27 Months

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Alex Bradshaw

Mapping Africa’s Bush Fires

From NASA’s Earth Observatory website:

Season after season, year after year, people set fire to African landscapes to create and maintain farmland and grazing areas. People use fire to keep less desirable plants from invading crop or rangeland, to drive grazing animals away from areas more desirable for farming, to remove crop stubble and return nutrients to the soil, and to convert natural ecosystems to agricultural land. The burning area shifts from north to south over the course of the year, in step with the coming and going of Africa’s rainy and dry seasons.

NASA has previously published some impressive seasonal fire patterns of the African continent, using Terra and Aqua satellite telemetry data. More recently, the University of Maryland, in partnership with NASA and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, has created the Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS). FIRMS combines remote sensing and GIS technologies to deliver near real-time global hotspot/active fire locations to natural resource managers and other stakeholders around the world. Here’s a dynamic map of Africa’s bush fires plotted over the last 48 hours:

Mapping Africa’s Bush Fires

As you can see, the most intense fire activity is located around Angola, southern DRC, Zambia, Mozambique and Madagascar. This is consistent with seasonal fire patterns for this time of year.

While fire is a part of the natural cycle of the seasonally dry grasslands and savannas of Africa, ecologists and climatologists have reason to be concerned about Africa’s intense burning. The frequency with which fires return to previously burned areas helps determine which species of plants (and therefore animals) can survive. When the fire-return interval is too quick, the land may become degraded and unusable for farming or grazing. In the semi-arid and fragile Sahel, land degradation through overuse of fire or overgrazing can create pockets of desert. The massive amount of burning that occurs in Africa each year creates carbon dioxide and aerosol particles, both of which play a role in global climate and may create a public health hazard as well (as one who has lived through many of Central West Africa’s fire seasons, I can attest to the latter).

Seasonal burning of dry grassland and savanna is one issue, but slash and burn agriculture of Africa’s forestland is a different matter. Near real-time mapping resources such as FIRMS are invaluable tools for advocacy, outreach and community education.

For more information about this topic, check out blogger Andriankoto Ratozamanana’s TED Global talk on the environmental crisis posed by the “crazy slash and burn” of Madagascar’s forests and the positive steps being taken to remedy the problem.

Navigating Africa With OpenStreetMap

OpenStreetMap, the free and open collaborative map of the world, just got a major boost with some very capable routing directions across Africa. This is demonstrated with driving directions from Cape Town to Ethiopia using CloudMade, a service that provides access to tools and APIs for building mobile- and web-based applications using OpenStreetMap data. You can view the map here or by clicking the image below.


Bing Maps falls just short of this mark, but calculates a slightly shorter route from Cape Town to Nairobi, routed through Zimbabwe. Google Maps, despite getting a massive update for Africa recently, currently lacks route finding capabilities in Africa over any distance that I could find, including intra-city trips and short hauls between major cities in the same country.

CloudMade announced that partner Nutiteq has just released new mobile libraries for Blackberry and Android, two leading mobile platforms. These libraries enable mobile access to a full range of CloudMade services including custom image tiles, geosearch and routing like the demonstration above.

Why OpenStreetMap?
This is significant because OpenStreetMap data is free and open, and CloudMade’s founders Steve Coast, Nick Black and their development team all share a strong commitment to using open source software and open data. By contrast, Google and Bing maps rely on proprietary, copyrighted data licensed by big mapping companies such as NAVTEQ and Tele Atlas that is protected by restrictive terms of service (TOS) agreements.

This may not sound like a big deal, particularly if the Google Maps API can be incorporated into open source projects. But this only governs how you use the software, not the data—which is still under copyright. The latter comes into play if you attempt to cache image tiles (useful for offline mapping) or want to use bulk feeds of latitude and longitude coordinates.


Free, collaborative maps are indispensable in humanitarian work, especially in places where base map data is often scarce and out of date. OpenStreetMap recognizes this, and has formed the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) to apply the principles of open source and open data sharing towards humanitarian response and economic development. By using rapid, internet based collaboration (or crowd-sourcing), OpenStreetMap is able to create highly detailed maps with routing information for conflict zones like the Palestine Gaza Strip where incomplete or inaccurate maps existed before. Maps of these kinds are useful for NGOs, journalists, aid agencies and citizens equipped with crisis mapping applications like Ushahidi, which fully supports OpenStreetMap data.

When deployed on a mobile platform running the Android OS and using OpenStreetMap data together with CloudMade’s API, a truly open, end-to-end solution is a reality.

Weekly Quick Hits

Throughout the week I make note of interesting news pieces, blog posts, online debates and trending topics with a focus on technology and Africa. This is an experiment in sharing some of these items, filtered by yours truly, in a blog post. Wherever possible I’ll try to include appropriate links to the people behind the stories so readers can follow them online. We’ll see if this turns into a weekly habit.

Weekly Quick HitsThe much-anticipated arrival of the SEACOM cable, linking east and southern Africa to Europe and India, topped African tech news and sparked a great deal of controversy online. Rebekah Heacock collects reactions from the blogosphere over at Global Voices Online. Whiteafrican does a comprehensive roundup of the debate surrounding the event on tweets and blogs.

A group of Nigerian twitterers and bloggers started a movement called Light Up Nigeria with the intent of mobilizing Nigerians to demand reliable electricity from their government. Solomon Sydelle gives an excellent backgrounder on the problem and provides a growing list of social media contacts related to the movement. Blacklooks collects critical reactions to the online campaign and suggests that what Nigeria really needs are flyers and a Banksy to address the problem at the street level.

TED Africa Director Emeka Okafor has a short post and YouTube video link about the Eden Campus, a school that teaches business skills and entrepreneurship to marginalized South Africans.

StartupAfrica offers some technical tips for building an African micro-blogging platform with a listing of existing services and an interesting discussion by a variety of Africa tech heads.

Africa Rural Connect teams up with the NPCA to ask the question, “What’s your best idea for Africa?” with a focus on improving the lives of farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. The ARC launch party was held on July 21st in Washington DC. Here’s Molly Mattessich describing the inspiration for ARC in a video presentation.

I’d be remiss without mentioning something about TEDGlobal 2009 in Oxford. Trying to follow the live stream of mind-blowing presentations online is like drinking from a fire hose. Brainpicker filters the stream with some selected highlights. Among all the talks, an unexpected favorite came from Brother Paulus Terwitte, a German friar who thinks we’ve become like primitive hunter-gatherers, preoccupied with collecting information, instead of taking in less and deepening our lives.

The irony of Brother Terwitte’s message in the context of this post is not lost on this blogger. With this, I am going outside for a Sunday stroll.

Hacking the OLPC v2

Hacking the OLPC v2There’s been a veritable bevy of blog posts and rebuttals lately debating what went wrong with the OLPC and what sort of device should follow in its wake. Like a lot of other technology devotees, I’ve watched from the start the meteoric rise and much-publicized decline of the project, which once promised so much but has yet to deliver on the scale its architects had hoped for. There’s been enough punditry, religious warring and snarky commentary following the OLPC’s capitulation to XP to fill volumes. I’m more interested in what form the future OLPC might take, and who will build it. These recent discussions have provided fuel for the imagination.

I think the question of which is better, mobile or a laptop/netbook will become moot as these devices continue toward their inevitable convergence, WiFi networks proliferate in lesser-served parts of the world, and manufacturing costs are further reduced toward the elusive $100 mark. The tantalizing next-generation OLPC (dubbed the XO-2) with its dual touchscreens already resembles an oversized iPhone in both form and function. Availability: sometime in 2010. Maybe.

What should fill the gap between now and then? Until African children can get their hands on the XO-2, or an Android- or Symbian-powered device, perhaps with a foldable keyboard, surely something can be leveraged from all the effort that went into the OLPC.

I’ve spent many hours teaching kids in Cameroonian classrooms, both with computers and the old-fashioned way with a blackboard and, occasionally, printed materials. I can say with certainty that what’s needed in terms of hardware is something rugged and capable of dealing with heat, humidity and dust. Long battery life and a method for off-grid recharging is a must. And no one can argue against the value of having a laptop-like device with a full-sized interface for learning versus a handheld mobile device. Different tools for different purposes.

Last week, while cruising the daily RSS feeds, I offhandedly tweeted this:

Later, I got to thinking about it. Was it such a crazy idea? A dead simple, $200 tablet with a focus on cloud computing seemed like just the ticket. Then, just for laughs, I dummied this up in Photoshop (apologies to TechCrunch):

Hacking the OLPC v2

Like the XO Laptop, Sugar has its share of detractors, often citing it as unintuitive, clunky, inappropriate or worse, but I think they’re missing the point. Nicholas Negroponte has some strong words on this subject:

“In fact, one of the saddest but most common conditions in elementary school computer labs (when they exist in the developing world), is the children are being trained to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint. I consider that criminal, because children should be making things, communicating, exploring, sharing, not running office automation tools.”

Mr. Negroponte is dead on here. I did my best to engage kids in Cameroon with something other than Word (my binary numbers and ASCII lessons were unexpected hits), since Microsoft Office is already taught by default in every school lucky enough to have a computer lab. As a platform for learning, the philosophy and design behind Sugar is incredibly compelling. I can only imagine what a classroom full of my kids in Cameroon would do with a couple dozen “CrunchPad OLPC v2” tablet PCs running Linux and Sugar.

Could a homegrown, bottom-up designed CrunchPad-esque tablet PC be coaxed into doing this? The answer is an emphatic: absolutely! The good news is, Sugar Labs, a non-profit foundation whose mission is to produce, distribute, and support the use of the Sugar learning platform under a number of Linux distributions is already on it. Sugar is now a community project available under the open-source GNU General Public License (GPL) and free to anyone who wants to use or extend it.

As Miquel of Maneno noted, Africans are incredibly resourceful. Might it be possible for a geographically dispersed group of devoted hackers, with the support of the open source community, hardware partners and VC pooled from the diaspora, to produce the next OLPC—here in Africa? Heck, others are already eager to jump on the CrunchPad bandwagon. Surely crazier things have happened.

Why I Blog About Africa

A new meme is making the rounds in the African francophone blogopshere and is now gradually spreading through the anglophone zone. It was begun by Théo Kouamouo, a blogger based in Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire). Théo asked bloggers to reflect on why they blog about Africa and tagged a few friends to get the ball rolling. Their responses were collected by Global Voices in this post. He offered this answer to his own question (translated from French):

I blog about Africa with joy because I believe that it is from our individual and mixed voices that the African renaissance will sprout, which will come as surely as Martin Luther King’s dream became a reality forty years later. I read African-oriented blogs with joy because they give me a less monolithic and less doomed image of the continent and its inhabitants.

I began blogging about Africa (or, more precisely, my corner of it) as a way to keep my friends and family in touch with my daily life here as a technologist. Over time, the focus shifted away from my personal experience to the stories of the people I met in Cameroon and elsewhere on the continent. In the process, the blog became much more conversational and, if the traffic numbers are any indication, interesting to a broader audience. Just one recent example is Roland Boula’s podcasting story and the ripples it sent through my online social network.

About Africa

Another reason I blog about Africa is because I’m intrigued by the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship I see here in Cameroon and the continent as a whole. I’m passionate about technology, and I truly believe we’re on the verge of witnessing a Renaissance that will largely be fueled by ICT and led by pioneering young Africans. It’s an exciting place to be, and blog about, for this reason alone.

I can’t resist propagating a good meme, so with that I’ll tag an interesting mix of Cameroonian bloggers:

Mambe Nanje Churchill
Our Man In Cameroon
My African Father