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.

London to Haiti to Sierra Leone [2]

Kenema, Kenema District, Sierra Leone
Sunday, June 11, 2017—Dispatch 2

By Randy Thomas Jones

We are at the Internet café in Kenema, a town with a population large enough to sustain a full market(1). We could have used the visit for some purchasing, but the priority today is repairing some of our tech. The single independent server we have (Ivan usually brings about 5 of them to ensure redundancy) is inoperative, so he is currently engaged in the traditional activity of travellers since time immemorial—field hacking. It might be time soon for another order of cold water . . . one time is usually all it takes to clarify the issue for the ex pat of whether one is asking for cold water, or just water! And for another thing, the market is closed, the shipping containers that are one of the typical housing for small shops . . . all the small shanties that provide shade for the smaller suppliers are bare—it is Sunday.

kenema hardware store
Typical “hardware store”—a stall with various useful and peculiar items.

On a successful note, Ivan has just procured a piece of wire. Literally one piece of wire, but with the kind of resources that are available in a smaller African town, it was probably a good bet to give up after one wild goose chase in Segbwema this morning. Let the field hacking commence! To return to the introduction to our adventure, or, to use the more generally accepted term, “mission.”

In Haiti in 2010, after the earthquake, Gayton faced a similar problem to the one John Snow faced in London in 1854—cases of Cholera were beginning to arrive at the MSF hospital in Port-Au-Prince, and everyone knew that a second, potentially even more devastating disaster was developing fast. Gayton knew of Snow’s solution, but the problem was trying to identify the neighborhoods people were from was an impossible task.

To describe why the task was difficult perhaps can go back to what many might know from some rudimentary exposure to anthropology—many cultures have names for themselves that simply mean “The People” in the local language. Left to their own devices, people will name things in a vernacular fashion. Haitians were no different than any other people—they didn’t mind at all having dozens of similarly named streets called “Avenue of the Church, “ or “Market Street.” Of course, they know where they are from, but when they are coming into a medical facility, they may be too ill at that point to communicate the extra important information that can disambiguate the Patient Origin, the technical term used in the medical world. And if a person is coming in sick with Cholera, you know that they have only arrived after infecting several other people, who will either be arriving soon, or not even able to make the journey to look for help.

Cholera is actually possible to treat; mostly the issue is rehydration, while a person’s own immunity has a chance to successfully fight the infection. It is not necessarily any kind of heroic rocket science, but it is a daunting task that quickly becomes unmanageable in an outbreak situation. The stress on resources will quickly break any attempt at a logistical solution that relies on the Kantian idea of giving the all and best to each new patient. The outbreak needs to be stopped at its source, or many will die.

Recognizing the gravity of the situation in Haiti, Gayton had an idea . . . identify danger areas of outbreak properly, using modern technology—could Google possibly help? After a series of phone calls, Google sent Ka-Ping Yee, who had actually been invited to join Google in the very early days as a founder. Within a week he was on the ground. The organization Missing Maps (also one of our project partners) had already made what is called a base map, using the knowledge of Haitian diaspora volunteers looking through satellite imagery to name streets. With the help of British Red Cross and MSF UK, Ping and his partner were able to quickly scrap together code that enabled a visual dashboard to be used by administrators. Now it was possible to open a map of the city that showed the cases of Cholera as red dots—a “Heat Map.” At a glance, just like John Snow’s map, you could see where the highest incidence rates were located, and resources could be concentrated on where they were most needed.

motorbikes village
Surveyors at work doing their interviews, “Riders” (the motorcycle drivers typically engage and assist.

Jump to 2014, and now Gayton has been called to Sierra Leone in the height of the Ebola outbreak. Full quarantine protocols have been instituted for MSF staff . . . no one is even allowed to touch another human being during the time of their posting. It is clear that Ebola is another transmittable disease. At the height of the outbreak, 1.7 people were becoming infected out of every case. It was looking like a global apocalypse in a time frame of months. But again, the mathematics were germane—if the infection rate can be brought down to less than 1.0, the epidemic is stopped. Ebola also exists in the background environmental reservoir. It came originally into the human population through consumption of what is called “bush meat” in Africa—often unauthorized or even illegal hunting of wild animals for food sustenance. On its own, left in the forest, it is not much of a danger to humans, but once in the human world, it can become a specter of incredible danger.

At the height of the outbreak, the MSF Ebola treatment facility in Magburaka, Tonkolili District, in Sierra Leone had 110 patients, and effective contact tracing (That old question from John Snow: “Where are you from?”) could only be done for 20% of the patients. Why? Because many villages had identical, or very similar, names. Many people from different walks of life had to risk exposure to the disease to intervene against the developing catastrophe. Any contact with exposed people had to be ended, and here mapping had a sinister side—some villages with known outbreaks had to be forcibly isolated to delay the spread of the disease. The experience was heartbreaking, and MSF had a rotation of three shifts of personnel—one on the ground, while the second group was in recovery from the trauma, and the third group, which had sufficiently recovered, was on a vacation rest before heading back to the field. And the damnable thing was, that the outbreak could have been stopped cold (on this point, Gayton emphasizes by thunderclapping his hands together with a vigorous and defiant grief).

Had the availability of accurate maps and a gazetteer been available there is no doubt that the situation would have been ameliorated. As it was, 12,000 people died in West Africa, actually a testament to the sophistication of modern intervention strategies. It was a light toll, considering the nature of the jeopardy.

(1) The city of Kenema had a population of 200,354 in the 2015 Sierra Leone census. Wikipedia

How villages get their names

As is often the case with aid workers, the etymology of the local village is a question often directed at locals. Gorama Mende proved no exception to this rule.  Our local mapper, Alieu (who was in Magburaka during the Ebola outbreak), was a resident of Gorama Mende, a region nearby to Kortuhun, Fulawahun and Kpetema. Fortunately for us our Mende-speaking friend was extremely keen to give his take on how villages, including his own, acquired their name.

In his small hut, late one night, beneath the most beautiful stars in the whole of Sierra Leone, Alieu gave this splendid explanation on etymology:

“when a child is born, they take a name, but as they grow, they might become, for instance, a fighter.”

Unfortunately, in Alieu’s eagerness to make this point, to have his say, to pronounce his take on the situation, we never got to the actual ancestral origin of Gorama Mende. We can conclude it is a name which has likely resolved over time to fit the village and its people. That said, we’d still like to learn the etymology of the village (inquisitiveness is part of every mappers DNA).

If you are able to help us get to the bottom of this mystery we’d love to hear from you. Get in touch.


Mapping and the Trolley Problem [1]

Segwemba, Kailahun District, Sierra Leone
Saturday June 10, 2017—Dispatch 1

By Randy Thomas Jones

I meet Ivan Gayton at the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam after six months of communication and planning; we’re boarding our KLM flight to Sierra Leone, West Africa. It is Wednesday, the seventh of June. We have decided to name the project West Africa Motorcycle Mapping 2017. Characteristically, Gayton quickly launches into a typical wide-ranging discussion that is mostly lecture. I’m new to mapping, but I’ve had enough of an introduction and mentoring over the last six months to get my feet wet at least to the degree to roughly follow along. This time he gets into describing the tension between Kantian ethics and Consequentialist ethics (probably better known as Utilitarianism, which is more properly a subset of consequentialism) using the classic problem in philosophy that has been named the “Trolley Problem.”

The scenario of the Trolley Problem presents a dilemma: Do you decide to save one person at any cost, or do you decide, as the character Spock claimed to be the correct answer in the classic Star Trek television series, that, “The good of the many must outweigh the good of the few or the one.” The problem is faced in practical ways by every humanitarian and health mission in various ways daily, and needs to be faced head on, seeing the difficulty in the dilemma, and wrestling it out each time. In some ways, the project we are working on is an attempt to deal with the Trolley Problem—to assist in the development of an essential feature of public health infra-structure that supports both ends of the spectrum—being able to improve the general ability to provide public health for everyone at the same time that health can be improved for individuals.

Gayton is in his usual jovial mode, into the action, on-task, with a confidence of experience that allows for a friendly demeanor; he’s got a rare kind of intellect, comfortable in a wide range of topics and modulation from the esoteric to the practical. I’ve known Gayton for 10 years, though not well, introduced through a mutual friend in Canada, a forester turned ecologist that we both know and trust. Gayton worked with our friend Robin Clark because his background included work in Canadian tree planting camps; the set up is in bush conditions for the government-required replanting of areas that have been logged. As Gayton puts it, “I crab-walked sideways using my logistical skills to get into humanitarian aid work and MSF was kind enough to offer me an opportunity.” MSF is short for Medicínes Sans Frontiers, or, as we know it better in the English-speaking world, Doctors Without Borders. They won the Nobel Peace prize in 1999 for their work, and are partners in our current project, along with the British and American Red Cross. The project is being run under the auspices of the Humanitarian Open StreetMapTeam, we call it HOT for short.

MSF and the Red Cross are not the only partners in the WAMM project. Gayton, of course, has many connections after 13 years of experience for MSF including appointments as Head of Mission in some very difficult situations. He was in Haiti after the earthquake in 2010, and that experience formed some of the initial ideas for the adventure we are now engaged on. One of the problems in disaster situations is the danger of disease outbreak. Of course, calling it a “danger” is slightly euphemistic . . . it is more likely than not to happen because of the impact on sanitation and resources that inevitably follows. In Haiti, one of the main concerns was Cholera. The disease has a background environmental reservoir, (the disease exists, but does not usually come into contact with humans)—but when people do get exposed, when individuals become sick, the risk of more people getting sick from other people goes up 100 fold.

It is important to insert an aside here, particularly regarding the facts of the matter about the Cholera outbreak in Haiti. Though tropical Haiti is an ideal environment for Cholera, historically, it had been Cholera free. Haiti is surrounded by countries that are, relatively speaking, rich. They have historically dealt with any isolated cases quickly and efficiently. In Haiti, Cholera was actually introduced by UN peacekeepers through the dumping of raw sewage into the Artibonite river. Haitians noticed at the time, and complained vociferously, but the Nepalese ignored them. The United Nations is currently wanting to “wash its hands” of the situation, even though there is a pending case in a US Court. The MSF team wasn’t aware of this at the time, all they knew was that people were showing up at Triage with what soon proved to be Cholera.

Triage simply means “sorting.” In the western world, it is used to refer to primary, secondary, and tertiary care. Primary is something like a simple cut that needs a bandage; tertiary is admittance to a hospital. In crisis work medicine it refers to the designations Green, Red, and Black. Green means the patient will survive without immediate care, Red means that immediate treatment is necessary to save life, Black means that the decision will be made to not help; the person is beyond assistance, or, more wrenchingly, that the resources necessary to help them would leave insufficient resources for a larger number of those who can be saved. In a crisis situation the Consequentialist reality means that gut-wrenching decisions have to be made daily. MSF and other crisis response workers say that doctors working in the western world never need to do Triage—everyone is considered to be on the Red list, and resources are imagined to be infinite.

Map made by English Physician John Snow in 1854, showing point of origin for Cholera cases in the outbreak.

The story of how mapping is relevant to all of this is a fascinating one. One good place to begin is back in 1854 in London England, where there was also an outbreak of Cholera. English physician Dr. John Snow, riding the heady enthusiasm of the 19th century’s confidence in science and more sympathetic view to interdisciplinary approaches to problems that had its origin in the renaissance, decided to look at the outbreak mathematically, not primarily as a physician, who always want to be biased toward the individual (Kantian ethics), but to look at it from the perspective of helping the most people possible, (the Consequentialist position) realizing that some energy had to be spent on the source of the problem, otherwise more individual people would continue to become sick, and the supposed benefits of the strict Kantian position would become void. Snow wanted to find out where people lived—what was the possible commonality between them? That led to the creation of a map, and the foundation of modern public health care. It turned out that the map showed clearly a cluster of patient origin . . . and it wasn’t difficult then to realize that one of the water sources they shared, the “Broad Street Pump,” was a possible culprit. Snow locked up the water pump and stopped the Cholera epidemic in its tracks.


When the going gets tough, the tough get soggy shoes

Segbwema, Kailahun District,
June 21, 2017

By Ivan Gayton

As fun as it sounds, mapping villages can be a hazardous and difficult task. Poor roads, burning heat and learning ad hoc mechanic skills are a few of the challenges we’ve overcome during our first few days in southeast Sierra Leone.

However, with the likes of Ivan, Randy and Rupert (and our fantastic volunteers) we proven to be a gutsy group of determined mappers.  So, when we recently encountered a fast-flowing stream in Segbwema (in Kailahun District) we simply revved up our engines and charged ahead to conquer our wet foe. When all the high fives, fist bumping (and possibly a yee-haw or two) had died down we continued on our journey, full of exuberance…and soggy shoes.



Into the Wild

Rural areas in Kailahun District
June 12, 2017

By  Ivan Gayton

So here we go! Our first day out, responding to the request from Nixon Memorial Hospital, Segbwema, where MSF doctors have requested a map made by local people which can help them tackle Bilharzia, Hepatitis, and related community issues which plague their work in this area.

After a shotgun training and loading of Apps into their smartphones, intrepid surveyors are out to test and refine the medical survey, looking for feedback and adjustments to line-up the needs of the community with the supplies from the humanitarian sector.

Ebola and the Magpie

Wales, United Kingdom
May 28, 2017

By Rupert Allan

[Editor’s note: Here Rupert Allan describes his experience on an earlier trip to Sierra Leone in 2015, where he led a two week intensive training for Field Team Leaders, and managed an earlier surveying project.]

During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, there was general panic. Our mapping project was born, but so too were many other systems. One such was the Magpie App, another lo-tech-meets-new-tech solution, this one for recording burials. Here is an impression of how I first came to hear of it:

It’s lunch time, and we are about to go out from our teaching classroom into the corridor to eat what gets brought in by the catering lady. Jollof Rice and Chicken. But then somebody mentions the Magpie.

It is a warm but cloudy day in the capital. We have been training for two days on the Data collection App Open Data Kit (ODK). Sierra Leone was mapped by motorbike using this downloadable software during the Ebola outbreak, in a (successful) contribution to getting a handle on stopping the disease. Already I have guarded myself against shaking too many hands or having other tactile contact with the people here – those magical comradery handshakes so memorable from the West Africa of years ago that I remember when, in 1989, I was building a school in the Liberian bush.

Field Team Leader Victor on the Guinea border-crossing issues.
“Cross Border and Kiosks” [Red Cross Video]

I have already heard from Victor of the way in which people would avoid the ‘Safe and Dignified Burial’ technique desperately encouraged by disaster relief organizations. Distraught and grieving people just wanted to be left alone to tend to the traditional intimate washing of bodies by all the family, but it is this very intimacy which had to be prevented by desperate humanitarian actors. Tales of how families would use their back door to take a body for burial over the porous borderline and into the neighbouring unregulated country are fascinating and initially amusing.

Somebody describes to me the Magpie app., the only way, but a depersonalized way – to keep abreast of the unfolding disaster at the time. Some of the details of what the ‘Enumerator’ was asked to log – safe geo-tagging, photographic data, all flies in the face of talks of ancient intimacy, reducing this kind of anonymous horrific evidence to a DATA BASE entry. It has been so very impersonal, but so critical for the survival of these ravaged but peace-loving communities, and it puts a lump firmly in my throat even now as I try to relate it.

But when you bear in mind that drivers in the capital, as my driver points out, don’t know how to react to the new traffic lights because more than two generations of drivers have passed since the last traffic lights were vandalized in the civil war, (another terror which was only just abating properly when Ebola struck) it makes you wonder what West Africa has done to deserve not only these natural disasters, but these assaults on their national identity. Sierra Leone has seen brothers slaughter brothers, and one cannot even console oneself with family social traditions of peace and intimacy, honoured since before the time of borders, white men, and territory. But one thing remains, and of course will always remain, which is that people are loving, human, and dignified, throughout, and regardless of, what has been heaped upon them.

WAMM 2017 – Introductions…

Dakar, Senegal
May 14, 2017

By Ivan Gayton

In 2016, Missing Maps (Humanitarian Open Street Map, MSF, American and Sierra Leone Red Cross) launched a project to survey geo-located vulnerabilities in Post-Ebola West Africa. Spanning Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, the project put thousands of communities onto the world map (Open Street Map), and created a capacity for the people of these countries to represent themselves and their needs.

If you have ever looked for these countries on google maps, you will realize that they are literally blank. Not any more!

Click below to DOWNLOAD a trip report from the Sierra Leone element of the project by WAMM project consultant Rupert Allan . . .

Motorcycle Mapping in Sierra Leone. Post-Ebola-Border Busting Project. Red Cross/MSF/HOT Trip Report 1Trip Report, MM Phase 1