert Allan]

Randy is facing one of these very challenges today, here in this corner of the continent has been described to me as the ‘White Man’s Graveyard’. Malaria. We have left him sweating it out in the dark room at the back of the ‘guesthouse’. It came on amazingly quickly, in this district of Diamond Mines and rebel strongholds.

At some point on our ‘classroom’ on the concrete porch, we were explaining to our survey team one of the finer points about how to encourage the community to take ownership of the map. He suddenly turned to me and said ‘are you feeling cold?’ within ten minutes he was lying in bed, swooning, a shivering wreck. But he will be OK. Luckily, he has the tolerance and immune system of a well-nourished specimen from the Global North. And he has had it before.


Randy in Class, Seconds Before Feeling The Malaria Chill [Photo Credit: Rupert Allan]

But in any case, I had to go it alone supporting our star mapping coordinator Alberta, vetting and coaching our new team of mappers. I am the ‘Big Boss’ of this, but felt the weight somewhat, as Alberta started to complain of a headache, and I looked around me at the blank faces, and stepped-in to continue the session. She recovered quickly, but I carefully monitored Randy with half a logistician’s eye on the nearest hospital four hours (yet only 54km) away, down these ‘impassible’ bush roads. Things are rudimentary even here in the best guest house in town. Taking a shower is done by standing in a bucket (aka in Krio: ‘rubber’) of water next to a toilet bowl – the only feature in the small washroom, except for the huge drum of water.

But now, under my mosquito net, writing this, we are happy. It was a good day. We have a bright, interested, and intrepid bunch of new mappers, thrilled about having a free offline “Sat-Nav”  (OSMAND – Open StreetMap for Android) on their own smartphones. They are thrilled too, to be part of the plan to access better medical and civil assistance, and I must admit that riding down that crazy hill from the village, I was beaming with pride myself, to be part of such a scheme, once again, thanking those who so brilliantly came before us in this campaign to make things a little better.

If you could ask just one question [5]

Segbwema, South East Sierra Leone
Wednesday, June 14, 2017—Dispatch 5

By Randy Thomas Jones

It is typical of this kind of fieldwork that keeping a daily log of activities is a challenge. I’m actually writing this a week delayed, attempting to capture the mood, but to also share all-important introduction for those who are not initiated into the complexities of the world of humanitarian work and conflict response. I am one of those people myself, though I’m forced to play a fast pick-up game to get up to speed as quickly as possible; the demands of working on a project like this force everyone involved to become multi-faceted and interdisciplinary.

Ivan Gayton, the project originator and CEO, is able to move seamlessly through the varying demands on his attention and knowledge. He’s got internal radar for so many of the things that to me, as an outsider, would demand attention, discussion, and thoughtfulness. It is not that he doesn’t give thought to the various issues that arise, it is just the fact that his experience is so broad, it often looks to an outsider that he doesn’t even have to consider what to do in any given situation. Add to that a native drive for action, and by Saturday morning, less than 48 hours after we have arrived, a crew is assembled at our guesthouse for training on the surveying process.

We manage to get an independent off-line local server operational, at least temporarily. It is a small gadget (called an “Intel Edison”) that easily fits in the palm of a hand, which functions as a repository of the ODK (Open Data Kit) software that we use. Ivan is able to ignore the chaos that surrounds the scene much better than I. News of our presence has already travelled, and even though we are only offering about 4 or 5 positions for surveyors, attempting to state clearly that anyone who wants to apply must have an Android phone which will successfully take a GPS point, there are at least another ten people milling around who it seems do not have phones, or at least do not turn up in our verification process.

The first step to filling out an Open Data Kit Android phone survey

Anyone who has a phone is instructed to download the app ‘ODK’ from our Server, and then fill out our “Surveyor Registration” survey. Open Data Kit: for data collection of all sorts worldwide. It is a wildcat procedure—part of the test is whether a potential candidate can focus on the instructions and complete them. It is not completely Darwinian; Ivan is more than happy to help if someone gets in the queue and asks for help. (In fact, that is one hallmark of a likely good candidate, we are happy to contribute time to training, but there is a limit to the amount of energy that can be devoted to it). The experienced surveyors help also to get the phones loaded up with ODK and the registration survey.

Ultimately, the surveyors will go out with a similar form to fill out on their phones, one that has been designed by us using the background development tool, XLSForm, and that is how we will gather information about the all-critical proper village names and locations. Since the GPS is critical, the surveyor registration form includes the task of gathering a GPS point. Not all of the phones are able to complete the task properly, and discussion ensues about the possibility of showing up with a working phone and continuing. Yes, some allowance for this will be made, but it had better happen fast, we are planning to get on the road on Monday for our first field test.

Through the Open Data Kit survey software, and its associated support, what shows up on a mobile device (Android based only) is a simple form than can handle much more complexity than we need for this project. For our purposes, we are only attempting to disambiguate place names for the purpose of healthcare. In fact, Ivan will repeat himself several times over the following week in various meetings: “We are a public health project using mapping, not a mapping project. I love maps, but what I care about is saving lives.” The ODK software has been around a while (and there are also other versions with slightly differing specifications since it is an Android software), and it seems whenever anyone is doing a project, everyone has a curious desire to get an extra question added to the survey.

Ivan resists as best he can all comers. His general answer is a polite reminder that the phone number of the village chief is one of the critical pieces of data that we are gathering. When the data is uploaded, humanitarian agencies will literally have the ability to give a phone call to any of those villages, which, much more often than not, will have a skilled English speaker available. He has to bow good-naturedly, of course, to the Red Cross request to add a question about the presence of village markets. MSF likewise gets a question added about the availability of working water pumps. In my enthusiasm, after the first field day and we accidentally discover a story about the meaning of the name of the village, I argue to include that as a question as well. Our colleague Rupert Allen, who will be joining us shortly, has an academic interest in the way people are dealing with new technology. He would like to add a few questions as well, Ivan gives him one, he is not, as it turns out after all, a complete ogre!

Back at the training day, there are enough people who have sent a form with a correct GPS point to the Server (which can immediately be verified y reviewing the database as it emerges) to begin training. It is not a completely logical step-by-step process, but once the basics are introduced, everyone gets a copy of the real survey and we begin practice. Just as the survey design is critical, or perhaps why the survey design is critical, the asking of questions can’t be a completely rote process—some attention is given to explaining the intention behind the questions and the idea that people’s point of origin coming to a health facility will be a good thing.

Our general instruction is to ask for a knowledgeable villager (often the village chief). This is not as pompous as it might sound, it is simply a paying respect similar to the idea that you probably wouldn’t immediately walk into someone’s back yard in a Western context, you would knock at the front door and introduce yourself first—the chief is the front door of the village. This provides an opportunity to do some role-playing, with one of the experienced surveyors playing the role of the chief, and the other two coaching on the side.

After about three or four rounds, it is starting to go fairly well, and I offer to step in as temporary chief, planning secretly to mix it up and cause a little trouble to test the resilience. I know Stanley, Alberta and Richard can handle it.

The first task is saying hello and explaining briefly that we are trying to make the map accurate because it is kind of insulting that the villages are not even known to exist in the outside world. It is mostly going to be an easy sell, but during the Ebola outbreak a few places had to be forcibly quarantined, we have to account for the possibility of refusal, and indeed, consent to the process is a gold standard. My first response in the role-playing is to proclaim that I don’t want my village mapped, and to tell the surveyor prospect to leave the village! This causes a little laughter, but there is also a good kind of confidence, “Can I just explain what we are doing?” says the surveyor-in-training. “Yes, that is acceptable,” I reply. With a bit more chance to explain, the chief gets convinced, the survey can proceed, but I am not out of ideas to stir up a little trouble yet.

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.

Where do we send the Ambulance? [3]

Segbwema, Kailahun District, Sierra Leone
Monday June 12, 2017—Dispatch 3

By Randy Thomas Jones

Today I’ll return to the story about how contact tracing, maps and public health all connect the dots that form an arrow pointing us to come here to the verdant and vibrant atmosphere of West Africa, to gather people with Android phones, to find motorcycles with their drivers, and make maps of places that can literally be “off the map.” In many cases, being unrecognized means that voices from the hinterland are not noticed, and this is the first step to helping people say to the administrative systems of the modern world, “We are here.” In a way, an analogy could be that if one called for an ambulance in the modern world, one would expect to be asked, “Where are you?” And given an answer, to expect them to arrive. In low-income settings, sometimes the difference between being known and unknown is a difference between life and death.

With Nigel Jagbwem OSM

Screen shot, indicating example of geotagging photos as part of a data set. [Photo Credit: Rupert Allan]

Yesterday I was discussing the need for mapping in Sierra Leone, and how the lack of accurate maps and gazetteers hampered the response to Ebola in 2014. In Nigeria, on the other hand, extremely aggressive contact tracing did effectively stop the outbreak before it became an epidemic. Nigeria had the infrastructure available to a wealthier state that made it possible to ask the key question of where patients were from and receive an unambiguous answer. Sierra Leone has been declared Ebola-free for 18 months now, but Sierra Leone is still considered “At Risk,” because the virus is in the environment and could again transfer to the human population.

One of the things that becomes apparent after some consideration is that the creation of maps and an unambiguous gazetteer (which lists not only village names, but the association with higher administrative districts) is much better done before a crisis hits. And of course, registrars at clinics and hospitals have to understand why it is necessary to use them, and be insistent on a full answer when asking, “Where are you from,” or, as sometimes is the case when someone brings in a friend or relative, “Where is this person from?”

Dr. Monk is developing his portfolio to focus on both UK-based medical practice and Global Health for Alternative Certification in Core Medical Competence, enabling him to tailor his studies to his interest area of epidemiology, infectious diseases and microbiology. He’s a congenial ball of fire when he invites us to the local bar in Segbwema Thursday night, and he and Ivan happily trade stories, both of them enjoying the meeting of minds with similar obsessions. Ivan considers him a great resource as a friend to the project—the more typical situation is that doctors don’t pay that much attention to public health (again, that old bias of the consequentialists). Doctors, and quite rightly, tend to be Kantians.

Friday morning we walk up the hill from our guesthouse to meet Monk. Or, more precisely, he arrives at 8:00 in the morning with a typical British enthusiasm and a warm invitation to the canteen at the Nixon Memorial. A breakfast that is unusual, for the Western palate, composed of fish and rice, but I do remember the “Egg and Bread” from my visit to Ghana last year, and determine to track that down whenever possible!

motorcycle track

Typical of some percentage of village access trails, impossible to transverse with even a 4 wheel drive vehicle—walk or bike! [Photo Credit: Rupert Allan]

After breakfast, we take an extensive tour with Ed through the hospital find out that the Nixon Memorial Hospital has surprisingly good practices for registration. “Daddy” is the registrar at the outpatient desk, and takes great pride in his system for keeping track of patients. To the inexperienced eye, it looks like a haberdashery of file cards in randomly placed boxes. In fact, Daddy passes every inquiry regarding how individual patients’ records can be traced through his system. He has aspirations, and borrows a computer to practice his Excel at every opportunity from the hospital lab. Similarly, Betty, who manages the intakes on the wards, confidently pulls out scrolls of old records and points to one. “That would be in that one,” she says. Ivan rates them in the top 10% of facilities he has seen in low-income countries (the term he prefers to the usual terms “undeveloped / underdeveloped / developing”).

What started out seeming to be a quirky interest in records turns out to be only the “responsibility of care.” I’m getting enthusiastic about records myself at this point, and there is a certain kind of devotion to the practice that is as important as remembering to feed all of your children, and not leave one hungry.

Leveraging the goodwill that Monk has built, we make some very casual inquiries as to the possibility and interest for adding any columns to the intake books. Currently, the disambiguation of towns with the same name is done informally, depending on Betty and Daddy’s admittedly formidable memories. There are complications to this; one of the master books is a federal record that has a specified format that doesn’t meet standards for current best practice. But the answer is a tentative and provisional, “Yes, possibly.”

Reporting from Wandor – the ‘Place of In-Between’

Baama Konta, Wandor / Gorama Mende
June 28, 2017

By Rupert Allan

The familiar smell of woodsmoke is drifting into my nostrils in the cool shade of the morning. The rain has finally stopped, and the hubbub of the small dusty village is comforting. I am sitting on a concrete veranda, tapping away at the keyboard of my super-fast field-mapping laptop, with QGIS running in the background. A small black goat sits in the corner of this porch, and a small tame monkey – the pet of one of the village boys – came walking over my feet a few moments ago. Surrounded by smartphones, charging from the computer, this is the nerve-centre of Wandor/Gorama Mende chapter of WAMM.

The locals are walking past with buckets and bowls on their heads – a boy with a stick and bicycle-rim – and when I say ‘cool’, I mean ‘african cool’. In other words, a mild sauna. We are mapping these two chiefdoms of north-eastern Sierra Leone for and MSF healthcare project which is launching here, and last night I fell into exhausted sleep to the noise of the generator in the MSF house – a shell, slowly being populated as the project initiates. A massive four-wheel drive MSF truck sits outside, alongside the ubiquitous MSF Landcruisers. Yesterday, I made my way from Kenema on a motorbike as far as the ferry, a hand-pulled cable ferry on which men pull the cavle through with notched clubs. The way had been hard. A puncture, this late in the day, too, had made me quite stressed. Stuck by the roadside, I showed some local villagers ‘passing time’ under a tree the Smartphoone App which we are using to build the community map for the area. They were thrilled to see the names of their villages on the App, and took to my usual evangelical zeal with reciprocated enthusiasm. I have long stopped worrying about whether I should display hi-technology here. People assimilate it quickly, but are nevertheless excited to be part of it.


The rider, ‘Gombo’, had gone up the road to fix the tube, and I caught up with him a few minutes later, by jumping on the back of the next bike to ‘come along’. Three-up is the standard way to ride here, so I squeezed on behind a regular punter. Coming from the ferry on this side is more challenging, and we came across a Toyota Landcruiser struggling to get across some of the floodwater from the rains. It was approaching dusk as the chain went on the bike, and I thought the best thing to do was to help. Between us, the rider and I put the chain back on, with the help of the leatherman I carry, and we got back on the road.


Much reuniting was had once I arrived, with Sulaiman, come down from the north, to join our campaign, pleased to see his colleague Alberta, who was also part of the Missing Maps project last year. Much has been made around here of this Missing Maps Ebola-Busting Border project, and a degree of pride exists about having been involved. I’m pleased. Pride gets places mapped, and it seemed to work well in that project, as it is in this.

It is half an hour on. Now I am sitting in that same position, but the scene has changed. I’m on the phone on WhatsApp, surrounded by boys returned from school, and other onlookers, and as I follow remote instructions delivered from the peerless David Wenk, website-techno friend of the project from his office in Camden, North London, sirens at his end compete with goat-bleats at this. We are the centre of the village’s quiet attention. ‘Him Savvy the Computer!’ I hear, in Krio. I’m good at getting help, I think, as I speak with Ivan in the other ear, on the other phone, who has called in from Dakkar, Senegal, in response to a request for help hacking into the OSMAND App on Smartphones with GPX dots of all the villages our mapathon volunteers around the global Open StreetMap community have traced in this part of the continent.

I won’t go into the rudimentary method of toileting that I went about an hour and a half ago, but suffice to say, there are contrasts in my daily life at the moment which sometimes seem almost too extreme to mesh. If I think all reality might be virtual, or resign myself to ‘multiple realities’, then maybe I can deal with it…? The reality is, though, that many many mothers and infants die in the act of childbirth here. Unbelievable and unacceptable numbers. And our work will help to stop this.

Before long, we will have a map of every village that can be spotted from the sky above, with an addressed way to get medicine to each, and a basic profile of their biggest vulnerabilities and local health provisions. This will be invaluable to MSF as they start their health campaign to stop this death toll. Without village names, it has been impossible to trace where diseases like Ebola are spreading, and how to get to patients, or where they are likely to have been sent for further treatment.

It is weird that this digital world can have such an impact. Time was, the IT world had nothing to do with physical, visceral and material things in small, poor countries. Now it is integral. And as I look around at the goats passing-by, I realise that the crowd of onlookers have settled-down to my presence, and are treating it more or less casually, that there should be some ‘pumwui’ sitting in their midst.