On Saturday, 19th August 2017, dozens of people from all over Malawi came together in Lilongwe City to participate in an open data....

On Saturday, 19th August 2017, dozens of people from all over Malawi came together in Lilongwe City to participate in an open data mapathon hosted by mHub — Malawi’s first and leading technology hub and incubator. The goal of the event was to equip participants with basic skills and knowledge surrounding the use of OpenStreetMap (OSM), a free, editable map of the whole world that is being built by volunteers largely from scratch and released with an open-content license.

The use of OSM in Malawi could be pivotal to improving the quality of open geospatial data available, as Malawi is exposed to a number of natural hazards including floods, droughts, hailstorms, winds, landslides, earthquakes, fires, and disease and pest outbreaks. Often times, key officials in charge of making decisions that mitigate the risk of these hazards do not have adequate geospatial data to inform their decisions.

The impacts of climate-related hazards in Malawi have been increasing in recent decades due to the increased exposure of the population induced by population growth, urbanization and environmental degradation. These hazards have already led to the loss of life and assets, and negatively impacted the economy.

The lack of reliable open geospatial data in Malawi is a big impediment to disaster risk control and climate change adaptation.

In an effort to improve the quality of this data, mHub with support from the World Bank and Department of Surveys, has begun a series of mapathon events to build a community of open mapping enthusiasts.

For those who may not be in the know, a mapathon is simply a coordinated group mapping event. It is often held inside (armchair mapping) but can also be an outside with GPS receivers and other equipment or as a combined activity. Mapathons are popular in the Western countries but are not very common in the developing world — even though the developing world stands to benefit the most from improvement of open geospatial data.

These events provide an affordable yet effective means for a group of individuals to produce usable, high-quality maps of a specific area within a relatively short period of time and this initiative has shown promise through the Map Lilongwe City event.

Over 35 people attended this mapathon and were trained on how to use and contribute to OSM, followed by several hours of intensive mapping of Ntcheu district. Participants found OSM easy and enjoyable to use and learned how to submit their work for inclusion in the Malawi Spatial Data Platform (MASDAP — http://www.masdap.mw). Prizes were given to the top 10 contributors who managed to map the most area during the event.

The response from the participants has been overwhelmingly positive and a WhatsApp group was created immediately afterwards. Members of the group have since continued with mapping Ntcheu district and submitting their work to MASDAP.

The mHub organizing team is excited about this progress and optimistic that more events will grow this community and its work rate.

It is envisioned that, through such initiatives, Malawi will soon have its own thriving and active open mapping community that can not only contribute to the nation, but help to save lives globally through collaboration with similar communities throughout the world.

Written by Christine Mhone