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World Bank and Google Join Hands to Support Development in South Sudan with “Mapathon”

May 4, 2011

  • At Google-World Bank South Sudan “Mapathon,” diaspora members, technology experts and development practitioners made edits to the map of South Sudan
  • South Sudan is severely under-mapped, without geospatial information on basic social infrastructure
  • Better maps help government and civil society target their development efforts

WASHINGTON, May 4, 2011 — Imagine having to walk two days to the nearest hospital just to get treatment. This is what people in the county of Kajo-Keji, in the Central Equatorial state of South Sudan have to do. But in order to know where to build hospitals in locations they are needed most, planners need to start with good maps.

To help address this issue, Google and the World Bank jointly organized a Mapathon of South Sudan on April 28 at the World Bank’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Over 60 members of the Southern Sudanese diaspora, as well as members of the technology and development community, attended the day-long event.

In my county where I come from, there is only one hospital… So this mapping exercise will help us see where the more populated areas are so that we can build a hospital there,” said Harriet Dumba, a member of the Southern Sudanese diaspora who now lives in Arlington, Va.

South Sudan is a large but severely under-mapped area, and without geospatial information on basic social infrastructure, it is challenging for the government to plan where to build schools, hospitals, education centers, and other infrastructure crucial to development. Having good maps of roads, settlements, buildings and other services will help the government and other stakeholders such as civil society and development partners to evaluate risks and current needs, and better target their efforts to support the development process.

The Bank Group has played an important role in Sudan’s development since 2005, and is deepening its engagement in South Sudan as it prepares for independence in July. 

Technology empowers the diaspora

The Mapathon also gives Southern Sudanese diaspora a chance to participate in the development of South Sudan from afar, using modern technology. World Bank Vice President for the Africa Region Obiageli Ezekwesili, who gave the opening remarks for the event, highlighted how today’s technology can empower civil society, including the diaspora, to collaborate and support the development process.

This is especially relevant in places that face daunting development challenges, such as South Sudan. “This is about shifting the center of gravity from organizations to people, and empowering them to solve their own problems and develop their own solutions using maps,” said Ezekwesili.

Hunched over laptops and poring over their screens, participants learned to use online mapping so they could help input social infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, and local businesses that they knew of back in their home villages and counties. After learning how to use Google’s online mapping tool, volunteers of the South Sudanese Diaspora, technology, and development worlds made several hundred edits to the map of South Sudan. As those edits are approved, they will appear live in Google Maps.

Better maps help target development efforts

Having good maps of roads, settlements, buildings and other services will help the government and stakeholders to evaluate risks and current needs, and better target their efforts to support the development process.

The Mapathon was one of several events the Bank has organized with different private sector partners designed to showcase the growing importance of mapping for development.

“Traditionally, you work with cartographic agencies to develop maps that take months or even years to publish,” said Aleem Walji, manager of the Innovation Practice at the World Bank Institute, the World Bank Group’s knowledge exchange institute. “With innovations in geo-spatial tools and access to local knowledge and data gathered from people who know their communities best, maps can be created in near-real time that have real value.”

Walji runs the Bank's recently launched Mapping for Results platform which visualizes Bank project locations combined with development indicators in more than 79 of the world's poorest countries, including Sudan.

“One thing I’ve realized [from this exercise] is that we’ve been spending so much time fighting instead of developing,” said Dumba, who hopes that one of the outcomes of the upcoming independence of South Sudan is that children will be able to go to school.

Maintaining engagement in South Sudan

The mapping exercise also aims to build a community of practitioners that will remain engaged in South Sudan over time.

“South Sudan is so underdeveloped in many aspects, and technology is one of them. So by mapping South Sudan, this is a step in the right direction,” said Reec Akuak, a small business owner based in the U.S. “It is also a useful way for the diaspora to connect with our people on the ground.” Akuak is also treasurer of the Southern Sudanese Community, an umbrella organization for the Southern Sudanese diaspora groups in the U.S.

“Your expertise, your local knowledge - be it of a major city or the small village where you were born - will contribute to the creation of a new map for a new nation,” said Alfred Spector, VP of Research and Special Initiatives at Google, to the diaspora present. “This isn’t just a day-long event. Together we can make a long term contribution to the future of Southern Sudan.”