Partecipatory mapping

One of the most exciting projects in development work I happen to read about in these last years is MapKibera. Through the use of open source data, collection of geodata and participatory processes, the project managed to, literally, put the biggest African slum on the maps, from where it had been conspicuously ignored until then – being, officially, an irregular settlement.

I think it is difficult to overestimate how empowering such an initiative has been for the people involved and for the other inhabitants of Kibera. They acquired an advocacy tool and were put on the radar of Nairobi politics after years of exclusion. They acquired new skills, and could use them for a clear purpose. They got to know their own space better. Regarding this last point, I found particularly interesting the security mapping exercise (you can further read some information on the wiki of MapKibera, on their blog and an example of the questionnaires used), that allowed to visualize spatially areas that were considered safe and spots that were dangerous, especially for young women.

I found this interesting as I happened to see that all too often the spatial dimension is forgotten in aid work. Humanitarians are data-obsessed (although the quality of data collected is not always that great), but the spatial dimension of data is often forgotten, or considered something cool but an unnecessary luxury at the end of the day, although the situation is improving (you can check the links I post at the end of this page for some examples). It is a shame as it could make aid work easier and more effective: think about the advantages of visualizing information in a graphical form, like on a map, rather than on a spreadsheet. This is a good discussion on the topic (even if John Snow in fact mapped the cases of cholera in Soho after he first presented the results of his research): as Holman says, 1. maps will help illuminate patterns in data that can’t be found with spreadsheets; 2. maps allow almost everyone to contribute to the analysis and the discussion.

In my personal experience, I attempted participatory mapping a couple of times while working in prevention of gender based violence, of course on a very limited, “quick and dirty” scale, in the context of protection assessments. I could appreciate how the approach is helpful and can indeed bring people to open up about topics that otherwise wouldn’t be easy to deal with and discuss about. In the context of a protection assessment in Bor, community leaders could communicate to us that there were issues in terms of assaults in the area around a barrack, a topic that otherwise wouldn’t have been touched for fear of potential backlash. Pointing on a map that the problem was “there” rather than “near the barrack” allowed them some degree of freedom to be more open about the issue.

Partecipatory mapping in Bor
Protection assessment through partecipatory mapping in Bor

Of course, this is no silver bullet – nothing is – and not always the results are satisfactory. A similar experiment I undertook in a refugee camp didn’t add much to what we already knew – I am pretty sure that this happened because the discussion was with a group of girls and our team was mixed, probably with an all-female team the discussion would have been different. Furthermore, spatial conceptualizations are culture specific – and if maps are a helpful tool for the inhabitants of Kibera, it was quite useless for refugees from Sudan that weren’t familiar at all with them.

These words of caution being said, I am still sure that the approach is worth a shot. And I would always recommend to take into consideration the spatial dimension when collecting data.

Here are some resources and organizations working on mapping and collection and analysis of spatial information in aid contexts:

Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team

Reach Initiative

Unitar’s Operational Satellite Programme – UNOSAT




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