Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Tracks4Africa: Crowd Sourcing the Mapping of Africa

Tracks4Africa - angled view of Ruaha TanzaniaAfrica is massive. Made up of 54 countries who don’t work together sharing information that frequently, and with governments who are more concerned with “other matters” than sharing the accurate mapping of their country. Companies in some of these countries do go about this themselves, and charge a high price for their product.

How does the “average person” then get access to geographic data about off-the-path areas? Google Earth of course.

Being a self-proclaimed map addict, I love playing with Google Earth and enjoy trying out different features. Tracks4Africa is an organization based out of South Africa that has integrated their services into Google Earth. Their goal is to focus on the rural and remote areas of Africa that aren’t well defined and who’s roads, bridges and villages shift over time.

Using GPS devices, the Tracks4Africa community when touring Africa do meticulous record keeping of their travels. From this huge repository of high quality GPS data we have created a super accurate GPS map called the T4A Map. But the T4A Map is more than that, it is the collective navigational experience of the T4A community over the past 7 years. It shows Africa the way it is and how it is constantly changing.

To show how useful the service is, I went into Google Earth and zoomed in on what appeared to be a rather remote section of southern Tanzania, near Ngajira in the Ruaha National Park.

Google Earth showing the remote area – NOT using Tracks4Africa:
Google Earth with No Roads Shown

The same area shown with Tracks4Africa data embeded in the map:
Google Earth using Tracks4Africa

Crowd Sourced Mapping of Africa
I find what Tracks4Africa is doing incredibly interesting because of the way the are going about it. Anyone who is in any area of Africa can take part in the mapping of the area that they know. It does require having a GPS system in order to store the coordinates, and then the ability to email that data to the Tracks4Africa organization.

The important thing to see here is that the amount of data that they are collecting would cost a for-profit business millions of dollars to put together. Even then, Africa is large and the ability to get to all remote areas for mapping purposes would likely prove too expensive or difficult.

Instead, you simply ask everyone who travels around Africa to send in their data. Of course, this tends to be expats or tourists with the equipment, but other organizations and individuals can take part if they have the GPS tools themselves. It’s inspiring to see, and kudos go to Google for making it more available through access on Google Earth.

Google Earth is not being used to it’s full potential in Africa – yet. Imagine when everyone starts sending in the data for other data points in Africa besides roads and tourist lodging. I for one, would love to see the data for mobile phone towers being submitted and having the ability to start plotting mobile phone coverage on our own, instead of relying on cell phone company data.

[UPDATE: Grant Slater points me towards the OpenStreetMap.org, an open crowd-sourced mapping solution similar to T4A. He sends an example of Kinshasa on Google and on OpenStreetMap. Quite the difference!]


  1. I wonder if they know about http://www.openstreetmap.org/

    There is no google earth app on top of that yet, but at least something like google maps

  2. Great trouvaille, Hash!

  3. Hash, I am keeping a tab on where “tracks4africa” pops up on the web and found your article. I guess a thank you is in order.

    I might shed some light on T4A. We started 8 years ago when GPS maps were absolute terrible – outside the cities most of them still are. We have accumulated more than 7mil km of tracks from people all over the world and our map spans 420 000 km of navigable road.

    On the wikipedia based open streets project; yes we are well aware of them. They seem to want to have a ‘free’ map of the world where we want an accurate one. Quality costs money and we have to sell our product to sustain resources etc.

    Our ultimate aim though is to make a difference in Africa. For us Conservation = Information and it is best served where people have a necessity to look, i.e. GPS maps, paper maps, Google Earth and other published media.

    This goal can only be reached if we have a community of people taking part and that is really where we have our edge.

    This is then also the reason for collaborating with Google in order to get our information published as widely as possible.

    As far as roads data goes we see that the map is maturing – from a tourist’s perspective at least. Where we now see lots of growth is in the rich content and we hope to add stories and photo’s to all the little dots we publish on Google Earth.

    These stories will span all interests and we hope to embed messages that could raise awareness amongst the travelling public that would have a positive effect on Africa – in which ever way and in any degree of importance.

  4. This is great!

    I might also suggest WikiMapia (http://www.wikimapia.org), which is (or has evolved into) a more tourism oriented site.

  5. I actually am a Google Earth-addict myself, and I have been trying to put place-marks ofall the places I know in Nairobi, Bamako, Dakar, Abidjan, Harare, and my hometown of Kinshasa.

    I have always wondered whether there was someone out there who realized the potential of this. I am positively impressed.

  6. My son is 11 years old called to preach wants to know more about remote areas of Africa

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