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e World in 2009
Middle East and Africa
Putting Africa on the map
Nov 19th 2008
From The World in 2009 print edition
By Jonathan Ledgard, NAIROBI
An information revolution in the making
It will be the year of the map in Africa. Not just street directions uploaded to mobile phones for the befuddled, although that will be a blessing on a continent where often the only address is a post-office box, but internet maps galore, most of them available to the public.
This will do more than any political initiative in 2009 to determine exactly where money should best be spent in Africa.
Patchy knowledge: red marks the spots of epidemiological data on malaria
Source: www.map.ox.ac.ukIt is hard to overestimate how important a shift this is for Africa, says Oxford University’s Bob Snow, who heads the Wellcome Trust’s anti-malaria initiative in Kenya.
Back in 1989, when the programme was set up in Kilifi on the Kenyan coast, it took Mr Snow 12 letters and several months to get a map of Kilifi district.
A request had to be filed with the ministry of health to go to the ministry of planning, which would then request the mapping division to allow release of a map—if the army approved.
Digital mapping is nothing new, says Tim Robinson of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. But its possibilities have grown with satellite data, and new technology for storage. “No more tapes and dodgy optical disks—you simply buy a new stack of hard drives.”
The kind of maps which in the past had been held to ransom by secretive African governments will pop up in an African internet café in less than a minute in 2009.
Many will be annotated “wiki” style, with layers of information added and verified by an online community: street names for all, distribution of infant deaths for development workers, livestock density for agricultural officials, Catholic primary schools for a local bishop, and YouTube videos on the best snorkelling spots for tourists.
The head of the East Africa office of Google, Joseph Mucheru, says these maps will lead a push for more local information in Africa and “will allow you to see parts of your own country you haven’t seen before”.
It won’t stop there. Africa harbours many of the planet’s most infectious diseases. Urban migration within Africa and air travel from Africa to the rest of the world have increased the risk of them spreading, but detection has been limited.
Mark Smolinski, a “disease threat detective” at Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the internet company, points out that the first clinical case of HIV-AIDS can now be traced back to Africa in 1959, but was not identified until 1981.
By using digital maps of Africa and overlaying them with information of interest to researchers, such as local consumption of bush meat, Mr Smolinski believes teams of epidemiologists working together with medical workers texting in information from their mobile phones will do a better job of tracking exotic pathogens before they become mass killers.
Similarly, aid workers in 2009 will use digital maps for realtime information on famines and conflict, starting with an acute famine in Ethiopia.
The maps on Google and other sites are too general to produce new data for scientific research, but they will serve to disseminate the findings of scientists to African policymakers and the public, changing the way money is spent.
Mr Snow cites a map of malaria incidence in Somalia, a country too dangerous for epidemiologists to visit.
A glance at the map shows that much of the money to treat the disease goes to the north of Somalia, where the incidence of malaria is lower. Expect more embarrassing maps to be pushed by activists, published in newspapers and waved around in government meetings across Africa.
J.M. Ledgard: eastern Africa correspondent, The Economist, and novelist