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Community maps Africa’s biggest shanty town

Hundreds, if not thousands of people live in what is often described as ‘Africa’s biggest slum.

But until now, on government maps, Kibera has just been a blank spot marked up as forest next to Kenya’s capital Nairobi.

This is partly because it’s what is known as an informal settlement and was built unguided by planning rules, so there are hardly any formal street grids, numbered streets, sewage network, power, or phones. That meant, in effect, the place didn’t exist.

Now 30 young Kiberans have used the global positioning systems technology to pinpoint the location of the shanty town’s landmarks such as roads and health clinics. They uploaded the resulting map onto the openstreetmap website, which anyone can update.

When parts of the shanty town were flooded in May, they quickly drew up a separate map showing which areas were under water.

Fires are another danger in shanty towns not only because of the lack of fire stations, but also the difficulty fire engines have navigating through the network of un-named streets on their way to an emergency.

"Major events like floods, fires, mostly are unnoticed to the outside world. Getting out information quickly and reliably could be the first step in getting the community the help they need," said Primoz Kovacic of  Map Kibera, the organisation that trained the mapmakers.

"Without basic geographic knowledge - if you don't know how the resources are distributed like, for example, hospitals, and schools, how they are connected with roads - you cannot really talk about improving people's lives," he told Reuters news service this week.

Maps are essential to other organisations such as the Kenya Red Cross, which deals with 144 fires in Kibera each month. "There's not a single weekend that goes by (when) we are not called upon to take people to hospital, respond to a fire. In some of these areas that are very difficult to access, the corridors leading there make it very difficult to carry even stretchers," said Dr James Kisia, Deputy Secretary General of the Kenya Red Cross.

"The geography of some of these areas in not well-known to most of our workers. Often we need someone from the area to show us the place."

OpenStreetMap lets users view, edit and use geographical data in a collaborative way from anywhere on Earth. Kibera’s young mapmakers now hope to extend their project and draw global attention to the problems of their over-populated shanty town through the Voice of Kibera website where they post information about local events and issues through SMS messages.

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