Mon, Jun 19, 2017 - Page 14 News List

Beninese amateur mapmakers tackle ‘navigation challenge’ via mobile app


Beninese security forces evacuate buildings near an intersection in Cotonou on Jan. 27.

Photo: AFP

In Benin’s capital, Cotonou, as in many other African cities, finding a house, office or restaurant is often like a treasure hunt. Luck, if not a miracle, is required as easy clues such as street names, even where they exist, are usually not posted and address numbers are rarely marked.

Most people in Cotonou formulate complex combinations of landmarks and directions to navigate around town.

Typical directions might be: “My office is after the big market, past the apartment block on the right with the mobile phone mast and it’s the third road on the left, tiled building.”

Sam Agbadonou, a 34-year-old former medical technician, knows how frustrating it can be to get around and describes Cotonou as a “navigation challenge.”

“I was called when there were breakdowns and went to health centers to repair machines that save lives, but some centers are really in the middle of outlying neighborhoods and it is difficult to get there,” he said.

To put an end to the hassle and quickly find their destination, locals are turning to crowdsourced mapping applications adapted for use in Africa that are challenging Google Maps.

In 2013, when Agbadonou heard about OpenStreetMap, an international project founded in 2004 to create a free world map, he knew it was a good idea.

Agbadonou founded the Benin branch of the project, which today boasts 30 members.

With his friend Saliou Abdou, a trained geographer, Agbadonou regularly organizes “map parties” — field trips to identify the city’s geographical data.

They start with the basics — street names and address numbers — and move on to other details that set their maps apart from the Silicon Valley competition.

“We write down everything: the trees, the water points, the vulcanizer [tire repairer] on the street corner, the tailor’s shop... You don’t see that on Google Maps,” Agbadonou said.

Thanks to his work over the past four years, Cotonou is slowly revealing itself.

For example, the Ladji District, which never used to feature on most maps, is now included.

Armelle Choplin, an urban planner at the Institute of Research for Development in Cotonou, has no choice but to use Google Maps for her work.

However, she is relying more and more on the crowdsourced maps which are more adapted to an African context.

“IGN France [the French national institute of geographic and forest information] carried out an aerial mapping of Benin between 2015 and last year, and it should be available in September,” Choplin said.

Rapid population growth, lack of regulation in real estate and haphazard urbanization are a headache for most big cities in Africa.

Along the West African coast in Ghana, Sesinam Dagadu created a similar mobile app called SnooCode, which targets the poorest in society and illiterate people.

His goal is to give “an address for every man, woman and child” by issuing an individual “location code” as a substitute address.

“I wanted to make sure our system was accessible to those at the bottom of the social pyramid,” Dagadu said about his app, which is free.

“Without addresses, many important features of the modern society no longer work, from tracking diseases and emergency response services to e-commerce and deliveries,” the 31-year-old said.

OpenStreetMap is already being used by humanitarian organizations during epidemics.

Enthusiastic communities of amateur cartographers participating in “mapathons” have been inputting geographical data from satellite images available on the Internet into the online map.

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