Field Mapping Setup

Posted by dkunce on 26 March 2016 in English (English). Last updated on 27 March 2016.

I’m almost home after three week field mapping trip to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. The mapping is part of the American Red Cross’ West Africa Border Mapping project. We hope to verify the location of around 6,000 villages and detail map large portions of 15km of either side of the Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea borders. We are building off of the wonderful work done by HOT volunteers during the ebola crisis. This project is the largest Missing Maps project started to date. Field mapping is always a fun activity and is at the heart of mapping in OSM. Field Mapping is the important verification of the great work done by remote mappers around the world. Most Missing Maps projects have a field mapping component and we are constantly working to improve our methods, build local mapping capacity, and spread the OSM gospel. For this project we are planning on engaging over 200 volunteers to learn how to map in OSM.

Team Lofa

Mapping 6,000 villages over an area roughly the size of West Virginia (for the Americans) or a tiny bit smaller than Switzerland (for the non-Americans) in just 6 months requires some deep thought about the technology that we will use. I’ve previously posted about how we are developing Portable OSM to help us map offline. This post however is about all of the amazing hardware and software we use that we did not develop. We of course put everything in handy Pelican cases for safety while traveling and to keep everything in one piece.




OSMAnd is one of the foundations of our mobile mapping. While OSMAnd takes a little extra training to use effectively it has all the features we need in one app.


There is no better way to quickly make and view an offline map of OSM than using OSMAnd. We create new basemaps all the time using the great HOT Export Tool.

GPX Tracker

Yes there are a bunch of other great GPX trackers out there and some are easier to use but having a basemap + GPX tracker is easy for our volunteers to learn and sufficient for our needs.


We use OSMAnd extensively in the field for directions and routing. Finding the shortest/fastest route is two or three clicks. Our disaster relief teams used OSMAnd during the Typhoon Haiyan and Nepal Earthquake responses. We got great feedback from teams that used it every day to distribute relief supplies after only one 15 min training.


Our go to survey data collection tools. ODK is super fast and easy to learn both for mappers and survey managers. We loved ODK so much we built OpenMapKit on top of it.


We are experimenting with OpenSignal right now to see if we can build good enough cell coverage maps of our project areas. All phones are set to share the data with OpenSignal and save the data locally so we can extract it and create our own maps.


Mobile Phone

A couple years ago we made the decision driven by efficient project budgeting to not use both dedicated GPS devices and cell phones. Initially we used Samsung S3/S4 phones. These were ok and we have to replace a lot of phones because of poor GPS reception. For our West Africa mapping project we didn’t need 15-20 phones like a normal trip but instead needed 120+ phones that will be used almost daily for the next six months. After a little bit of internet research we discovered the Blu Bold. The Blu Bold is roughly $60 on Amazon and has all the features we need in a phone. We tested them in the last two weeks are impressed both by the build quality and the ruggedness of a “cheap” phone. I’m even considering one for my own personal phone after this trip.


Power Bank

Using mobiles phones in the field is amazing…until you run out of battery. To keep this from happening to our field teams we give everyone an external power bank capable of charging their phones several times over. We use the Anker Estro E5. It is a great price point with tons of capacity. Volunteers are then able to leave their power bank overnight in a charging station without risking their phone getting lost or stolen.

Garmin Virb Cameras

Just over a year ago we started experimenting with Mapillary to see if we could effectively use photos to both help our mapping and tell the story of the communities better. Since then we logged hundreds of miles and thousands of photos uploaded to Mapillary from walks through neighborhoods in Haiti to drives through vulnerable communities in Zimbabwe. We experimented with both GoPros and Garmin cameras and settled on the Garmin Virb as the camera for us. The built in GPS with track recording makes uploading photo to Mapillary super easy. Mapillary heard about our project and kindly donated 19 Garmin Virb cameras. We’ve put these cameras to good use already capturing roughly a thousand miles of road in the past 2 weeks. We’ve put the cameras on both motobikes and cars and have captured some stunning photos that really make it feel like you are driving down the small paths with us.


Comment from Little Brother on 27 March 2016 at 10:34

You guys are amazing. I only wish I was young enough to join you. I have done some HOT tasks in Africa but I admit I was not to proud of our mutual efforts. Many entries were overrated, especially the potential helicopter landing pads which were defined with no knowledge of the incline and in addition were tagged in a misleading way (can’t remember what that was).

If you guys can correct that data that will be really good and thank you for motivating the locals: They are the best source!

Comment from pnorman on 28 March 2016 at 21:27

Are you using the Garmin Virb X or XE? I’ve found GPS problems when taking photos with the XE at a 2 second interval, how often do you take them?

Comment from Majormax on 28 March 2016 at 22:04

Great post!

Comment from Kretzer on 1 April 2016 at 12:04

Thanks for this intersting post! I would be very interested to see how you classified the roads in the field, as I always find this difficult … best with the images alongside. The road ind the image above, for example - is this a track? Or something major? (YesI know, there are some examples in the various wiki pages. Still …)

And just out of curiosity: Can the volunteers keep the phones after mapping?

Comment from dkunce on 3 April 2016 at 19:37

@pnorman we use the X if you are capturing still there isn’t really a difference.

@Kretzer the photo above is from a major connecting road that is currently tagged highway=secondary!! The roads types/quality in africa doesn’t compare to developed places. This road is basically impassible during rainy season further complicating things.

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