Mapping Mali

Harsha Devulapalli
Dec 7, 2017 · 5 min read

Hello and welcome back to Open and Shut! Today we’re joined by Nathalie Sidibe, a young leader from Mali who has been a pioneer of the OpenStreetMap (OSM) platform in West Africa. She will share with us her thoughts and experiences on leading mapping initiatives in her community.

OpenStreetMap is the open source equivalent of Google Maps. Google Maps is fine for personal use, but you cannot use large geographic data from Google Maps because it is proprietary. Thus, OSM originally started as a response to there being limited access to geographic data, and has now established itself as the backbone of a growing number of geo based companies. These include CartoDB, Mapzen, Mapbox, and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap, a branch of OSM providing free and up-to-date maps for relief organisations dealing with large scale natural disasters.

State of Open Data in Mali

Mali scored 43 out of 100 in the 2016 Open Data Inventory, with a rank of 65 out of 173. It scores higher than most countries in West Africa for coverage and access to social and economic statistical data, but environmental statistics are harder to find in Mali.

According to the 2016 Open Data Barometer insights on Mali, the majority of datasets exist, but the government is making very little effort to make this data public and accessible. Open Knowledge International’s Global Open Data Index states that Mali is only 19% open, highlighting that challenges remain when it comes to making geographic data open and accessible, making the work that Nathalie does through OpenStreetMap even more important.

OpenStreetMap Mali

Astou Nathalie Sidibe started out as an activist after the 2012 coup in Mali. With the country plunged into a struggle for democracy, alongside leading several training initiatives in West Africa, she has been involved in mapping Mali on OpenStreetMap (OSM) for the last three years.

Nathalie saw value in mapping through OpenStreetMap because easily accessible geographical data is helpful for humanitarian relief organisations when responding to disasters or political crises.

“With OpenStreetMap, one can see where there are no schools or hospitals, this can help my government decide where they might want to build these”

Nathalie believes that it is important for data to be free and accessible, because it enables the citizens of a country to hold its government to account, and that in turn strengthens democratic institutions.

As part of her work, and alongside her friend Soulo Boureima, she currently trains a group of volunteers under the banner of OpenStreetMap Mali, an initiative set up in 2014. Through the initiative, over 200 volunteers have been trained in the use of OSM, and in 2018 Nathalie will start teaching about OSM at two of Mali’s universities.

Most of the mapping work is carried out by these volunteers, some of whom work with NGOs in the region. Every weekend, the volunteers gather to map Mali.

“Open data will help us make peace, and develop and strengthen the democracy of Mali.”

Her team of volunteers work hard to map schools, hospitals and villages around Bamako. Last September, they mapped five villages in just two days — an incredible feat.

They carry out this mapping with the help of two applications: ‘OSMAnd’ and ‘OSM Tracker’. The OSM Tracker acts like a GPS tracker that allows people to collect data on points of interest — such as schools or hospitals — when they go into the field. This data can be exported into a GPX format with waypoints, making it suitable for editing through the ‘OSM ID Editor’ or ‘JOSM’. Alongside being highly customisable, the OSM Tracker works without internet access, allowing people to map even in the most remote of areas.

‘OSMAnd’ acts as an offline GPS solution that provides maps even when there’s no internet access. Unlike other services, OSMAnd lets you edit maps through your mobile phone.

The ‘OSM ID Editor’ is an online web mapping tool that makes it possible for anyone to learn to map information in a very short period of time. It lets you see satellite imagery and enables you to draw points of interest, roads and shapes which feed into the OpenStreetMap. In areas where Internet connectivity is a challenge, ‘JOSM’ is a better tool — as you can download an area, map it offline and upload your changes when you have connection to the internet. You can learn how to start mapping in less than ten minutes here!

Initially, they did try working with GPS kits to collect information, but that didn’t work well, often raising the suspicions of the general public, who would come to the conclusion that those operating the kits worked for the government. By using phones to map instead, less attention is drawn to them, and they can map in peace.

One of the biggest challenges for these mapping initiatives is the lack of internet access in Mali. Nathalie pointed out that it is typically very expensive — more so than food, she says. Finding volunteers is an additional challenge, because most of the time people are only looking for jobs.

“If you ask them to come and work with you without giving them money, they will not be happy. And come the next time, you won’t see them.”

Another challenge facing Nathalie is the fact that she is a woman. Nathalie asserts that it is not easy for a woman to lead a group of men in Mali, or indeed elsewhere in West Africa.

“There are men who don’t say good things about me. They think a woman cannot lead. In their minds I have to be behind them, to follow them, and to do everything as they think.”

But that doesn’t deter her.

“I map because I know it helps. I contribute to the development of my country because I train people to make use of the platform. Thanks to OSM, people listen to me — it changed my life.”

Nathalie really emphasised the impact of OSM on her life and the lives of those around her in Mali.

“It changed my life because I am now serving my country, contributing to its development, because now, for example, students of Computer Science are using OSM to develop applications — it’s given people jobs. Yes, before I got involved in OSM, I was fighting for democracy, for women’s empowerment, but OSM has allowed us to expand that. Thanks to it, people listen to me — they think I am able to do anything!”

Next year, she is all set to launch the Mali Open Data Initiative and the Suivi Aide au Développement au Mali (SAID-Mali) — a portal for monitoring development assistance aid. We wish her good luck.

Open & Shut is a project from the Small Media team. Small Media is an organisation working to support freedom of information in closed societies, and developed the Iran Open Data portal.

Cover image by skp, story edited by Hazwany Jamaluddin and Tom Ormson

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