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The mapping pioneers of Africa

Field data experts are the modern day pioneers of Africa, and the means they use to provide real world verification of maps and collect road names and points of interest holds key messages for understanding your working environment, writes ETIENNE JONKER, Field Data Capture Manager for TeleAtlas Africa

When you switch on your navigation device to help get yourself from point A to point B and you reach your destination with ease, take a minute to think about how the mapping information was gathered before being displayed on your device.

With the road network changing by up to 40% annually of its coverage in terms of both new names and changed roads, one of the key challenges facing map builders is keeping data accurate and up to date. The first step in building and maintaining an accurate map involves collecting geographic information. Field teams play an essential role in providing real world verification of maps being built and in collecting attribute information such as road names, land use and points of interest.

Field data experts have dedicated their lives to exploring almost every inch of the African continent; going into remote areas and in some cases putting their lives in danger.

South Africa’s leading mapping provider, MapIT, uses Tele Atlas to gather the information, and the Tele Atals field teams routinely travel throughout Africa to update information and map previously uncharted areas.

The planning of such trips – which can take up to three months – is meticulous to ensure that the teams have enough food and water supply, money, diesel, camping equipment, technical equipment, vehicles, back-up vehicles and spares. During these trips, the teams will travel to some of the most inhospitable places in Africa with no access to fresh water, shops, service stations or banks and it is therefore essential that they carry their own equipment and supplies.

On most occasions three vehicles with four field data capturers take to the road, supporting each other through the long days and quiet nights, while they map every inch of the countryside. They have faced challenges such as wheels sheering off in the Kalahari, dodging wild animals in Botswana, roads ravaged by civil war in Angola, landmines and bureaucracy.

Equipped with a satellite modem for emergencies only, the field teams have so little contact with the outside world that they have to take all necessary precautions to be prepared for any situation that may arise. Because of limited access to already inadequate medical facilities, the teams all have first aid training and carry their own medical supplies in the event of an emergency.

Often trips take longer than expected because many of the roads we travel are in a state of disrepair and we have to navigate along harsh terrain, or construct our own bridges because some of them have either been washed away or damaged in conflict.

The MapIT vehicle finds a way across

In Angola, we are particularly cautious because there are still thousands of hidden landmines spread across the country – in farmlands, under roads, and in confining belts that surround towns and cities and we therefore have to take extra precautions when driving in remote areas. In some instances, we have literally driven past mine clearance experts removing the landmines from the roads that we were driving on. It’s these harsh realities and experiences that can make this job quite nerve wracking at times.

As field data capturers you have to have a thick skin, an adventurous spirit and a love for the outdoors. We have been in some hairy situations. On one particular trip, we were traveling in the Kalahari dessert and because the terrain was so rough we actually sheered a wheel right off the vehicle and lost the fuel tank!

We have also encountered a lot of bureaucracy from both military and police in some countries – who are often suspicious of our activities because of the high-tech equipment we carry around with us. We have had nerve-wracking meetings with a country’s military to explain our purpose in the country and obtain permission to carry on with our trip. And because of the language barrier it can be quite hard trying to explain the purpose of our equipment and why we are in the country.

In some African countries, because the political climate can be somewhat volatile in certain areas, we have had to provide payment to tribes in the form of money or food to allow us to set up camp because often camping close to the cities can be quite unsafe, especially when carrying around such expensive equipment.

In Botswana, we had one truly “wild” expedition because we travelled mainly through the National Parks and our camp sites were totally exposed to wild animals like elephants, hippos, and hyenas, as there are no protective fences. The team have, on many occasions, eaten dinner under the watchful eyes of a pack of prowling hyenas or had to hide from a rather mad elephant bull.

This is where awareness is so important because we all have to look out for each other where ever we are camping because we are often so exposed to the elements. Every move you make has to be with caution – even going to the bathroom at night can be risky.

However, as field data capturers we also get to explore parts of Africa that most people will never experience in their lifetime, as well as areas that are some of the most sought after tourist destinations on the planet.

In one particular incident the team came across a small and intimate coffee shop literally in the middle of nowhere, but because we were driving in that area it is now on the map as a Point of Interest.

Every day is a new challenge – there is never a dull moment. You learn about other cultures as well as about yourself. You really have to love the outdoors, but also be disciplined at all times.

The level of trust and communication between the team has to be very strong. We have to watch each other’s backs.

There was a situation in Botswana when our vehicle got stuck in sand near a massive herd of buffalo. While I was trying to get the vehicle out of the sand, my team was supposed to be looking out for any wild animals coming towards the vehicle, but instead ended up trying to help me. This became a very dangerous situation. In the end we were well and truly stranded and had to wait in the searing heat until a tourist came along to help us.

Many parts of the African countryside that we are trying to map are extremely remote and rural. Sadly, a large number of the bridges that cross rivers (that provide access to these remote areas) are damaged or have been washed away. In order to cross the rivers, teams have had to really test their bravery by wading through potentially crocodile-infested waters to check the depth to ensure the water is shallow enough to cross without flooding the engine.

One of our field teams was in a very dangerous situation when our vehicle stalled in the middle of deep water because they had hit a hippo and one of the guys had to swim out to find help,.

More importantly, though, there is an element of satisfaction that helps us overcome those lonely days when we miss our family, because they are an important cog in the wheel of the development of mapping the African continent.

We are instrumental in the development of infrastructure, tourism and disaster management in Africa. Through our travel adventures and data capturing we have increased the knowledge about countries on this continent which provides essential information to local governments, foreign investors and tourists.

It is through the bravery and commitment of the field data capturers that consumers are able to have up-to-date and highly accurate mapping information at their fingertips.

  • Building digital maps is the business of MapIT and Tele Atlas. Their data is widely regarded as the de facto standard for electronic maps in southern Africa and is powering South Africa’s leading navigation brands, Garmin, TomTom, Navig8 and Mio. MapIT’s data is found at the heart of many applications including navigation, asset tracking, fleet management and web services.

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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