27 Months

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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.