A week in Lubumbashi (DRC)

Monday afternoon the 17th of March 2014: I stepped on a plane with destination Lubumbashi in the south of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The goal for my one-week-trip: map together with Doctors without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières UK (MSF UK) and students of the University of Lubumbashi the whole or at least as much as possible of the city of Lubumbashi.

Recent years HOT already supported some projects in the DRC, including a remote activation in eastern DRC and the construction of an OSM community in Kinshasa supported by Claire Halleux (see her blog post), but this OSM project is the first in southern DRC. The focus for the week in Lubumbashi was the collection of field data through Field Papers, the beautiful printed maps which you can upload and share. In addition, setting up a local OpenStreetMap community was one of the challenging goals.

OpenStreetMap and epidemiology

Last year, MSF UK contacted the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) with the interest to improve the map of Lubumbashi, in order to relate cholera cases with their streets of residence. The exact geographical position of these cases will make it possible to analyse the situation and subsequently improve the efficiency of the interventions of MSF in the fight against the cholera epidemic in Lubumbashi.

Immediately after my arrival Ivan Gayton (of MSF UK) and I met M. Asumani Salimini, head of the Department of Geography of the University of Lubumbashi and five postgraduates in Geography (Sangwa, Scot, John, Elias and Steve) who would take an important role during our mapping week. Next morning first a theoretical introduction of OpenStreetMap followed and in the afternoon our first Field Paper exercise! Slowly but steadily they started to get to know the procedure of mapping with Field Papers, GPS devices and OsmAnd on smartphones. And by the end of our second day of mapping, our core team was ready to be enlarged. Little by little the team grew, the last days we even had 17 fully fledged mappers hustling around in Lubumbashi!

Field survey in Lubumbashi

What we were focussing on in the field was most of all the street names, the names of the neighbourhoods and the biggest reference points, which are really important to have the possibility to localize people. However an issue is that there are not always official names! Discussing with local residents to identify the commonly used name was therefore an important part of the fieldwork. Consequently we baptized sometimes a street in reference to an important business in the street or a specific family who’s already living for a long time in the street. Just like the street next to the lady who is brewing alcohol, this street is now baptized as the "Brewery street"!

OpenStreetMap a global community!

Local data collection was however not the only thing what was happening! In preparation of the data collection in Lubumbashi a mapping party in Berlin was organized by Shoiab Burq, Kashif Rasul and Leo Tremblay. In this way the global road network of Lubumbashi was almost remotely mapped before my arrival in DRC, which was a major help to get started with Field Papers in the city itself.

In addition to this preparatory work we had during our mapping-week also a tremendous support of remote mappers from all over the world! Pierre Béland and Andrew Buck ensured the coordination of this work with help of the Tasking Manager and provided us support in various ways. They converted for example the OSM data format of OsmAnd, which allowed us to navigate through the streets using our Android phones with the most recent OSM data on it, they organised discussions on Mumble between remote mappers and us on the field, and we had together with them a look on the process of processing the field papers. What was very exciting for both contributors on distance as well as for us on the ground!

Making a field paper puzzle

 Also the moment when the Togolese, the Burkinese and Senegalese OSM communities started to support us with mapping parties for Lubumbashi, it just gave me shivers! How cool is this! South-south collaboration and magnificent proof that the development of local OSM communities in Africa, mainly initiated by Nicolas Chavent and Severin Menard, effectively works! In the beginning the idea of the bigger community was difficult to understand for our mappers in Lubumbashi, but slowly and with the pictures of the Hungarian mapping party, the Togolese mapping party and the Burkinese mapping party they started really to understand what OpenStreetMap is about!

However my stay was only short, this one week was in my view incredibly powerful! While the local community mapped the neighbourhoods of Katuba, Kenya, Camp des assistants, Kalebuka, Kasungami, Njanja, Salama and Kamalondo on the field, the international community had following results. In only four days (19-23 of March) more than 60 mappers from all over the world contributed to the Tasking Managers which were set up. In this way 106 000 objects were added in 4 days, under which 15 500 buildings and 700 street segments. Together with the enormous field work we can consider this as an almost never seen collaboration in the OpenStreetMap history!

A big thank you for our remote mappers!

Maybe this model of collaboration can even become an example for a future, more in depth conjunction between MSF and HOT? Like for example what we are doing now for Guinea these days, but also for countries as the Central African Republic, Burundi, Chad, Bangladesh and Cambodia. The collaboration between HOT and MSF can lead to interesting results in my view! Also the fact that we have a new OSM community, who can now contribute in other mapping projects in other regions, is a nice result of this collaboration.

What next?

Only one major question is left now: will they be able to continue with OpenStreetMap? Was one intense week enough to establish a sustainable OSM community in Lubumbashi? I think it might be possible... We made a good start and although the line between volunteering and a paid post was sometimes thin for the students, I believe the commitment the students showed during the week was priceless. OpenStreetMap has a strong power, not only for MSF, but also for students and citizens of Lubumbashi itself.

By this week, a fully operational OSM Lubumbashi team is not yet there, but I strongly believe they have become aware of the value of OpenStreetMap for their personal life. One of our mappers, Marc Mashawu, wrote for example on his Facebook page about OSM:

"The first cartography of Lubumbashi since the Belgians left. It will be possible to get around in the city using a GPS or Android phone. My participation in this work is my big contribution to this country."

But also for the global OpenStreetMap community, it is not over yet! You can still help to reinforce this brand new local community. They still need you!