Helping to map Uganda, one school at a time

When those of us living in the UK want to find a particular place, a shop, a school, or a landmark, our first recourse is probably to turn to Google Maps. We may not feel we are utterly dependent on this tool: there are other options like the yellow pages combined with an A-to-Z. But one way or another, we are utterly reliant on maps. In rural Uganda, none of these options exist. Google Maps does show major roads, and would allow you to navigate between and within big cities. But around rural towns like Mbiriizi, where TASTE will be based, many of the smaller tracks people rely on to get from A to B are not shown. Indeed the town of Mbiriizi itself is not labelled.

There is a very present and ever growing need for this sort of information. We got a personal experience of the lack of data available when, during our research trip, we wanted to visit every school in Lwengo district. The district education office has some limited information about schools which are either government run or partially government supported. However, there are many other wholly private schools which do not appear on their records.

Visiting schools on a boda-boda motorcycle

The strategy we were forced to adopt was to drive into rural towns on a boda-boda and ask local people if they knew of any secondary schools nearby. We would then visit the school, meet a senior figure and collect some basic data. We would find out how many students they had, split into how many classes and what facilities they currently had for practical science. Where possible we talked to students and science teachers, and viewed any laboratory room. But importantly we also recorded the GPS coordinates of each school, and tracked the routes needed to reach them.

Meeting students at a school to discuss their current experiences in science lessons

We are now contributing this information to the collaborative OpenStreetMap (OSM) project. Started in 2004, OSM now has more than 24 million kilometres in mapped roads, and outclasses Google Maps in a number of regions. We have added the schools we visited to OpenStreetMap, and also the tracks on which we travelled, many of which were previously in blank stretches of map. We have also made more data about the schools of Lwengo available at the Secondary Schools of Lwengo district page on the website.

We hope that this information will be useful to many NGOs in the future, and that our small contributions to making a world-class digital map of Uganda helps the population in the years to come. Over the next year of operations in Uganda, the mobile lab vehicle will record much more GPS data, especially on our teacher training tours which will travel to regions of Uganda beyond Lwengo district. The roads, villages and schools we encounter will be added to the map to help provide a resource which will support Uganda’s continuing development.

Comparison of Google Map (right) and OSM map with data added by TASTE (left) for one region of Lwengo district

There is currently a campaign, driven by the Red Cross, to improve mapping of the Ugandan cities of Gulu and Lira using OpenStreetMap.  The Red Cross needs these maps in order to respond to disasters appropriately and rapidly. You can find out more, and even get involved here.

In a digital era there are endless opportunities for NGOs, which often focus on similar areas including healthcare and education, to share data.  It is almost certain that many of the schools we visited had been visited by NGOs in the past, but their details were not readily available online. We hope to share as much of the data we generate as possible so it can be of benefit to anyone to whom it would be useful.

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