From bus lines to gutters, tech-savvy youngsters map Mali’s capital

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Bamako (AFP) – Under a blazing sun in the Malian capital, Amadou Menta bent down to measure a gutter then noted the results on a mapping application on his smartphone.

“We’re collecting data,” said the 27-year-old geography student, helping to map roadside sewers in central Bamako with two friends.

Until recently, the capital of Mali was largely unknown on the web.

With street names or fixed transit routes often lacking in the city of some two million people, people tend to ask for directions to find their way.

But the lack of maps is a major obstacle to the development of its infrastructure – whether to avoid traffic jams, collect sewage and garbage or prevent floods.

Young, tech-savvy Malians are working to change that, cataloging the city’s features in hopes it will improve the lives of its residents.

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Armed with smartphones, dozens of volunteers collected data for the local branch of OpenStreetMap, a free online geographic database, which is then used by sites such as Google Maps.

Menta and his fellow cartographers mapped waste and rainwater collection channels in Daoudabougou, a central neighborhood often affected by flooding.

The gutter project is financially supported by the World Bank and has been well received by the authorities.

But that’s just one of the avenues the band is exploring – and there’s still a lot of work to do.

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Founder Nathalie Sidibe said there was previously “no freely available data in Mali”.

“We saw mapping as a concrete way to contribute to the development of the region,” she said.

“We need to change habits here – and to do that we need to encourage people to use digital tools.”

Data to “move forward”

Access to mobile data is still low in Mali.

Nationwide, only one in 10 women is connected to mobile broadband, compared to one in five men, according to a World Bank report released last year.

But the OpenStreetMap Mali team has been busy.

So far, its volunteers have mapped Bamako’s public minibus routes, garbage collection points and basic social services.

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Adama Konaté, deputy mayor in charge of sanitation, said the group’s efforts have helped Bamako.

“We only had basic knowledge before this project,” Konaté said.

“Now we know this place needs to be drained, and this place needs a landfill.”

Mahamadou Wadidie, director of the Regional Development Agency in Bamako, said the youth mapping project had made his job much easier.

On the agency’s website, he presented a regularly updated map of all health centers and schools in Bamako based on OpenStreetMap data.

“Instead of taking two months to find out about these things, now mayors can get this information from their computer,” he said.

“Digitalization allows us to move forward, to waste less time.”

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Mali — an impoverished country with serious governance problems battling a decade-long jihadist insurgency — doesn’t have many resources to devote to digitizing data, he said.

But Menta and his younger colleagues, he said, have shown that it is possible to launch ambitious mapping projects “without spending a lot of money”.

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