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Sudanese Hope Mapping Project Brings Relief

BY Larisa Epatko  May 27, 2011 at 11:40 AM EST

A Google map of the city of Wau in Southern Sudan shows nameless streets.

Southern Sudan is on the brink of becoming its own country on July 9, but it lacks a basic necessity to help its people not only move around, but move forward: good maps.

“South Sudan seems like Adam and Eve (era) — there are no roads,” nor detailed maps like other countries have, said Nhail Chuol Tut, 31, who came from a village called Ayod in Jonglei state in southern Sudan to study in the United States.

Recently, Tut and several dozen other members of the Sudanese Diaspora in the United States congregated at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., to learn how to input the locations of buildings, roads and water sources into Google Map Maker in order to plot these places — often for the first time, in the case of Sudan.

On out-of-date maps, some towns that are actually in Sudan show up in neighboring Uganda, said another mapping volunteer, Harriet Dumba, 32. Born in Kajo Keji in Southern Sudan, she grew up in a series of refugee camps in order to escape the fighting between the mainly Arab north and largely Christian south.

A five-year peace accord brought an end to two decades of violence. As part of the agreement, Southern Sudanese had a chance to vote to secede from the North, which they voted overwhelmingly to do in January.

“It’s unfortunate that we can’t live together, but it’s also a blessing if it brings peace,” Dumba said.

Since many Sudanese left their homes years ago due to the violence — and are just now returning — they have little recollection of where places are, making accurate maps all the more necessary, she said.

And she noted that the mapping project will help channel development to the right places. “As a country with so many needs, it’s a chance to locate resources and where they are needed,” she said. Donors can see where schools and hospitals are lacking and direct funding to those areas, she added.

Dumba said her home state has one hospital, but as many refugees return to Sudan, they are straining those resources. Maternal clinics also are in short supply. And children sometimes have to walk for miles to get to the few schools in their county, she said.

“The needs are so enormous. Sometimes it’s even hard to know where to start, but identifying them helps,” said Dumba.

That’s the whole idea, said Aleem Walji, practice manager for innovation at the World Bank. In order to address basic problems of planning, one needs to know where schools, water centers, population centers and roads are or are lacking, he said. “This is the infrastructure data that helps you plan.”

And the maps are being done by people who know the country best, he added.

Participants in the project will use GPS-enabled devices, which allow them to get coordinates of places in a country where roads — when they do exist — are notoriously bad, and where Internet access is spotty.

The GPS loggers, which use satellite data instead, cost about $60 apiece. Google.org representatives said at the workshop that they provide technical training and the online tools to make the maps, rather than financial support.

“If a community needs to organize itself, yes we can kick start and train the community,” said France Lamy, a program manager at Google.org. But hopefully, the original trainers will instruct others and when they see the benefits of having the maps, it will grow from there, she said.

Tut, whose parents, siblings and friends are still in Southern Sudan, said he hopes people have the means and are motivated to carry on the mapping project, and that maybe he himself could return someday to do his part.

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