The Mapping for Niger project is one of Rising Voices micrograntee finalists this year. This piece was written by the project's organiser, Orsolya Jenei.
Here in Niger, at the Abdou Moumouni University of Niamey, some exciting things are happening, thanks to the Rising Voices grant. You can feel the excitement manifest itself in different ways: training participants spending all-night in the campus computer lab, drinking tea and exploring the new tools they have learned about… and even getting upset if we plan on working together only a few times a week, when they want to do more. Fellow students not involved in the project stop us at the university, wanting to join in the activities, while others send us encouraging messages about the project. The university sees the opportunity and benefit to the students, and despite the limited resources, allowed the project full access to the computer lab. In a place where opportunities are scarce, the Rising Voices grant is helping to make the campus more animated, giving students a possibility to spend their time in a meaningful way, while getting practical experience in their future profession.
The Mapping for Niger project is a grassroots community cartography initiative working with university students who study geography in Niamey , Niger. Students create an up-to-date map of their communities  while sharing local stories and realities through social media  and on-line dialogue. To do this, the students are trained to collect GPS data on important places like schools, hospitals, local government offices, roads, water pumps, and so on, and upload it to the online, freely accessible OpenStreetMap  (OSM). To bring this map to life, the students also learn how to use cameras and social media to showcase the priorities and the challenges of the mapped communities, as well as the beauty of diversity and living traditions.
One might think that training university students on collaborative mapping would be straightforward. However, a few facts about Niger help to understand that the circumstances here are not always easy. Niger, mostly covered by the Sahara desert, has a population of 17 million and faces a range of challenges from food insecurity to recurrent drought. Ranked at the bottom of the Human Development Index , less than one third of the population is literate and many communities face difficulties because of the lack of electricity, barely accessible drinking water and non-existent or dilapidated infrastructure. So it’s not surprising that Niger is also one of the countries with the lowest internet penetration, with around only 230,000 internet users across the country (which amounts to less than two percent of the population).
As with any initiative in a difficult context, from the very beginning we have faced many challenges. Daily issues such as data loss due to power cuts, irregular internet access, and sharing computer screens between two or three students made learning in the beginning difficult. Rains washed away training sessions, participants were tired during Ramadan fasting, and malaria went through almost all of us. One can only say that creativity and spontaneous solutions are always needed, just as patience and a good attitude, to keep spirits up and activities moving. We have no complaints, though. There is plenty of that already.
In fact, the real beauty of the project has become apparent through these challenges: the excitement, dedication, and persistence shown by the students. They are just as diverse  as Niger is as a nation, beginning the trainings with varying levels of computer literacy – and with many without an email address, and unfamiliar with the internet or even basic computer skills. However, together and in their own way, they took advantage of the trainings and became accustomed to the online tools. The progress is astonishing: many of them who had hardly any experience with computers are now reliably coaching the others. It’s hard to imagine a group of students more eager to learn or help each other.
However, the most exciting things are yet to come. After three months of fifteen students working together, learning about the tools, collecting geographic data and photos in eight different communities (and counting), the real work has yet to gear up. Throughout the fall, we will edit the data that the students have collected over the summer, completing the maps of the communities they visited. Then, using the initial 15 students as a “core team,” we will train a larger group of university students in order to extend and sustain our work. Students will reach out to different organizations and local authorities in order to encourage their involvement in using and sharing geographic data. And along the way the mapping will continue. At the same time as we train other students and reach out to local people, we will continue mapping different communities and telling their stories through social media. One blog post and one photo at a time, we strive to share the stories of places where cameras have rarely ever been and whose voices have hardly ever been heard.
We thank for Rising Voices for the generous support, which allowed this project to happen.
To find out more about the Mapping for Niger project, you can find them online: