Community Mapping in Kenya: The Value and Art of a Map

Community Mapping workshops and participatory mapping exercises can be used to explore how a community sees and understands itself spatially. By conducting a focus group, usually a group representing a specific geographic community, or subset thereof, to create of a map of their hometown, important discussions on space and priorities can reveal new dynamics in a community.

These workshops are valuable for understanding local issues and layout as an outsider, while also encouraging the local representatives to consider how space, relationships, and movement shape their lives. The result of these workshops is generally a visual map — sometimes hi-tech via Open Street Maps, or Google, or another digital version — but more often than not an illustration of markers or crayons on a large sheet of paper.

In one of the fist mapping workshop we were a part of (back in 2008), we worked with a rural community in Northern Haiti to create both geographic and participatory maps of resources, opportunities, and services. We mapped everything from schools, roads, and churches to pumps, population centers and soccer fields. In focus groups we asked the community to layout the roads and neighborhoods–and identify these same resources. Of course the discussion was interesting and revealing. For example, places which were perceived to be central and are passed through often, were central on the drawn map, even though in real space they are actually located on the edge of the area. But beyond these intriguing discussions and realizations, was another layer of the discussion–around the value of this information, and maps in general.

Nowadays, a few years after this exercise, maps are an even more ubiquitous currency for both technologists and development organizations. With the growth and availability of mapping tools–and especially the potential for the internet and technology to make this information more widespread and participatory, the nature and barriers of mapping has changed. From projects like MapKibera in Nairobi which has mapped the largest slum in Africa, to tools like Ushahidi, which helped to map the damage and relief effort after the earthquake in Haiti — maps are playing an increasing role in development.

But this proliferation of maps hasn’t changed what they are or what makes them. Maps, in the broadest sense, are a collection of geographic information–which can be visual or abstract. But more often than not, people are drawn to maps because of their potential as a visualization of information. This is where the power and illustration of maps can capture the imagination and spirit of a community to help convey important information, envision a future, or understand something through a new lens. But as with any visualization–maps are a simplification, or a clarification to reflect and share a certain viewpoint. This reality is tied into the medium and method of the map.

In our most recent mapping workshop, this time with a community in a slum in Nairobi, Kenya, we wanted to understand how a mapping workshop could be taken one step further. Rather than just begin a great conversation and enhance our local understanding, we wanted to gain scalable insight about maps while also teaching not only introductory topics on the value of thinking spatially, but also on the value of maps and geographic information on its own.

After a somewhat typical (and still important discussion) on space in the community around a mapping exercise — we steered the focus group into a discussion about exactly what resources to map. This participatory process helped populate the map with many of the important resources and systems we would want to see, but it also introduced a handful of extra services. Then we went one step further and began a discussion on the value of cheap oakleys mapping these resources–and more importantly for whom. While the community identified every church, soccer field, health center, population count, program office, community center etc. the map became increasingly congested. Of course this information could all go online and be filtered dynamically, but certain layers of this map would be exceptionally valuable to the wider community or neighbouring communities. We asked the community to sort the layers and resources based on whom they would be most valuable to. Local football fields are very important to people in the community or for visiting nearby, but might be less relevant to an international NGO. Likewise while the information such as population counts or census data might be important for a local project or international organization, this information is not as relevant to clutter a map that would direct the community members to nearby resources, such as a health clinics.

These map layers are tied into the medium of the map as well. Online maps with a high degree of geographic accuracy are excellent for dynamic information and well connected users — while maps painted on walls with local details and style are the right vehicle for targeting local people looking to find convenient important resources or services. This obvious reality though isn’t always reflected in lots of the maps which are being created today–especially when maps are created for the sake of the map. But this understanding of the value and medium of maps locally also reveals ways to connect and share this information and bridge these hyper-local and hi-tech technologies and venues. Painted maps may be less dynamic, but they don’t need to be static if maintained and integrated into a mapping system.

Every map has a creator and and an audience– and so when we work with spatial products its important to understand where maps can fit in. Some of our work, on projects like PlaceTags or in understanding informal systems spatially, brings this understanding from our local experiences into a more scalable realm. Perhaps if more organizations continue this type of discussion in more mapping workshops the power of maps will be more accessible–and the maps, which are being created for projects around the world can have an impact on multiple societies, and improve the quality of mapping projects globally.

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