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FOSS4G Tanzania – the (literally) unchartered territories of Africa

Santosh Seshadri presented Orbica’s GeoBI work at the FOSS4G Tanzania opensource conference in August. 

Dar-es-Salaam. 

I was really surprised to learn how diverse the city was when I arrived in the full swing of August summer heat. With a rich mix of cultures, sumptuous smells of spices and meats on the skewer, and a modern urban-scape, this city of 4.5 million is a booming metropolis on the east coast of Africa. 

An evening wander through the streets reminded me a lot of my home country, India. I was also taken aback by the level of infusion of South Asian culture, from the food to the local socio-economic ethos and even the way the city navigates. After all, geospatialists are always thinking about maps. Which, as it turns out, we take completely for granted in the developed world. 

In Africa, vast regions of the country are unmapped. We don’t even know the full extent and that’s mind-blowing. All the urban centres are mapped but you can forget taking your smart phone outback and tapping into Google Maps to get you from A to B. Google Maps isn’t there. 

That’s challenge number one in Africa: the data doesn’t even exist. 

This brings two things to mind: firstly, people in developed countries take data for granted and therefore they have little interest in improving it. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a need to map. It means that we’ve gotten comfortable with the quality of the data we have. If Google Maps gets you within 10m of your destination, you’re probably okay with that. 

Secondly, it’s all about creating the data in Africa. I met a Youthmapper from Kenya, and there are hundreds of students joining the Youthmapper movement there. Texas Tech University is my alma mater and one of the founding chapters of Youthmappers, so I was very moved and inspired by the expansion of the programme and all the awesome work they are doing mapping our world. 

What stood out to me at FOSS4G Tanzania was how much the opensource community is behind this vision. The weekend prior to the conference there was a workshop focused on mapping Zanzibar using drones. Initiatives like this, combined with opensource geospatial technology, is a viable way for developing countries to achieve their mapping goals, as the conference evidenced. 

Three words sum up FOSS4G Tanzania for me: community, complexity and connections. 

Community

There were about 1000 people at FOSS4G Tanzania and everything was about community. People are giving back whatever they’re creating using opensource technologies so that others can use it and improve it. It’s not just an altruistic type thing. It’s the fundamental attitude. It’s the feel.

This is great for places like Africa and Asia where they can’t necessarily afford massive software licences and they don’t have huge amounts of money to develop. But they want GIS. They want maps. They want data. So that’s what FOSS4G is: it’s about free and opensource software for geospatial use. 

The tagline for the conference was “To leave no-one behind.”

This is evident in the level of sharing. More than data and code, people share ideas. They don’t hang onto them. If you can do something smarter, they’ll tell you how you can change your configurations or whatever it is to make your solution better. It’s a community based on collaboration, not competition. Everybody understands that we as one company, as one person, as one entity, cannot solve everything. 

Complexity

The level of complexity in opensource has matured. And there’s a scale. I saw stuff as simple as teaching people to use GPS and programmes and businesses that are set up around teaching how to map a house, a neighbourhood or a city using OpenStreetMap or other open platforms that are available. 

At the other end of the scale are complex machine learning techniques. How do people upload complex data sets and process them, visualise them, and analyse gigabytes and terabytes of data over the web? The complexity of what people are doing in this community is pretty intense. 

Technically it was a good learning opportunity. There are a lot of people exploring AI and geospatial combinations like we are at Orbica and it’s good to know that we all face the same challenges, to share what we’ve learned and learn from others. 

Connections

The opensource community is super smart but very personable, so that made the social events fun. There was pretty much something on every night at the conference – the gala with African dance and drums, or the rooftop bars, or a day trip to Stone Town in Zanzibar. I met some really interesting people and learnt what the industry is up to in the opensource world. 

I also attended the OSGEO General Assembly meeting and was curious to hear updates about all the new functionality coming up on the various OSGEO projects such as: 

PGRouting - Routing tool
Zoo project - Open Web Processing Service Platform
GeoTools – Opensource Java GIS toolkit
GeoNetwork - catalogue application to manage spatially referenced resources
degree - SDI for web
GEOS - Opensource geometry engine
PostGIS - Spatial object extension for PostGreSQL 
MapServer - GIS server
Mapbender – Web-based geospatial framework to access and visualise spatial data
PyWPS - Python web processing service library
GeoNode – Opensource geospatial content management system
PyWPS – Python library for a catalogue service.
ORFEO Toolbox – opensource library for processing of remote sensing images
GDAL – Opensource geospatial data abstraction library
QGIS – Opensource desktop GIS software
GRASS GIS – Opensource GIS software

It was awesome to part of this conference and to present for Orbica about what we’re doing in the opensource space. The networking was next level and I pretty much ran out of business cards. I was equally inspired and exhausted when it came time to wrap-up, board a plane and head back to Christchurch.

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