Even the Pandemic Couldn’t Slow a Mapathon Down

November 4, 2020

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When the going gets tough, as is the case with the Covid-19 pandemic, the tough get going.  Mapathons by nature require the physical presence of community member volunteers to add missing information to an online map. Before we could do ours, Covid-19 hit and we decided to go digital.

As AccLab Malawi, we wanted to facilitate the labeling of buildings and roads in Area 25, a high-density area in the city of Lilongwe, that has not yet been mapped online. In a previous assessment, we found that satellite images are being updated faster than labelling of items on the ground which meant that waste collectors and recyclers struggle to estimate the amount of waste in any sub-section or plan their work. The assessment was part of a Collective Intelligence Design Studio programme supported by Nesta, an innovation foundation.

Mapathons empower people to use technology and data to solve complex social challenges - like unmanaged waste. We brought on board mHub and the Surveys Department to co-facilitate the mapathon and recruited 20 volunteers to be trained before mapping the selected area. However, instead of bringing the mappers into one room, the workshop was held online using Zoom. Working from home is the new norm!

During two-days, our volunteers were introduced to mapping concepts, and given hands on training using OpenStreetMap. After the training came working sessions, where the volunteers were divided into groups, each with a specific area to map. The groups coordinated themselves using WhatsApp groups and Zoom breakout rooms and at end of each day during plenary, a representative shared their screen to present a summary of what they mapped to all participants. After the mapathon, facilitators identified the edits made by volunteers and refined them for quality assurance.

A total of 1,034 edits were made on OpenStreetMap which have been updated into Malawi Spatial Data Portal (MASDAP) which is managed by the Ministry of Lands’ National Spatial Data Center. Both MASDAP and OpenStreetMap are open data platforms which provide free access to map data.

Using online tools such as Overpass Query Language, programmers can automate extraction of map information at  any granular level. Waste collectors for example, can count number of buildings in Section B of Area 25 to estimate their workload.

Through hosting the mapathon virtually instead of physically, we expanded where our participants could be based. As long you were familiar with Area 25 and had good internet access, you were eligible to participate.

Then tracking of who participated was done in a breeze since the electronic tools easily gave us lists of people and times when they were present.

But not everything ran smoothly. Volunteers joining from semi-urban areas got disconnected more frequently than city dwellers due to power outages and slower Internet connections. High population density in our major cities makes it economically viable for our mobile network operators to install 4G equipment unlike semi-urban towns and rural areas. Which begs the question: are we digitally leaving others behind as we increase adoption of digital services?

Fortunately, or still unfortunately, we all had one experience in common: our Internet connections were not fast enough to support video and load satellite images as fast as we expected. So as soon as we learned this during introductory sessions, video was disabled and participation was mainly via audio and text conversations with screen sharing.

Despite facing these challenges, we did it! We held the virtual workshop and trained 20 volunteers who made over 1,000 edits, without putting participants at risk of catching Coronavirus.

With the World Health Organization warning that COVID-19 is here to stay, virtual workshops are likely to become more common as we adapt to a new normal of life with the virus. We hope you will therefore find these insights useful!