Armed with smartphones and boots, Niger youths map flood risks

A community of students and young professionals are developing a digital map of their country and plotting flood-prone areas on their smartphones

By Morgane Le Cam

NIAMEY, Oct 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Fatima Alher watches her step, careful not to sink knee-deep in the water flooding the rice fields of Kirkisoy, a neighbourhood in Niger's capital.

Her colleagues help lift her over the biggest puddles – a task complicated by the fact that they barely take their eyes off their smartphones.

"Never without a phone, that's our motto," Alher says, frantically typing on her screen.

In one of the world's poorest countries, widespread flooding has killed at least 56 people and destroyed thousands of homes since the rainy season began in June, according to the interior ministry.

Efforts to rebuild flood-hit areas are not progressing fast enough, residents complain.

But since July, a team of 20 "investigators" from OpenStreetMap Niger – a community of students and young professionals who are developing a digital map of the country – have been plotting flood-prone areas on their smartphones in two of Niamey's districts.

"Flooding devastates the country every year, and yet no effort has been made to chart the most vulnerable areas," Alher, a geography student and leader of the group, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Using GeoODK, an app that allows users to collect geo-referenced information, the researchers gather details such as the number of residents and buildings, any construction materials used and the location of electric poles.

"By the end of August we had drawn up a list of over 15,000 properties and buildings," Alher proudly explained. "We then send the data to the interior ministry, so it can better target its relief efforts in times of flooding."

The three-month initiative is managed by the government Disaster Risk Management and Urban Development Project, and funded by the World Bank.