Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Saturday, October 4

Google mapping Africa

Google is asking for people's help throughout Africa by contributing information to its new initiative to map the continent.  Individuals can now use Map Maker in 45 new countries in Africa, in addition to six other African countries that were made available in August (leaving, by my count, only Egypt, Guinea, Mayotte, St. Helena, and South Africa without the feature—the first and last, at least, presumably because they've already been mapped).

Rich mapping data could be particularly useful in terms of African development.  Not only can accurate and easily accessible information in this regard spur "investment, local commerce, and planning," as is the case generally, and as they note on the Google Africa blog, but, in Africa especially, where poverty and humanitarian crises are so much more pervasive than elsewhere, such data, especially when combined with GIS technology, can literally help to save lives—say, by helping NGOs to site boreholes or wells to increase access to clean drinking water, by aiding the coordination of a response to a complex emergency, or, as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Google did last year, by tracking crisis situations themselves, such as the destruction and displacement occurring in Darfur.

Regarding the use of this kind of technology in a humanitarian context more broadly, the video below discusses how lessons learned from the Hurricane Katrina response were incorporated by the Joint U.N. Logistics Centre, namely in its intervention in Burma following Cyclone Nargis (look at about 4:25):

What's interesting here is that what was missing in the Katrina response, which the U.N. later allowed for in Burma, was the ability of people on the ground to update map information in realtime.  Google mapping with Map Maker—to my layman's mind, at least—seems to overcome this problem, and to do so before necessitated by an emergency.

For more of this discussion and about other innovations in humanitarian responses, the site has some fascinating stuff.