The Rise of African Mapping Technologies

GIS Contributor


Stuart E. Hamilton, an Associate Professor of Geography and GIS Graduate Director at Salisbury University in Maryland, discusses why he considers East Africa to be a leader geospatial education and opportunities.

Which university provides the premier education in Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) mapping? What is the premier cloud-sourced mobile GIS platform in use globally? What do these two GIS items have in common? For the former, you may answer that a major USA land-grant university with a major geography doctoral program such as Florida State or the University of Maryland would be most likely. Outside the USA, maybe you would expect it to be one of the major geography centers such as Cambridge or the National University of Singapore. For the latter maybe you would go with an Esri product or maybe an open-source product made by the remarkable FOSS GIS community. Your answer may be ArcGIS online, Carto, or a version of QGIS. My answer to both questions is entirely subjective, but having spent some time working with and visiting many major UAS programs, and working in the aid community, I have my thoughts on both. I would say the best current UAS mapping program, or at least one of the top few is a relatively small state university in Tanzania. The most versatile and useful mapping crowdsourced crisis response GIS provider that is the leader in crowdsourced mobile GIS is a Kenyan product that has become distributed globally. The commonality, both herald not from the US, Asia, or Europe but East Africa.

SUZA UAS Program

The State University of Zanzibar (SUZA) has a suite of commercial mapping drones and the technical ability to generate meaningful natural resource, human development, and business UAS-derived products. SUZA is located on the major island of the semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar which is just off the coast of mainland Tanzania and consists of many small islands and two major islands. For the last two years, they have undertaken the ambitious project of mapping the entire archipelago at sub 8 cm resolution. The island chain is now almost completely mapped, and the data can all be downloaded from the Zanzibar Mapping Initiative as well as information on other use cases and other flight information. Much of the mapping was done using the senseFly eBee range of fixed-wing mapping drones. The mapping of the entire island chain is a remarkable achievement unmatched by many better-funded programs. The UAV imagery for this archipelago will provide answers to the questions of human development, infrastructure habitat fragmentation, land degradation, aquatic resources and so much more. I for one have spent many hours marveling at the mangroves in the imagery, and I can even spot what I think are a few small primates in the trees that could well be the endangered Tanzanian Red Colobus monkey.

Such opportunities as those offered by SUZA should give GIS-minded students thought about where to pursue their graduate education. Examining the cost of living at SUZA and the cost of SUZA tuition, I calculated that students can spend a year or two in this island paradise, gain real-world and cutting-edge UAS mapping experience in a GIS environment, and obtain a master’s degree, for a small fraction of the cost of many US or UK universities current tuition rates alone. Such north to south student migration benefits not only SUZA though the tuition payments, the local economy through the resident student, but also provides the student with access to technology and equipment that is a match of any university globally at a fraction of the cost. SUZA has developed a UAS mapping program that is at the forefront of the applied use of this technology globally. Africa can truly claim to have one of the most robust UAV mapping programs globally.

Historic Stone Town at 7 cm resolution. Flown by SUZA UAS program
Historic Stone Town at 7 cm resolution. Flown by SUZA UAS program.

The Rise and Rise of Ushahidi

It is not only in education that African geospatial technology can claim to have a world leader. Other African mapping technologies have risen to the forefront of the mobile and crowdsourced mapping industry. Ushahidi is a mobile and crowd-sourced GIS platform, developed in Kenya following the post-election violence during 2008 that now dominates the crisis response mapping sector globally. Ushahidi has gained support from both Google and Cisco, and foundations such as Macarthur, Ford, and Rockefeller. Ushahidi is now used in the Americas, Europe, and Asia in situations that range from oil spills to domestic unrest to volcanoes and earthquakes. With 2015 revenues of $4 million and a solid balance sheet, the future for Ushahidi seems assured, and this is good news not just for the marginalized people they Ushahidi was set up to serve, but for the wider world. Again, this is an example of African mapping technology leading the way.

Ushahidi Mapping Platform
Ushahidi Mapping Platform

The Message to GIS

As a professor that runs a GIS graduate program in the US, if a student came to me looking for a high-quality, affordable, hands-on mapping program in the UAS field, then SUZA would be my advice. If a different student wanted to work as a developer in a GIS sector that provided tangible goods to society, then I would point them towards Ushahidi. That is two African mapping sectors that can claim to be true global leaders; one is in education and one in the crowdsourced mobile GIS sector. It is time that East Africa is acknowledged as a world leader in cutting-edge mapping and GIS technologies as it continues to develop both companies and universities with GIS products and GIS research programs to match any globally.

About the Author

Stuart E. Hamilton is an Associate Professor of Geography and GIS Graduate Director at Salisbury University in Maryland. He has published extensively on GIS, mapping, and the natural environment in journals such as Nature Climate Change, The Professional Geographer, The Annals of the AAG, and Global Ecology and Biogeography. He is currently co-PI on a $1.8 million NSF award aimed at establishing the linkages between aquaculture and native fisheries on Lake Victoria in Africa.


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