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Missing Maps in South Sudan: An Interview with an MSF Epidemiologist

Posted by athaikdin on 5 December 2015 in English (English). Last updated on 6 December 2015.

Laura and her team in South Sudan

In March 2015, MSF epidemiologist Laura H. Thompson conducted Rapid Nutritional Assessments (RNAs) in Unity State, South Sudan, with the help of our very own ‘Missing Maps’. Together with her team, she used the maps to guide their investigation of suspected malnutrition among children in villages in the Mayendit County of Unity State.

In today’s post, I’ve interviewed Laura about her experience with the use of ‘Missing Maps’ in South Sudan.

What was Mayendit like?

Mayendit is a county in north-central South Sudan between MSF project sites Leer and Bentiu, near the Thar Jath oil fields. It covers a relatively large area that includes a market and encompasses several villages. The villages have unique names and are characterised by many households typically arranged in a line with several to dozens of meters between them. In most areas, there were only a few trees and the ground was covered in a hard dry soil. It was hot and sunny while we were there. The local administration were welcoming and interested in our work, and wanted to ensure that our work would help the community. We were typically greeted by women or children at the households and they were friendly and welcoming.

At the time that we were there, not much was available at the market and the people in the area largely rely on food airdrops conducted by the World Food Programme. While the area was relatively calm back in March, fighting is now occurring in the area.

Could you explain more about the RNAs you conducted?

We conducted Rapid Nutritional Assessments (RNAs) in several communities where we suspected there might be high rates of malnutrition among young children. We selected a subset of households within a community to approach for inclusion in the survey. Surveying that subset of households was intended to be both feasible and provide a good representation of the overall community. In just a few days, evidence of the nutritional status of children in a community is generated and may be used to determine whether or not to provide a nutrition program in a given area. In the case of Mayendit, we found low levels of malnutrition but evidence of food insecurity and so the recommendation was to hold off on offering a nutrition program, but to monitor the situation over time.

What was your work like before you got the maps? What challenges did you face?

Before receiving the maps we knew where Mayendit was and fortunately our driver had a good knowledge of the area which was very helpful. The main challenge that I faced was not knowing the number of households in the area, their layout across the area, and the village boundaries. All of this information is important in order to establish a sampling plan for the surveys that balances the need for a representative sample of households in the specific villages with feasibility, given that we only had a few days and didn’t want to push our team too hard. We actually lost internet connection the night before the surveys were to begin so I was worried we wouldn’t get the maps in time, but fortunately it was back in the morning.

Could you tell me more about your work with the locals? Were they impressed by the maps?

The locals did not have a big reaction to the maps. We hired a few local residents to assist with the surveys and I needed their help to translate the maps into what we were seeing on the ground. Together we drew new maps that integrated what was depicted on the ‘missing maps’ with local knowledge about the location of villages and households vis a vis landmarks such as the road and the market. We included the names of the small villages on the new map as well as the amount of time it would take to walk (referred to as “footing” locally) between villages, and added the approximate number of households in each village. We then used those maps to determine which areas to sample in and what the sampling interval should be in each area. It was important to involve the driver in these conversations as well, not only to capture his knowledge of the area, but also to ensure that he would be able to translate the maps into a driving route for the day and navigate the rough terrain in the vehicle in a way that was consistent with the sampling plan.

Comparison on maps of Mirnyal

Did the locals and the MSF project continue using the maps once you left?

I don’t think so. However, local administrators did encourage MSF to return once the RNA data had been analysed so that they could be informed of the results. The results could inform their decision making for the area.

Do you have any opinions on how the production and use of ‘missing maps’ could be improved on?

It is absolutely essential to pair the maps with local knowledge of village names and approximate number of households, roads, and village boundaries. For example, a relatively small cluster of households within a larger cluster may be considered a separate village by local residents but this might not be known by those developing the ‘missing maps’. Users of ‘missing maps’ should interview local administrators, village chiefs, or local daily workers hired to assist with the field project in order to incorporate local knowledge onto a map. By making sure that the data on a map is consistent with local understandings of the area, ‘missing maps’ users can carry out fieldwork with more certainty and clarity.

It would be helpful if communication between the field aid worker and the people generating the maps could be improved. This would ensure that the correct maps are prioritised. It should also be ensured that all maps have cardinal points and a distance scale to help field workers orient themselves.

Are there any words of appreciation that you would like to say to our remote mappers?

The mappers did a tremendous amount of work and in this case with a very short timeline. We appreciated their enthusiasm and willingness to work according to our timelines on the ground.

What do maps mean to us?

Posted by athaikdin on 7 September 2015 in English (English).

It sometimes still comes as a surprise to me that large swathes of the planet are completely unmapped. With the advent of easily accessible technology (i.e. Google and Bing maps) and satellites, I’d have thought that the entire planet would’ve been mapped years ago. I mean, look at Google Maps. It gives you the option to view almost the entirety of the UK in either satellite or traffic view. It’s this high level of accessibility to maps and the illusion that our surroundings have been fully mapped, I think, that prevent most of us in developed, urban environments from becoming fully aware of the lack of maps in underprivileged areas.

Before I became fully involved in the Missing Maps project, I always thought that satellite images equalled maps. If there’s a satellite image of an area, went my thought process, how difficult could it be to trace those buildings, roads, and the natural landscape? From my experience with Missing Maps, I’ve come to learn that the answer is ‘very difficult’. The world is a very big place, and it takes a lot of effort, concentration, and experience to remotely map an area accurately. Anyone who’s done a small grid of an urban area through the OSM Tasking Manager can probably testify to the complexity of remote mapping. Buildings in other countries are often completely different to what you are used to in your own country. Sometimes what you think is a large apartment block is actually an hospital. And the problems don’t stop there. Satellite images don’t tell you road names or where the boundaries of a district end. You need local knowledge to fill in these gaps, and that’s where the Field Papers stage of the mapping cycle kicks in. A satellite image can visually show you an area, but it’s how you interpret what’s on the ground that matters most because it’s what gives the map its meaning.

A point similar to this was made in a podcast episode I was listening to a few days ago about North American buckskin maps from the late 1700s. Buckskin maps were originally created by Native Americans to help them navigate around their surroundings and plot concentrations of forestry, animals, and water. Essentially, it reflected how they saw life around them - as a source of nourishment. But when American land companies began moving into the very same areas, they hired local Native American guides to create maps for them to plot the locations of profitable land that could be developed industrially. Unlike the Native Americans who were one with their surroundings, the American businessmen mostly sought to exploit the land for profit. The same maps of the area were being used for two, completely different purposes because of how each group interpreted the land.

I’d like to wait and see how the local populations of the places we’ve mapped remotely will use maps created through Missing Maps. What data will they input in themselves? What will they use the maps for? Will it be for navigation around their area or for negotiation between communities? At the moment, NGOs are using ‘missing maps’ mainly for disaster preparedness, assessments, and epidemiological surveys. Hopefully someday soon, we’ll see the full potential of this project of ours.

About 3 Mondays ago, I went to my first-ever Field Papers Mapathon and to my surprise, discovered a smaller group of people to what I am normally used to at mapathons. These were the JOSM experts, the seasoned veterans of remote mapping who no longer relied on the ID-editor that I’ve come to love. They are pros at identifying different buildings and natural landmarks (a result of extensive validation work) and experts at inputting Field Papers data. For this particular mapathon, they were tasked with inputting the names of streets, religious buildings, and other important points of reference in Zimbabwe and Bangladesh into the OSM database.

On one side of the room was the Epworth crew, who were inputting data they had just recently received from Zimbabwe. Tom Hills, a PhD researcher at Imperial College London, was guiding that group, explaining to everyone how to properly input Field Papers data into JOSM. Epworth has been one of Missing Maps’ top priorities because of the risk of water-borne diseases in the neighbourhood.

And on the other side of the room was the Bangladesh crew, led by Carmen who had just recently returned from a field trip to the country. In Bangladesh, she had led Y-Care International and local OSM volunteers in collecting vital field data necessary for updating names of streets, landmarks, and townships both in English and Bengali. It was interesting to see someone who had done some field mapping herself to be sitting in London with the JOSM experts, offloading the cultural knowledge she had learnt in the field and sharing with them her knowledge of the local topography. I think more JOSM experts should be sent to the field just like Carmen for this first-hand mapping experience. And I also think that the Missing Maps project should try to get passionate, local OSM volunteers to come to London to share their local knowledge with us. I mean, the Missing Maps project is as much a cultural exchange programme as it is a remote mapping platform. It would be great to foster such an exchange over the long-term.

As I watched the JOSM experts furiously clicking away on their laptops, I thought it’d be a brilliant idea to interview a few of them to get a better idea of the work they were doing. So I asked Tom Hills, who was leading the Epworth Crew, and Maria Longley, who was working on the Bangladesh Field Papers, to sit down with me for interviews. I’m nearly done polishing up the interviews, which I will link to this post shortly. These interviews will be a part of my new ‘Meet the Mappers’ blog series that I hope will help put faces onto the many hard-working mappers who are a part of Missing Maps.

All in all, the August Mid-Mapathon was a wonderful experience for me. The food was great (breaded butterfly prawns should be a staple at every mapathon), the people were friendly, and most importantly, the passion was present. A mapathon wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for the passionate people there. And the food, of course ;)

I’ve been involved with the Missing Maps project for some time now, often attending mapathons once in a while and eating as much free food as I can there. I’ve mapped huts, houses, swamps, roads, and dried up ponds which I always mistake for huts. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from these mapathons, it’s that shadows make buildings. It’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever been given as a Missing Mapper and one that I continue to preach to new mappers.

I wouldn’t say that I’m an experienced mapper, but I’d say that I’m a Missing Maps believer. As cheesy as that may sound, it’s true. The Missing Maps project has a lot of potential to make the lives of epidemiologists, project coordinators, logisticians, health officials, and many others much easier. It provides first responders with actual maps of low-resource areas that are both detailed and up-to-date. Whether it’s a natural disaster or a disease epidemic, maps make all the difference in helping aid workers locate the most vulnerable areas and respond accordingly.

Although the project is only about 10 months old, we’ve definitely come far. This blog series that I’m writing is an attempt to document all the successes that we’ve achieved with our maps and the challenges that we’ve yet to overcome. It’s to give our mapping communities an opportunity to learn about the impact of their contributions. And to give field professionals who’ve used our maps a mouthpiece to talk about their experiences.

I hope you will enjoy this series, dear reader. I shall let you know when the next blog is published, but for now, continue mapping for the greater good.