Towards the Next Generation Road Survey

Over the past few weeks, I’ve managed to escape the office and get back to the field. With an impending change, it’s been a very refreshing time to get back into the mix – especially out onto the roads of Zanzibar.


Alongside work with scaling out Ramani Huria and working with (awesome!) colleagues on the signing of an Memorandum of Understanding between Ardhi University, World Bank, and DfID to support the development of curriculum (with ITC Twente) and the sustainability of community mapping in Tanzania for the next five years. I’ve been working on a side project to look at how machine learning can be used to assess road quality.

To do this, the N/LAB team at University of Nottingham and Spatial Info (the spin out of my team that helped build Ramani Huria/Tanzania Open Data Initiative) and I are working with the Zanzibari Department of Roads, under the Ministry of Infrastructure, Communications and Transport to survey all roads in Ugunja Island Zanzibar.

The Department of Roads & Uni Nottingham Team

So far, we’ve worked on getting a surveying vehicle back on the road, initial back and forth with government stakeholders, and working on pulling together the various road data sources (such those from the Government and OpenStreetMap) to work out where to drive and the sequencing of the survey. All of this will support a data collection protocol that merges traditional surveying techniques, with novel ones such as RoadLab Pro.

All of these data streams will then be used as a training dataset to see how machine learning can inform on road quality. But first, we’re getting the traditional survey underway. It’s going to be long road ahead – as long as all the roads in Zanzibar!

Watch this space, the project’s Medium page, and the N/LAB’s blog on using machine learning for automated feature detection from imagery. Get in contact below in the comments as well.

Written in the Al-Minaar Hotel, Stone Town, Zanzibar (-6.16349,39.18690)

FOSS4G 2018: Dar es Salaam

This will be a different FOSS4G. As the first in a developing country, our vision is for an accessible and inclusive FOSS4G, a FOSS4G for All.

In 2013 I was fortunate to be on the Local Organizing Committee (LOC) of OSGEO’s Free and Open Source For Geospatial Annual Conference – aka FOSS4G. Each year, the location of FOSS4G is decided on the basis of Europe, North America and “Rest of the World”.

As Dar es Salaam, Tanzania is in the “Rest of the World”, when the call for proposals was released, myself and a small group of co-conspirators figured that we’d submit a letter of intent for Dar to be the host city. Ultimately, Dar es Salaam was selected by the OSGeo Board to be host city for 2018, co-chaired by myself and Msilikale Msilanga.

This will be a different FOSS4G. As the first in a developing country, our vision is for an accessible and inclusive FOSS4G, a FOSS4G for All. 

In aligning FOSS4G 2018 within the Sustainable Development Agenda, we aim to complement the existing OSGeo stable while empowering the Open Data, Participatory Mapping and Internet of Things work currently underway within Tanzania, the region and worldwide. This will expand the scope of the conference from traditional geography and location tech, to applications, use and best practices of our tools.

Location and geography are at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals: FOSS4G 2018 in Dar es Salaam would invigorate our existing projects, bringing them to new users and developers while supporting and nurturing the existing OSGeo community.

The clock has started for the LOC to organise the conference and the press release from OSGeo is out! It’s going to be a few months till FOSS4G 2017 in Boston till Msilikale, our LOC and I will pick up the keys to the FOSS4G car. In the meantime the Dar LOC will assemble and start laying the groundwork for 2018. It’s going to be a long and rewarding road ahead!

Putting Crowdsourcing In Action

Crowdsourcing is increasing in popularity as a form of distributed problem solving enabled by digital technologies. “The crowd” is invited to contribute towards projects, this contribution potentially being in the form of knowledge or design skills. On June the 3rd this year an interdisciplinary workshop investigating crowdsourcing and citizen science convened. It brought together experts and practitioners from many disciplines that apply a crowdsourcing approach, presenting outputs and how crowdsourcing aids projects from GalaxyZoo (an interactive project for volunteer classification of galaxies), Artmaps (an application for crowdsourcing information on Tate digital artworks) and Taarifa (a platform and community supporting the crowdsourcing of public service issues in the developing and developed world).

My personal presentation was on Taarifa, a project I started in 2011 to support community based public service delivery. Since then I’ve worked in collaboration with the World Bank in Uganda to support the Education and Local Government Ministries with reporting across the country; what started as a pilot was rolled out quickly to cover 111 districts, over a year of an at-scale pilot 14,000 reports were received and acted upon. This resulted into wider research into the wider use of public participatory service delivery in developing countries (FOSS4G Taarifa paper). The uniqueness of Taarifa is that it has been developed and maintained by wholly volunteer contributors, creating free and open source software. The contributors to Taarifa are as diverse as the problems which Taarifa addresses, ranging from PhD Candidates like myself to Physicists, Bankers and Community Organisers. Consequently, Taarifa doesn’t just look after a platform of software; it acts as a forum to share knowledge, experimentations and innovation.

Taarifa was conceived at the London Water Hackathon, as an innovation around water access and quality in Tanzania. Access to water in Tanzania currently covers less than 50% of the country’s population and with 38% of the water infrastructure, like taps, are graded as non-functional. Currently the Ministry of Water has a WPMS (Water Point Mapping System) developed after a countrywide survey. However, the system has is no functionality to update the status of the water point or view a history of service problems. This is combined with poor performance of repairs nationally if water points are repaired; citizens are disenfranchised with current methods of reporting water faults, if they can report at all. The ecosystem around supporting the repair of water points is non-existent; consequently millions of Tanzanians have no access to publicly delivered water.

It is important to stress that there isn’t ‘one’ solution to the problem of water access nor is there ‘one’ platform or software to ‘fix’ the problem. There is no one discipline that can resolve the issue of water access, there has to be a multidisciplinary approach, to a multidisciplinary problem. Cartography, Economics, Engineering, not one discipline can wholly resolve the issue of water access, nor it is an issue which can be researched and resolved through the lens of one discipline. The societal side of technology needs to not be just taken into account, but integrated into the core of the design with the people who face the issue and who will use the technology to resolve it. It is imperialistic and deterministic to assume that technology can just ‘fix’ the kind of complex issue of water access, especially as the technology is, in effect, imposed broadly by outsiders to the community in which it is intended to take root. Hence, an understanding of the community is needed; who the users are, how water access is dealt with currently and the general state of affairs. From this we have created two streams of Taarifa, one that is currently implemented and one that is currently being designed, incorporating lessons learned from initial deployments.

The first iteration of Taarifa’s design story and user action assumed that mobile connectivity wasn’t an issues and that there was an active organisation, be it government or an NGO wanting to resolve water access issues, another predicate was that the water infrastructure was adequately mapped. This led to the following reporting process for a water issue; When a report is made, for example from a Community Water Officer or a concerned citizen, it goes into the Taarifa workflow, which identifies the specific water point from the database. The reporter is then notified, thanked that they have made a report and given an estimation, based on prior time taken to repair broken water points in that district on how long it will take. An engineer is informed what is wrong with the water source. Once an engineer has been selected, a verifier can verify that repair has been completed satisfactorily. Importantly, at each stage the initial reporter is informed about the progress of the repair. This was the version trialled in Uganda.

Subsequently, learning from how Taarifa was deployed and used, the design is now intended to incorporate offline capability and ‘marketplace’ functionality. The offline capability due experiences in Uganda that connectivity wasn’t universal (this was not a surprise, however, improvements to the paradigm should be incremental) the marketplace due to the capacity of local government and organisations. If a district has no capacity to repair a broken water point, the cost could be estimated by a number of engineers receiving information about the problem and they bid using their phones. A micropayment is taken to support the system, providing a surplus, potentially reinvested into creating new capacity. Micropayments are ubiquitous in the developing world, effectively replacing a formal banking infrastructure, hence are familiar to the communities who will use this method. Consequently this should hopefully be viewed as an extension of what already exists, not something completely new.

What does all this mean within the context of the Crowdsourcing in Action workshop? Broadly it allows us, as academic researchers to typify crowdsourcing and understand more. Taarifa acts as a community crowdsourcing code and by extension curating community reporting issues in developing countries. Artmaps develops applications for use on smart phones that will allow people to relate artworks to the places, sites and environments they encounter in daily life. GalaxyZoo leverages the many eyes of the crowd to process space imagery data. Thematically, all the projects presented utilised volunteers to provide information, process it and return it to the user and other interested actors.

After the initial presentations we formed groups, of other experts and practitioners to build a common model of what crowdsourcing means to their projects and work. Then coalescing at periods to feedback practice and information learned from other participants. In doing so, we learn from successes and failures of others, understanding common themes for collaboration.

In identifying these common themes, it hopefully sets an agenda to focus on specific factors and communities under the crowdsourcing agenda. Jeremy Morley and I are planning a future “How to Hackathon” event building “Crowdsourcing in Action”. Hackathons allow volunteers (generally) to co-create ‘hacks’ to problems. In its truest sense you accelerate innovation by combining a random mix of people and skills, providing a set of previously unsolved problems, then observing what happens. As was identified in the Crowdsouring In Action, we can observe the states before crowdsourcing; we can help provide a process for participants; we can observe and process the result. However, an understanding of how participants use the tools to conduct crowdsourcing is scant. By now focusing on hackathons, we hope to discover more on how the design and development of crowdsourcing works.

Prologue to the Sanitation Hackathon

Florian Rathgeber and Fayaz Valli at the World Bank, Washington DC.
Florian Rathgeber (right centre) and Fayaz Valli (left centre) at the World Bank, Washington DC.

Taarifa was announced in various mediums as being a winner of the sanitation hackathon. To this end two Taarifans are currently representing all Taarifans in Washington DC and San Francisco. More will come from this, I’m sure. However, all of the projects of the sanitation hackathon should be given the same pedestal and treatment.

The number of projects and energy that the sanitation hackathon generated should not be lost, and energised by the constant support and coverage;

“The event featured nearly 1000 registered hackers at ten locations worldwide who developed some 62 new prototypes.” – Sanitation Hackathon Site

While this moment is still in the here and now we should all move forward, collaborating, instead of competing. From this solve the technical challenges within the sanitation issues which we face. Undoubtedly, it is a naïve and deterministic proposition to suggest that technology will solve the world’s problems. However, events like the sanitation hackathon have demonstrated that technologists from all walks of life can work together. Building a social side to these systems is a bigger problem than the technological ones, prizes and recognition aren’t replacements and should not be considered replacements for this. The hard work starts now.

Written and submitted in the Hotel Kilimanjaro, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania (-6.81669, 39.293198)

H4D2 April 12th – 14th

The HXL-Team
The HXL-Team

Last year I attended the H4D2 (Humanitarian for Disaster 2.o) organised by (and at) Aston University and Geeks Without Bounds. One of the outputs that I worked on was the HXL Extractor. Basically take data out of  GeoSPARQL, a geospatial semantic database and fire it into a GIS program. One of the team members had already been experimenting with and semantic databases and triplestores (this was most definitely a good thing, allowing us to move quickly) so our ‘mission’ was to create a middle layer to connect to a triplestore, then using the WFS-T standard to fire the extracted data into a GIS program of your choice. Interestingly the ‘project lead’ was communicating with us from Geneva via Skype, this and the prior work bellies the need for clear and concise problem statements prior to the hack. Because some of the team had been able to think about what they had to do we’d been able to work more effectively, even while learning technologies on the fly.

Going to the International Conference for Crisis Mapping Hackathon in Washington a few months later, HXL was still going strong and I got to meet the instigator of the project CJ Hendrix face to face. He’d amassed a team which went on to rightly take first prize at ICCM, now its being used by by UNOCHA with papers forthcoming. The project is growing, as evidenced by the amount of work going on in the team repository. Understandably our small team in Birmingham just did a little bit, but every little bit, helps.

Now H4D2 is coming around again on April 12th – 14th. This will then be followed up by SMERST (Social Media and Semantic Technologies in Emergency Response) a more academic focused conference on April 15th – 16th. Most importantly, you didn’t need to code to contribute, all are welcome from designers, videographers, bloggers, journalists and you! Registration for the H4D2 is open and is again at Aston University in Birmingham. Register here: It’s going to rock.

Written and submitted from the Serena, Dar Es Salaam (6.810617, 39.288284)

5.1 Surround Sound Babies

I recently had a whistle stop tour of Asia, from Hong Kong to Indonesia, finally to Kuala Lumpur. The flight to Kuala Lumpur was great, 12 hours working solidly, had room, great meal, service the works. Cathay Pacific were kind enough to upgrade me to Hong Kong. Drinking champagne into Hong Kong and what followed over the next three days of Chinese New Year will stay will me for the rest of my life. However, this blog post isn’t about that. It’s about my excruciating 14 hours of torture that Malaysian Airlines passed as “Malaysian Hospitality” from Kuala Lumpur to London.

A few hours after online check-in ‘opened’ I tried to reserve my seat. The online system just wouldn’t take me past a screen. No error message, upon clicking ‘next’ nothing would happen. Reload/relogin and the same thing. This resolved itself at 0645, where the √knack all, was available.

After a very speedy trip from downtown KL to Kuala Lumpur International, the first signs at check-in were dire. Using the business check-in desks (Sapphire status from Oneworld Alliance – consequence of flying BA a lot) I got the boarding card for the flight and apparently checked in my bags. Although as I was leaving, I hadn’t received a baggage tag and the airline assistant hadn’t apparently noticed the 20kg of Samsonite I’d lugged onto the conveyor belt.

I’d requested a seat with leg room or an aisle seat (I’m 6’6″/2 metres tall), however, they told me to speak to ticketing in the terminal. Upon entering security I asked for the same thing. I was informed that it would cost 7500 ringit (about £1500) for a better, business class seat. One of the things I’ve discovered since getting a mortgage, is that paying that sort of money for a seat upgrade isn’t probably not as needed as paying the mortgage. However, I was informed that the gate staff could be able to do something. They passed the buck onto the hosts and hostesses on the plane. Funnily enough they couldn’t do anything either.

The issue with them not being able to do this, was that they were too polite about it. A very nice hostess explained that the seating arrangement and legroom arrangement was designed for ‘asian passengers’. Ok fine. However what about Yao Ming.Potentially people from the Asia may be generally less tall, however Malaysian Airlines, you’re a global airline. Be ready for people over 6 foot to travel with you.

With a seat acquired and legs having slight movement issue, I shrugged them off and went into the normal flight routine; headphones, Economist and music playlists abound. Generally I smile and nod when someone sits next to me, cursory ‘hello’ and try to stay in my ‘zone’. I’d planned to add to the thesis over the flight, so being relaxed was an idea. The plane filled up and the safety announcement started to play. Then the piercing shrieks shattered through my eardrums.

I had two babies either side, two behind, joined a very young infant. As I looked around the mother with baby commented “You’re the unluckiest man on this plane”. Unsure if this was true, but it felt like it. Taking off the bassinets were affixed in front. The legroom became non-existent and it was impossible to move the movie screen. Slightly claustrophobic, it was very hard to move without knocking a baby trying to sleep, or person looking after said baby.

Getting the laptop out to work was difficult, but just possible, with the screen at an oblique angle. I started to tap away. With ‘The Thieves‘ (brilliant film!) on the screen the background noise was about manageable. Towards the end of the film, the sound of gunshots and diamond heist(ing) was broken by a chorus of unhappy baby. One started crying, then the other. Then all of them in succession. This continued for 4 hours. Nothing worked. Rammstein, Beethoven, Top Gear, Shantaram. You name it, I tried it. I asked the attendant if there was anything they could do, apparently there wasn’t. I tried to leave it an hour, fatigue was seriously setting in. Getting four hours sleep doesn’t bode well for a flight. The crying made sleep impossible, watching a film was hard – the noise just stresses, making it near impossible to concentrate.

Impossible to move, impossible to relax, being on your nerves wanting to sleep. It wasn’t a happy place. I requested to see the cabin services director, only to be told that he was resting. I sat on the stairs at the back for 3o minutes. After this shaved and washed, in an attempt to relax. Within 10 minutes of sitting back into the chair, the chorus was back, the situation was untenable. I requested for sleeping tablets, the best they had was Panadol. Was severely feeling let down by Malaysian at this point. Especially when the father of said child had been assigned another seat, from the overheard conversation between him and his partner, at his request, specifically for him to get some rest on the plane. Seriously Malaysian Airways, don’t let this happen again. Don’t inflict other’s spawn on others, inflict it on them.

The Cabin Services Director arrived shortly after. I was informed there was an aisle seat available and I could sit in it, surprisingly it has worse legroom, I didn’t care, it was vaguely quiet. However, this occurred six to seven hours after being on flight. Half way through one of the longest flights in the world. Why did it take so long? Why aren’t families assigned seats together? Why aren’t people with Oneworld status given priority on seats – this raises the question why should I fly with you if you don’t honour your status levels?

These questions have ruminated in my mind since. I hope that Malaysian Airlines can answer them. Otherwise British Airways and Oneworld more generally will need to clarify them. Genuinely I love the experience that BA provides (the reason I’m in Oneworld), code sharing is annoying, fine. However an experience like this has severely shook the sheen that flying with the Oneworld network and the value of the ‘status’ they’ve given me. This based off an earlier experience with American Airlines (another Oneworld partner). I hope they’ll answer them soon. Otherwise, it becomes a toss up between Skyteam and Star Alliance.

Written and submitted from Home.

FOSS4G Workshops and Hackathon Hangouts

Kate Chapman and I initiated the first community feedback session, timed for the Asia timezones. However, we had participants from across the timezones.

  • Wanted: Cartography in OSGEO in consensus for a workshop, potentially using D3.js and CartoDB
  • Wanted: “The best way of deploying MBTiles”
  • Wanted: Food security and running a data driven election campaign

Issues with equipment and bandwidth this meant a true conversation was, IMO, hard to get started in a forum. We switched to text soon after it was started. However, the feedback was valuable to further scope what the community-at-large would like to see at FOSS4G in 2013.

Do you want to get involved and present? Contact us, join the next hangout session or submit a workshop.

Written and submitted from Taman Rasuna Complex, Jakarta, Indonesia (6.219665,106.837202)