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Mapping the roads less travelled

Throughout most of the developing world, there is a real and urgent need for roads data.  Road location and attribute information can play a vital role in long term development applications and also help humanitarian agencies with short term emergency and logistical planning. Despite this dire need, though, popular web mapping service applications have not explored the roads less travelled in much of the developing world. No tourists, no maps!

To help plug this gap, one of AGCommons’ Quick Win Projects is well on its way to demonstrating that reliable road maps covering remote regions are now within affordable reach. A recent interview with two people behind the Roads Data Development in Ethiopia Project, Olivier Cottray and Anna Schemper, both with iMMAP, revealed that road data is already being put to use on the ground in Ethiopia.

How did the idea for this project come about?

Olivier Cottray (OC): The model for this Quick Win Project is based on something iMMAP worked on in South Sudan for the UN Joint Logistics Centre, where we essentially used the same process of training staff in various agencies to map the roads they travelled on. At that time, we used paper-based data collection forms, which were cumbersome and time consuming compared to our present collection methods. Nonetheless, it was a successful project, and we were hoping to see the same, or at least an enhanced version of that, in Ethiopia. While I provide general oversight, Anna is responsible for the field coordination of the project.

Anna Schemper (AS): Although iMMAP is leading the project, it is a collaborative effort involving Columbia University’s Centre for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) and the Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD). We also benefit from logistical support from the World Food Programme (WFP) in Ethiopia. I was already in the country for a year seconded by iMMAP to WFP’s logistics unit before the project started; and as it turns out, WFP is currently undergoing a logistics capacity review, so the project folds in quite well with the organization’s objectives, which is why they can support us logistically.

What sort of device do you use to collect data?

OC: Several WFP offices have been allocated GPS-enabled PDA units with a customised data entry interface based on CyberTracker. We had several meetings with WFP staff in Addis Ababa to determine the tool’s practicability and field-readiness before developing the training materials to be used in conjunction with it. The road data collected through this project will contribute to the wider gROADS initiative to compile a freely accessible, consistent and accurate global database of roads.

How many WFP staff have you trained to collect data and how successful has this been?

AS: So far we have trained at least 100 people. I have conducted most of the training sessions and focused mainly on the Somali region of Ethiopia, which is our priority area. However, RCMRD also contributed by training a group of data collectors to cover a broader area of the country outside Somali region. Initially, there was some reluctance on the part of WFP staff to participate, but the organization has since made it mandatory for trained staff to collect data when they’re on mission in the field. Since then we’ve had data coming in pretty consistently.  I liaise closely with each sub office to make sure I get the mission schedules for the field staff, which I review every couple of weeks and then use to coordinate data collection. We also establish an ICT focal person in each office to retrieve the information, upload it and send it back to WFP’s country office in Addis Ababa. We currently have 17 PDA units out in the field, so we are still at the height of data collection.

OC: The data have actually been coming in a lot faster than at the onset of the project. Anna has also been providing follow-up training when necessary and troubleshooting and getting rid of glitches in terms of getting data back to Addis Ababa.

When do you expect to conclude the data collection?

AS: it will end on November 30 this year when the project concludes. As data come in, we send them to CIESIN for data processing, so they are being processed incrementally.

What will your main outputs be?

OC: The main output will be a roads data set. It will be a combination of the data we’ve collected in the field, the data that already existed and data that are also being extracted from satellite imagery and combined into one more complete roads data set than ever existed before.

Who are your possible end users?

OC: As far as the work we are doing directly with WFP, the end use is in logistics planning. The derived products, which are road maps, can then be used by any other agency that needs them for their operational planning.

Do you have a sense of how far beyond WFP the map products will be used, or is it purely internal to the WFP?

AS: It won’t be purely internal. One thing that we need to work out over the next month is how the data will be disseminated once the gROADs plan is up and running.  But from what I understand from the local NGO and UN community here, there is a lot of interest from other organizations that are keen to get their hands on this information and also contribute to it. WFP Ethiopia Logistics is carrying out a logistics capacity assessment right now by gathering all data that are relevant for logistics operations in Ethiopia. We just had a meeting with UNICEF and WHO and other organizations currently working in Ethiopia in the field where we talked about the gROADS initiative, and many organizations requested that they have access to the data collection units so that they could collect data for us over the next few months. Really, there is more demand than we can handle, even when it comes to data collection. And I think all these organizations are interested in getting the final data set as well.

How will this ultimately help the smallholder farmers?

OC: The rationale of the project in the context of farming is that the better roads data will help agencies and organizations that are supporting farmers to look at accessibility to markets. Location information is also being collected for infrastructure of importance to small holder farmers such as irrigation equipment; water reservoirs; community grain storage or fertilizer warehouses; and agricultural extension offices.

AS: One great example of how the roads data are being used is in the targeting of WFP’s Purchase for Progress (P4P) Programme, which gives farmers the information and tools they need to get a better price for their produce.

How have you benefitted from this project?

AS: In specific cases, WFP has already been using raw data collected by gROADS units to cross reference reports we receive from the field. For example, if problems such as flooding arise, or a bridge goes out, we can look at the gROADS data for location confirmation and then start considering alternate routes;—so, it’s great to have the data available. I wish we had more. We have a limited time to collect data and the collection went much more slowly than we had hoped initially, but that’s probably the norm.

What do you hope to see happening as an outcome of this project?

OC: The idea is to use Ethiopia as a proof of concept. So we really hope to try and scale this up by mapping Africa more globally than at a regional level. One of the big focuses of IMMAP’s work is giving logistical support to UN agencies, so experience in mapping roads quickly and efficiently is definitely something we want to continue building up.

Click here for an enlarged version of the gROADS map above.