Can Google Maps help make Africa safer? Some in Nigeria think so.
Credit: Pius Utomi Ekpei

ABUJA, Nigeria — Armed with laptops and smartphones, more than a hundred young Nigerians fanned out across Nigeria’s capital last week, helping to Google map their oft-forgotten, mostly avoided West African city.

Citizen Google mapping is not uncommon. Rwanda was the first African country to hold a public “Google MapUp,” as the projects are known. The efforts are typically aimed at supporting the tourism industry.

But in Abuja, which may be known these days more for its terror sites than its tourist sites, the mappers have a very different goal in mind. Hamzat Lawal, one of the “citizen cartographers,” believes the project will help make the city safer.

Urban Nigerians generally identify their location with a nearby building, not an address or a street name. In the countryside, people identify with the nearest villages, many of which are not yet found on Google Maps.

If someone calls emergency services, dispatchers will be able to type the information they’ve been given into their GPS devices, which will soon be able to identify the location without having a specific address, Lawal said.

“As a security agent, they can just call you and just tell you the name of the place,” he told GlobalPost.

Oludotun Babayemi, director of MapUp for Google Abuja, said that over time, mappers could help security forces respond to sectarian violence and food crises by uploading data they gather from relatives or friends in the countryside — where internet is often inaccessible — onto Google Maps. Currently, he said, the government is sorely lacking in statistics, making it difficult to know how much food, water and emergency care needs to be sent to an area when there is an attack or a failed crop.

In the short term, Babayemi said, it could help victims of natural disasters, like the floods that killed more than 350 people last year across the nation. As of now, nobody really knows how many people were killed, stranded or injured in the floods because rescue teams never found many families.

“You can only have one location,” he said. “You can’t have two. So, they can easily come to your place, the exact place you are and save you.”

On a wide Abuja road last week, their arms full of old-fashioned paper maps, Paul Olagunju asked local workers and residents details about unlisted businesses. After a few buildings, he stopped, spreading their papers on the trunk of a parked taxi. Joking, the driver asked for payment to use his “table.”

As he surveyed the street, the men said mapping might also force the government and aid organizations to get things done by generally making more information available to the public. These days, he said, when bad things happen in Nigeria, resources meant to help people quietly disappear into the pockets of corrupt politicians.

“Mapping and all the social medias work hand in hand,” he told GlobalPost. “Transparency is not in Nigeria at all … people are not happy.”

For residents of a city plagued by crime and suspicion, not everyone welcomed the mappers. Adepoju Abiodun, a volunteer mapping advocate for Google, said residents often get scared when they see young men snapping pictures and taking notes outside their homes. Much of modern Abuja has been built on land already occupied by villagers, so residents sometimes assume the mappers are government workers, possibly slating their homes for demolition.

Abiodun said police are also wary of the mappers. Nigerian security forces are the primary targets of Nigerian militant groups, which have killed thousands of people in the past few years. To some, mappers look like potential criminals casing neighborhoods.

“Sometimes you try to map and they go, ‘Why are you trying to take pictures. What are you guys doing touring around here taking notes? Are you going to bomb us?’” Abiodun said. “We get used to it and when I speak to them alone and explain, they understand.” 

In the next four or five years, Abiodun said, they hope details about the entire continent of Africa are online, like in most major Western countries.

“Africa is developing but a lot of people don’t see how we’re developing,” he said. “People may want to come to Nigeria, but they want to open maps and see first.”

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