Mapping Africa: readers fill in the gaps

Digital Content

Map coverage across Africa has improved dramatically since the days when cartographers used elephants to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. Google alone has increased its representation of roads from 20% in 2008 to 75% in 2012. The number of towns and villages visible have increased by 1,000% in the same period.

But how accurate is the information available? We asked you to try and find your hometown and and show us the results. This is some of what we learned:

Samuel Ndiritu from Kiserian, Kajiado district, Kenya wanted to map his journey from home to the Loitokitok district hospital where he works. He could only find the hospital mortuary on the map. The district hospital is of such obvious importance, Ndiritu said leaving off the map was a "big miss".
Loitokitok Samuel's journey to work

Ceiren Bell was looking for Mazimbu, near Morogoro, Tanzania a sisal plantation given to the ANC by the Tanzanian government, used to house and educate exiles from apartheid South Africa. Bell lived there from 1980 to 1982, when his parents taught in the primary school, but he couldn't find it on the map, he told us: "it is a significant place with an important history so I'd like to see it recognised".

Elliot Bannister turned to Google Maps to reminisce about his time in Gallabat, south east Sudan. He says: "A stream divides the town from the larger village of Metema in north west Ethiopia. The footbridge across the stream is the only legal way of crossing between the two countries ... if we were to believe Google Maps, Gallabat wouldn't be in Sudan at all but across the border in an uninhabited part of the Ethiopian highlands."
Gallabat Gallabat in Ethiopia, according to Google Maps

Before setting off on holiday James Fenneberg was trying to find, Butogota, Uganda, a popular through town for tourists going gorilla trekking. He says: "No map I found on Uganda had Butogota ' it was very confusing, almost like no one wanted the world to know this place existed!"
Butogota Butogota road is clear on the map, but not the town James was trying to find

Curtis and Rebecca Adaku Cairns were looking for Ibedeni in Delta State, Nigeria, the town where Rebecca grew up and where they spent their honeymoon. They geo-located the town on Google Earth but the name was missing.
Ibedeni Nigeria The unnamed Ibedeni, Delta State Nigeria

Jens Krause in Kampala was looking for Nyabweya in Uganda. He couldn't find it but sent us this beautiful image from his collection:
Nyabweya Jens' photo of Nyabweya, not visible on Google Earth

Shamseddin Giwac from Nigeria said that Google "is not doing enough largely because we are not giving them a reason to. Last week I finally got my business premises located on Google places for business after a verification process that ran into months ' I decided my business is significant enough to be on the map." Giwac persevered but questioned how many people would do the same. So what's the solution?

Google are quick to point to their Map Maker project, a programme that invites people to enrich Google Maps with local knowledge. "Better maps help give everyone a greater understanding of these communities and facilitate trade, transport and travel in the region," Google says. A committed community of African mapmakers have submitted hundreds of thousands of edits, they even have an anthem:

There are a few champions leading the charge. No' Diakubama from the Democratic Republic of Congo wanted to improve the coverage of Mbandaka, his home town. Using a hand-drawn map from 1978 and his memory of the roads, he dedicated a significant amount of time to mapping the town.

There's Momodou Semega-Janneh, a tour guide and a prolific mapmaker from the Gambia. He has been mapping for over four years, boasting a total of 23,300 edits and 2,940 reviews, he was proud to be part of the team that mapped South Sudan prior to independence.

But some question the motives behind Google Map Maker. We heard from Dan Stowell an "armchair mapper'' from London who argues that "the big problem with asking people to submit data to Google Maps is that the data is no longer theirs''. Stowell is part of a team that helps to map Africa and other countries for Open Street Map who believe that data should belong to everyone.

He is working on a project to improve the coverage of Guinea to assist humanitarian organisations responding to the ebola epidemic. They have been marking every building village by village to keep track of infections.