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The drone pilot whose maps are saving lives in Zanzibar

BBC Technology 11 Jan 2019 12:04
By Katie Prescott and Sarah Treanor BBC News, Tanzania
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A lack of accurate maps is a big problem in parts of Africa: for disaster relief agencies, local authorities and people looking for safe places to build homes. Could cheap survey drones and local volunteers help plug the gaps?

Khadija Abdulla Ali is an unlikely drone pilot in the Tanzanian archipelago of Zanzibar.

Conservatively dressed and from a traditional Muslim background, she is a member of the Zanzibar Mapping Initiative, which since its inception in 2016 has become a poster-child for how African nations can approach the urgent geospatial challenges they face.

She never dreamed that her career would look anything like this.

"I worked so hard. I was working 24 hours a day taking pictures, processing the data. My family wondered what I was doing it for, but it's so worth it."

An architect by training, he's grappling with urban growth and the needs of the tourists that prop up the local economy. Sprawling settlements are in no-one's interest on this idyllic and space-conscious island.

"In Africa, we don't create space for human beings," he says. "To walk in the street in Zanzibar you have to negotiate with cars. We need to have pavements, space for children to play, for the old, for disabled people."

"We want to get to the stage where we can plot our hospitals on the map, where we can issue building safety certificates, where we can tell people where the local schools are.

"Traditionally, you would use satellite imagery but it's not that effective in the tropics because of cloud cover and it's not very high resolution," he explains.

Here, the need for better maps is acute because the city is one of the fastest growing in the world, absorbing a thousand people a day.

The last census in 2012 estimated the population to be 4.36 million - now it is nearly six million and rising.

Consequently, they lack basic amenities, such as sewers and rubbish collection.

"Houses are going up like mushrooms," he says.

This includes river banks, making the homes increasingly vulnerable to flooding.

"Mapping is the basic tool for any development," says Mr Losai. "Even if you go to war, you need a map of your enemy. If you don't have a map it's difficult for you to plan, to organise, co-ordinate, so things are completely random."

"Now we're engaging the community to make maps so the people feel a sense of ownership in them," says Mr Losai, "and they're more willing to listen to us when we tell them not to build somewhere."

You also need boots on the ground, labelling what the drones see and flagging up issues, such as blocked drains.

"You collect the data and then you've got to do something with it," explains John Kedar, director of international engagement for Ordnance Survey, the UK's national mapping agency.

Even the biggest global technology companies, such as TomTom, say they need local help to complete their maps.

Google is using artificial intelligence in Lagos to map roads, addresses and businesses from their Street View imagery, and adding buildings to the map from satellite pictures.

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Apple's maps are made from satellite images, which is fine for navigation but not for more detailed use. And several African countries are missing from its Standard Maps list - Ethiopia, Cote d'Ivoire, Djibouti and Zambia, for example.

The UN has created an Africa mapping initiative aimed at integrating population, housing and other social data with geographical information.

In Dar Es Salaam, for example, hospitals are starting to use the maps created by the World Bank's drones to mark where cholera patients are coming from, so they can spot where outbreaks are happening.

"Our end is sustainable urban development and an understanding of the unseen implications of this pace of growth."

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AfricaZanzibar Mapping InitiativeTomTomTanzaniaMr Losai
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