Geography matters: Mapping local knowledge to support community-based health activities


If you’ve used Google maps to find a restaurant while traveling, or logged onto your health insurance provider’s website to find the nearest primary care physician in an unfamiliar city, you’ve experienced the power maps have first-hand. Knowing business locations simplifies our day-to-day lives and connects us to services we need.

Douglas Namale adds data to a map during a participatory mapping exercise on health in Kibera. (Photo credit: Erica Hagen)

Across the global health community, mapping efforts are incorporating local knowledge, detailing where services are available, outbreaks occur, and treatment is provided.  These visual displays have empowered community-based workers and program planners with the information required to effectively deliver health services to those who need them most. At a one-day workshop hosted by the USAID-funded MEASURE Evaluation project, experts from across the health sector gathered to explore the successes and challenges we face when mapping community-based programs. Over 70 participants from more than 30 different organizations gathered together on Friday to review ongoing mapping efforts and discuss the key elements needed to translate existed success into new areas.

At the workshop, Erica Hagen from Map Kibera discussed the role citizen mapping plays in empowering the members of an impoverished community within Nairobi to communicate their stories and categorize their needs.  Hagan described how local communities are the most important stakeholders for identifying their own priorities for projects improving health, education, safety, and water and sanitation.  Yet they rarely have access to information on services or infrastructure. “It’s more about supplementing what’s happening at the community level [than building something completely new],” Hagan explained to the room of attendees while detailing how they trained community youth from  one of the world’s largest urban slums. The organization, supported by GroundTruth Initiative, continues to provide a forum for Kibera residents to map their community and tell their stories through a combination of open, web-based technologies, including a honest and informative blog and a news channel.

One of these technologies, OpenStreetMap (OSM), was demonstrated by Robert Baker, from the Humanitarian OpenStreatMap Team (HOT). Baker discussed combining community engagement, paper based maps, walking papers, satellite imagery, OSM, and Quantum GIS software (QGIS) for disaster and emergency preparedness and response work in Haiti and Indonesia.  Combining technology and paper-based approaches can be immensely valuable.  Open source platforms for mapping, like OSM, are game changers—they allow community members with limited computer literacy and basic mapping abilities to generate simple, elegant maps of their own communities.

In addition, Yohana Mapala from MEASURE Evaluation/Tanzania, Tariq Azim from JSI, the Resident Advisor on the HMIS Scale-up Project in Ethiopia, and Madhav Chaulagain from the Saath-Saath Project in Nepal focused on a variety of examples where maps have been integrated into global health programs, at a variety of scales and with various levels of technology.  Mapala demonstrated the role community informants played in identifying both HIV-transmission hotspots and gaps in program coverage in Iringa, Tanzania.  This information can help best position health workers in places where they are able to reach underserved populations.  In Chaulagain’s presentation, a variety of both basic and high-tech approaches to mapping were shown to be useful for planning and decision making by community volunteers, field-level staff, and program managers.

The various presentations and afternoon discussions highlighted how both a final map and the mapping process itself provide paths for engaging the community.  As a visual display, a map can serve as a focal point for discussions, both within the community and between program managers and the community.   These conversations about current health issues and gaps in services can guide future programs, ultimately supporting improved targeting of services and better health outcomes.

One response to “Geography matters: Mapping local knowledge to support community-based health activities”

  1. I’m just wondering about the usefulness of maps for those stakeholders who perhaps have very little experience in their culture with visual spatial representation. Knowing a little of Kibera, for instance, I wonder what proportion of the inhabitants have much experience in gaining much information from them. I’m sure this is not a new thought to you – just wondering how it is being dealt with.

    Next conference, you can do one of the sessions on this!

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