The Practical Radical

Steps into Mapping the Unmapped – via Mapping: No Big Deal | August 25, 2010

No big deal?? Yeah right! This is an excellent and detailed step-by-step process on how to do mapping in remote areas, and for a great purpose as well (the successful referendum held in Kenya. Check out my blog post Transparency + Accountability = Democracy, Kenya Style to see how mapping was used there).

Here are the steps in quick preview (go to the main article to see the details):

1. Season planning.

2. Try to acquire existing maps or make people create them from memory.

3. Get contacts in the area prior to your arrival.

4. Meet community leaders.

5. Find a guide who knows the area and the people.

6. Go to a local bar and have a beer. ** key to any successful mapping process! – DR

7. Go for it. Map!

8. Write a working diary.

9. Present the results to the community.

10.  Finish your work.

11.  Stay in touch.

Keep up the good work and keep us posted!



Mapping hardly accessible, rural areas, is always a challenge. Each area differs so you have to tackle it in its own special way. Yet some basic steps are always the same. I have written some of them down. In July, Mildred and I went mapping on Mount Elgon as contractors for the National Democratic Institute (NDI) on behalf of Map Kibera.

They needed information regarding polling stations in the area for their work on election monitoring. The information included geographic location, accessibility – both physical accessibility and the availability of cell phone service, information related to infrastructure of these stations, and speed of travel to each individual station.

Here is how we tackled the problems step by step:

1. Season planning.

The first and most important step in planning the mapping project is season planning. Obviously you want your work to run smoothly, without too many interruptions which is most of the time not the case. Season planning saves time, energy, money and nerves, takes the nature out of the equation, and lets you focus on other – project related problems.

While mapping on Mount Elgon we overlooked this very crucial step because the results were urgently needed. In an ignorant human and naïve researchers manner we  thought we could conquer nature or at least go over every obstacle it put on our way. We should have known better. June and July being the peak of winter, it was cold and raining all the time. We only had a window of six hours per day when we could work, and the other eight hours we tried to save ourselves from the mountain. Because of the rain, roads became impassable and everything came to a standstill. I can comfortably say we lost at least two to three days of mapping because of the rain and as a result we lost money.

Pushing the motorbike up the rain soaked hill.

2. Try to acquire existing maps or make people create them from memory.

Acquiring maps of the project area is the next important step. It helps you plan your routes, which areas you want to conquer and in what way, and it also gives a rough estimate of time you will spend conducting your work, etc. Many times while mapping remote, marginalized areas you don’t have pre-existing maps because you will probably be the first one crazy enough who will try to create them. If you can’t find any maps of the area, there is one very useful trick you can do: make people draw the map from memory. This produces amazingly accurate and helpful results. Amazing in a way that people who rarely see maps or who have never seen a map create very detailed and precise drawings – maps – of their surroundings from memory.

We didn’t really have any pre-existing maps of the area to work with before going to the mountain. There are no maps of the area and even though the NDI had a map of polling stations in the area, there was no road network on the map. This time around I didn’t ask people to draw me a map as I did on the other occasions (example below: Wongonyi) because the area was too big – roughly 400 square kilometers.

Drawn vs. MappedMap of Wongonyi drawn by Isaiah from memory vs. GPS tracks

3. Get contacts in the area prior to your arrival.

If possible make contacts in the area prior to your arrival, that way you recruit people for the cause even before you arrive. This step is called: “smooth landing”.

I contacted a friend of mine, Stephen, whose family lives in the area. He gave me his brothers’ telephone number. He also called his brother and made him aware of my arrival.  His brother than informed community leaders and at the time of my arrival the wheels were already turning.

4. Meet community leaders.

Make community leaders aware of your presence in the area and the tasks you are trying to achieve. Tell them about your needs. Make a plan on the sequence of mapping – which areas to tackle first and so on. They will serve as a connecting line to the community; provide guides, accommodation, transportation, and information. Keep them up to date with the problems you encounter.

Aaron from NDI and I met community leaders on the first day. Aaron did some explaining around the project, while I talked about the technical issues. They set us up with two drivers who also served as guides, planned the first reconnaissance of the area, and set me up in a guest house. Next day I was able to start working.

5. Find a guide who knows the area and the people.

This is probably the most crucial step. You need a really reliable person while moving through uncharted waters – which by the way are his playground since he was a child. The guide needs to know the project in depth as he will serve as an interpreter, guide, and guard. Pay all his costs and give him a daily salary – pay him a little extra to make him happy and motivated – it pays off!

The community leaders set us up with two really classy guys. Obviously they know the people there and know who is reliable and basically who is right for the job. I couldn’t be happier with the guys I was to spend the next week mapping the mountain with. Their names were Philip and Joseph. Philip was an ex policeman who knew the mountain, the history and the people inside and out. Joseph was his side kick also familiar with the surroundings. We went through some really tough times – always with a smile on our faces (I was smiling only after crying).

6. Go to a local bar and have a beer.

Next step is a bit unconventional but is the way I do things. Go to a local bar, meet people, have a beer or two or three (three is better), buy a beer or two or three (three is again better), relax, show people what an awesome person you are (of course you are!), relate to them, talk to them about the project, hear them out what they have to say about it. If the chiefs haven’t informed the people about your presence yet, this way everybody knows you by the next morning and you’ve gained the support of the community – guaranteed.

This was easy because Philip wasn’t just an awesome guy who knew everybody and had the utmost respect of the fellow Elgon dwellers, he also owned the only bar which served alcohol in the area. We were ready to set sail.

7. Go for it. Map!

Map like crazy! Take notes, pictures and videos of road conditions, infrastructure you are mapping, and events you encounter on the way. Talk to representatives of these institutions, talk to people, get additional information, and write everything down!

And so we did just that. We mapped until there was nothing left to map. No seriously, there is always more to map, so let me correct myself: we were mapping until we finished our part of the deal. Mapping itself was by no means smooth, it was interrupted on a daily basis by rain and too much sun and then rain again, and occasional mob justice (this story is on my other post – the horror stories and nightmare tales), and dancing or singing coming from the bush, and punctured tires and falling from the motorcycle, and … But we moved on despite all the obstacles and we mapped, and we looked at what we created, and it was good. And on the eighth day we rested.

8. Write a working diary.

Each day after work write your observations into a working diary. Save all the data and prepare for the next day.

That is something I never do, and I really should. It makes a difference between a good and a mediocre mapper/cartographer. Ha, whatever, no it doesn’t. I think it’s very time consuming and that it’s very nerdy. Taking notes while you’re on the go is one thing but a diary – you must be crazy. But if you’re working on a long term project and you think you will not be able to remember every small detail, than by all means do it!

NotesNotes/Working Diary

9. Present the results to the community.

In the end present the drafted results to the community and talk about it. Collect all the feedback; listen to what people have to say.

I met with community leaders and all interested parties couple of times. I showed them the drafted maps, again explained the importance of the project, and thanked them for all their help, time and patience. And afterwards we drank beers again. I looked at the work we did and the people I met, and the friendships which were born and again I realized how rewarding this kind of work is.

Presenting the results to the communityPresenting the results to the community

10.  Finish your work.

Make a map or whatever the hell you’re doing in a reasonable time period. Talk to Mikel why uploading everything into OpenStreetMap doesn’t hurt. Here is my example of Mount Elgon.

11.  Stay in touch.

Staying in touch reassure the people that your work will benefit them somehow. You will also be doing a favor to all the people that will be focusing their work later in that same area. Nobody ever expects you to return or to stay in touch. It’s rude not too. People get the feeling that they were used and forgotten. Make occasional phone calls, links to your work, etc. It doesn’t hurt.

To wrap it up. In a nutshell: Good preparations makes a difference! Community involvement makes a BIG difference! And the most important thing: You are a visitor to this places – let them lead you. Embrace the knowledge the people have about the place – geographically and culturally – and grow.

Good luck and have fun mapping. I’m out!

Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)

via Mapping: No Big Deal


  1. Hi Doug:

    I lived near Mt. Elgon in the 1980s and remember several old sawmills near the national park at around 7,000 or 8,000 feet. Did you happen to see if any of the colonial era sawmills are still standing on Mt. Elgon.



    Comment by Dan — August 26, 2010 @ 2:02 pm

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