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Results Briefs January 17, 2020

How To Get There? In Afghanistan, It's As Simple As Putting ‘There’ On The Map

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World Bank staffer, Walker Kosmidou-Bradley with OpenStreetMap mapathon participants in Kabul. 

Walker Kosmidou-Bradley/World Bank


SUMMARY

Racked by years of war and instability, Afghanistan is crisscrossed by roads and pathways that are largely unmapped. That makes it difficult and sometimes impossible for government and aid groups effectively to deliver services and aid. A World Bank geographer marshaled satellite imagery and an eager volunteer force of Afghans and students to help put remote, needy regions of Afghanistan literally on the map.

CHALLENGE

Many of Afghanistan’s poorest families live in remote rural communities ravaged by decades of war and poverty, far from hospitals, clinics, schools, and commerce. What infrastructure existed to serve them has been heavily damaged, cutting off communities and isolating those who need help the most.

Before the Afghan government and international humanitarian organizations can deliver help to isolated towns and villages, they need to know where these communities are, and how to get to them. Afghanistan is a country of immense mountains, deep river valleys, and arid deserts. For vast swaths of the country, government and humanitarian actors lacked needed mapping information in an accessible format

Roads are unnamed and unmapped, rivers uncharted, mountain ranges unsurveyed. Many mosques, markets, hospitals, schools, and clinics have never been plotted. As is true throughout the developing world, only major highways and some urban centers have been carefully mapped. Even those maps that do exist are often proprietary or are paper maps maintained by various government ministries — and not made publicly available.

And while there are many other areas of the world where a lack of good maps is an issue, in Afghanistan the problem is particularly acute. With the security situation persistently fragile, geographers remain unable to map features in isolated region. Since 2017, the World Bank and the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund have been working with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) and the Ministry of Public Works to build more than 2,200 kilometers of new roads and upgrade and maintain more than 6,000 kilometers of existing roads.

Despite their efforts, tens of thousands of kilometers of tertiary roads — generally small, unpaved tracks that snake from village to village or connect to larger driving routes — remain unmapped and unknown outside of nearby communities. And the government ministries lack basic data even on many of the road segments they are tasked to upgrade and maintain. 


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90,000+ kilometers

of roads have been mapped since the project began


APPROACH

Walker Kosmidou-Bradley, a geographer on the Afghanistan team in the Poverty and Equity Global Practice, had a simple idea: Harness satellite data, open-source digital mapping technology, and old-fashioned people power to produce precise digital maps of every road, pathway and track in rural Afghanistan.

Since January 2017, Kosmidou-Bradley, together with several hundred Afghan civil servants, professors, university students from Afghanistan and elsewhere and crowdsourced geography enthusiasts from around the world has done just that. Using OpenStreetMap, a free, open-source geospatial data portal built and maintained by mappers around the world, they have mapped over 90,000 kilometers of road in Afghanistan. In addition, they have corrected or removed poor, often unusable map data for another 15,000 kilometers of roadways that had been digitized based on faulty or fanciful information.

In government buildings in Kabul, in classrooms at George Washington University and in conference rooms at the World Bank, Kosmidou-Bradley holds what are known as “mapathons.” Participants open a web browser on their laptops or even through apps on their mobile phones. They create an account, so all changes made are accounted for, and, using free high-resolution satellite imagery, they trace roads, buildings and intersections. They label everything. And if a feature isn’t easily recognizable, they turn to the online community for help. Often, someone with firsthand knowledge of a particular place, and the types of features found there, swoops in to add a name. Others check for accuracy.

“When I train people, usually the first thing they do is they digitize the neighborhoods or villages where they’re from. They know it better than anyone else,” Kosmidou-Bradley said.

Since OpenStreetMap is always public — a sort of geographer’s Wikipedia — every time they map a new road segment or add information on the location of a mosque, a school or anything else, everyone in the world has access to it. Every humanitarian or development organization. Every department of every government, everyone. There are no locked folders or bureaucratic red tape. All information is open and available on-demand.

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Walker Kosmidou-Bradley speaking to students at George Washington University's Humanitarian Mapping Society mapathon showing how their work will be used to mape accessibility in Ghor Province, Afghanstain. Photo: Christina Wieser/World Bank

RESULTS

The more than 90,000 kilometers of roads that have been mapped by the World Bank and others since the project began are just the beginning. In addition:

  • The MRRD is using the mapping project to fill in data they are lacking on their road network.
  •  Afghan education officials are using the maps to understand if students can get to schools, and in what numbers.
  • And the health ministry is using the data to measure not only exactly who has access to public health clinics, but to design health clinics that are appropriate to the number of people in a particular area.

“This is something that is objective, so it’s helpful for all policymakers in Afghanistan,” Kosmidou-Bradley said. “They want to bring services to their areas. What this type of analysis can do is provide an objective way to say which area needs what most. Fundamentally what we are trying to do is address a gap in foundational data that is so critical, and so overlooked.”

WORLD BANK AND PARTNER CONTRIBUTIONS

The mapping project is funded by the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund, a partnership between 34 international donors and the Afghan government for the improved effectiveness of the reconstruction effort.

The project was conceived and is being shepherded by Kosmidou-Bradley, with support from the World Bank’s GeoCenter and Geospatial Operations Support Team, and in Afghanistan, the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development and the Ministry of Public Works.

MOVING FORWARD

Kosmidou-Bradley is making plans to embed knowledge of the mapping system in universities in Afghanistan and beyond, to make the effort increasingly systematized and self-sustaining.

“The point of all this is to build a sustainable data ecosystem, so this type of thing will hopefully outlive our presence in Afghanistan,” Kosmidou-Bradley said. “We are not going to be able to digitize the whole country by ourselves. This is about building capacity and building relationships between different entities. Networking and mutual support increase efficiency, speed up the decision-making process, and bring development or aid to those who need it most.”