Missing Maps - Sierra Leone

Posted by Tallguy on 29 June 2016 in English (English). Last updated on 30 June 2016.

Training in Freetown

Missing Maps training involving American Red Cross volunteers in Freetown, Sierra Leone on 3rd June 2016

“Good thanks, and you?”
“Great. How do you fancy a trip to Sierra Leone?” ………………………

At various times in my life I’ve ended up training subjects including IT, and when Missing Maps started, training was my main involvement. I’ve been to many Mapathons, stood out the front, and done my best to make mapping ‘happen’ for people struggling with software & strange terms.

The trip to Sierra Leone was slightly different. 32 volunteers needed training in how to carry out surveys using software on mobile phones. Essentially they were carrying out a survey of village & health facilities, how many people, what sanitation – all of the things you would expect the American Red Cross would need to know in order to plan their operations. In addition some training would also be given to MSF personnel – similar sort of thing, but each organisation has its own version of the questions.

In 2014 I’d been one of many people trying to remotely map the areas affected by Ebola, tracing from satellite imagery. Sierra Leone, Guinea & Liberia, were mapped remotely, and names added as best we could. Some ground survey information had been added, but when you started looking at the information, you realised that it was lacking in the sort of detail you’d really like to see in a map - when we arrived in Sierra Leone, OSM had one water point mapped for the entire country.

Our first 5 days were in Freetown, planning and then delivering the training. Each morning we were carried by MSF car through heavy traffic in Freetown and I started to understand a little about the city. I could see people carrying water containers, others were having their morning wash at the side of the road. As we descended towards the coast I could look out onto a large open landfill site and its inhabitants – I couldn’t see all of it, but it was at least the size of a football pitch. The river we crossed appeared to have many uses.

We concentrated on training the 32 volunteers who were to carry out the surveys. Many knew very little about mobile phones when we started, but we demonstrated, tested and practised until they understood enough to be able to do their surveys. The power cuts, wifi problems & equipment problems were all taken in our stride (we all had missing luggage, but luckily, enough had arrived for us to carry out the training). Our evenings were spent amending training plans, adapting to the changing needs & time scales. I’d even managed a brief trip round the market buying some clothes (When I first arrived I had only what I stood up in – if anyone finds a holdall with clothing for a Tallguy I’d be very interested).

I spent my weekend either travelling or making preparations for the week ahead where I was to be based in Kenema.

Supervising - based in Kenema

Red Cross Staff in Kailahun, Sierra Leone

Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday was spent travelling on a wide mixture of roads, some wide tarmac roads in better condition than the UK, and some roads that had never been surfaced and were so steep and uneven that my driver negotiated them in bottom gear in our 4x4, while we bounced around in the cab bruising our elbows on the doors. We were attempting to find some of our volunteers to make sure that everything was okay with them and their work. Everyone had mobile phones, but this didn’t help much as there was very little in the way of signal.

At times we stopped before crossing bridges, walked over them, & jumped up & down to test them before driving over them. A lorry stuck in the mud caused a 4 hour detour. A brief phone call to one of the volunteers, who was surveying habitations with no roads at all, before the signal dropped off went something like….
“Glad you’re okay, where are you?”
“I’m walking in the forest being bitten by beasts”
“Which town are you near?”
“I’m walking towards”….. and the call dropped.

My local driver was impressed that I could tell him the name of the villages which were coming up, and advise him of potential routes. He even enjoyed the game of slowing down on the approach to villages so I could take a photograph of the sign. He and his colleagues were even more impressed when I installed OsmAnd on the phones of those who wanted it, and gave them a brief training session. The drivers were an interesting group to talk to – at least one had been a local businessman who had seen his business gradually decline following Ebola.

Alongside the main roads you could see piles of sacks ready for sale. These were often filled with charcoal but had coya leaves in the top. Buy one, put the coya leaves in the bottom of your BBQ, add charcoal and light. You could see the rough shelters the charcoal producers used, in their little patch of cleared vegetation. Heavily used roads ending in piles of sand beside a river where they extracted large amounts of sand by hand – bought by the local builders. I’m not sure if the main aim for the people doing the digging was the sand or the potential diamonds – there were many diamond offices in Kenema.

Started, but not completed buildings with no roofs were a frequent sight.

My final days in Kenema were spent training staff in the potential uses of OSM - paper, phone apps., analysis, and how surveys for such things as water points could be carried out. The amount of detail in OSM was a surprise to all that I trained and I think we can expect lots of use.

In Freetown I found that Pete had been very busy, surveying water points and making contacts with many local organisations. We carried out a mapathon on one day & part of our last day was at a conference where we gave a presentation on Missing Maps, before finishing our packing and catching the ferry & plane.

Excuse me if I’m quiet for a while - still trying to replace all my lost clothes. Oh, and about 200 water points to add, 50+ village names and a few bits of road aligning to do.

Certainly an experience, and one that I’d be happy to repeat.

Most of my gps traces have been uploaded to OSM, so it you’re working on or anything else in Sierra Leone, have a check for downloadable gps traces.

For more info on Missing Maps, please see If you’re interested in finding out more & learning a little about ‘remote’ mapping, or something more technical, come along to one of the Missing Maps Mapathons - there are events throughout the world - if it’s in London, UK, you might even see me (Tall, bald, grey beard - easy to spot!).

Location: Freetown, Western Area Urban, Western Area, Sierra Leone

Comment from skorasaurus on 10 July 2016 at 15:19

Great job Nick and thanks for sharing and helping build the OSM community there.

From experience, working in the field with HOT can be draining and have many obstacles that most people are unaccustomed to (limited cell phone signal, intermittent electricity, poor roads) that can make tasks much more time-consuming and difficult than you originally anticipated. Kudos to you and the team for persevering!

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