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News — 24 January, 2018

Community Mapping in North Uganda - Intrepid Refugees and Host Community Compare Needs

Despite the constant coverage of the refugee crisis in the mediterranean, in which 150,000 refugees per year have arguably tipped the scales on Brexit, the largest refugee crisis in the World goes virtually un-covered in mainstream media. Yet thousands of regugees are arriving from South Sudan into Northern Uganda from terrifying violence in defined more by habits than assets. Bidi bidi, part of the largest refugee settlement in the world, and a working home to tribal farmers, cowherds, and other rural dwellers from South Sudan, most of them women and children, the men and boys often forces-conscripted as they try to leave. There is a nautical flow of migrants across lake Albert, and refugees forced to flee are sometimes also being forced to pay an ‘Exit’ fee. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

First impressions are that the spaced-out tarpaulin shelters just never stop, and as you keep driving, it can take an hour to cross even one of the divisions within the settlements.


BidiBidi - The World's Largest Refugee Camp, South Sudan and Northern Uganda

BidiBidi, the World’s largest Refugee Camp.

The numbers in Northern Uganda have now swelled to 1.3 million people, and over the course of 2017, over 7,000 were logged as arrivals PER DAY during peak times. Most of these are Women and Children, young men forced as conscripts to get involved in the very skirmishes and violence that makes them take that terrifying step of deciding to go.

South Sudanese come into Northern Uganda, and find excpetionally good provision for theit new world order. However, the question of what comes next for them, how to integrate, and whether they will be forced to go back  is an issue. Aggregated discontent over a population of 700,000 or more peoples, mostly derived from cultures of institutional and inherited violence, with little living memory of what ‘saving-up next year’ even means. But migrants are in by-definition enterprising. The courage of decision-making, or the experience o fsurviving violence like this breeds a specific type of character.

Refugees are provided for by multiple agencies, many of whom do not know what the other is doing. It is a huge space. Refugees inhabit host communities who sometimes consider that they have an easy life. And then there are oversights. Big ones. This size of crisis creates panic (this intervention was never meant to grow to the giant proportions it has). So there is a lot of mythology. And fear.

Everybody is trying to survive this together, but in different ways. Women have to gather wood in the dark, or use the Latrines during the night. Basic human functions render large numbers of these mainly female communities vulnerable.

Village Shop in Rhino Camp Selling Basic Household Goods

The Village Shop

How do you create a routine to make a cup of tea in the morning? To get someone a birthday card, or buy some washing-up liquid? It is easy to see this world through some kind of ‘disaster tourism’ lense, as we pass through communities, but this is how life will be for the foreseeable future. When we are there with our ‘mapping agenda’, and when we are long-gone. Each of the settlers has the concern of washing-up last night’s food every morning. Or drying washed clothes before the sun goes away. They want to listen to a favourite radio show, and go to church or the mosque on a sunday.

But roaming gangs have been reported to be in the districts committing sex crimes. Common decency of everyday existence is forgotten in the heat of change, fear and rumour, and the mass and ‘forced’ spread of HIV is a huge concern. Food provision services are so overrun that they have to move food around rather than bringing it in. Cash is offered as an alternative. Stories feedback of women being tied to trees so that they can’t make it to the food distribution sites in the allotted appointment times (designated per family/community). Excitement escalates quickly. And nobody really nows how all the different communities fit toogether, or where to go when their 200 person water supply dries up because 2000 are using it.

Communities are not visible from the outside either, and there are villages of hundreds of people who do not have a water point at all. Many langages are spoken, many different NGO protocols observed, and there is no common register of expression which everybody can adopt to know eachother. The idea that has been identified as effective is the use of the visual language of the map, but maps are often sheltered in the ivory towers of different NGO campaign tents, often in the same reception centres. They are published by different agencies for use in-house.

There are many broken pumps to be mapped, and local OSM users can update the map 24/7 to record function/dysfunctionCongestion; The wells often dry out in dry season, leaving people to walk for miles for a Jerry-Can full.


Meanwhile, back in the field, many Refugee settlement amenities are over-run, under-serviced or just simply not functioning. With a local OSM community equipped with Smartphones, inhabitants can update the records live on the map, 24/7 under their OSM username/profile.


Unprotected Wells often flood and contaminate during rainy season. Cholera, Typhoid, and other diseases can run riot.

Some village water sources are unprotected and woefully inadequate.

Until now, none of this monitoring has been recorded in one single universal receptacle. Until now. But a small group of refugees and local ugandan nationals have got together to start showing this environment to eachother and the outside world. They are surveying their neighbouring communities together for lighting, education, movement, safety, water and hygiene, in order to prove that the outbreaks of disease and aggression could be eased by proper representation of the community needs. The US State Department, recognising the need for this work, have funded a campaign spearheaded by HOT and the UNHCR, to collaborate to produce maps of everybody's data and support local mapping capacity to try to address the issues associated with important geo-spatial indicators, like non-functioning water supply.

In order to provide the most accurate mapping data, our field mapping content, ground-truthed by the community members themselves, is currently interwoven with training in OSM data manipulation and GIS tooling. Thanks to the HOT trainings, mappers from across the communities have now experienced all aspects of taking data from the ground to the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap together as a team. Locally, refugees habitually now work alongside host-community members in the field (local community surveyors, and local community motorcycle riders), who guide them and translate in non-settlement situations. Even the bikers, Ugandan Nationals themselves, learn and interact when navigating/mapping the inside of the settlements.


An intrepid Motorcycle Mapper, Moses Mawa, Refugee, Crosses into Rigbo County to survey.

The outputs of this mapping are fast and revealing. Here is a map of some of the Water and Sanitation features that HOT community surveyors have mapped:



Map using Overpass, showing waterpoints and educational facilities in Arua district




Gift of the United States Government - Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration - US Department of State