Tool Design for Urban Resilience at the Open Cities Africa Second Regional Meeting

Cities across sub-Saharan Africa are facing dangerous and expensive hazard events. Kampala, Uganda has seen a rapid influx of internal migrants into exposed flood plains of Lake Victoria; meanwhile, precipitation runoff causes regular flooding in low-lying neighborhoods of Kinshasa, DRC. In the Liberian capital of Monrovia, coastal erosion threatens the lives and livelihoods of families in unplanned coastal settlements.

In August, teams of African policy-makers and geoscience experts met to conceptualize tools to better communicate and mitigate these risks. The convention of 45 delegates marks the second regional meeting of Open Cities Africa, a program engaging local government, civil society, and the private sector to develop the information infrastructures necessary to meet 21st century urban resilience challenges. Consortia of local government and innovation teams from 11 cities across the continent came to Tanzania to learn from each other and attend a packed 7 days of open source software and urban governance conferences in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar.

Drone imagery from Zanzibar Mapping Initiative.

After a summer of stakeholder meetings and data collection in their respective urban areas, a running theme of the August meeting was user-focused data products; how can Open Cities teams learn from their stakeholders to develop information tools that are relevant, accessible, and useful for governments and vulnerable communities?

The Open Cities Africa meeting featured a series of intensive workshops on user-centered design to help answer this question. In these workshops, teams were tasked with designing a user-informed prototype of a risk data communication tool for their cities. Through development of user “personas” and rapid ideation exercises, city teams came out of these workshops with innovative new open data prototypes: from atlases of exposure and risk to city-wide early warning mobile phone applications. Teams continued to engage with these topics at the Free and Open Source for Geospatial (FOSS4G) and Understanding Risk Tanzania (URTZ) conferences through sessions on geospatial governance, inclusion, diversity, capacity building and civic engagement.

The Open Cities Brazzaville team debates the scope and features of their prototype for a multi-media weather warning system.

The Open Cities Saint-Louis team role plays an interaction between data producer and data user for their prototype: a geoportal for urban flood data.

City teams were encouraged to think outside the box through rapid ideation and flexible prototype materials. Pictured: Open Cities Seychelles’ data tool prototype: a fire tracking app for the city’s fire department.

City teams have begun extensive data collection and mapping of vulnerable sites since the first regional meeting, so data processing was another timely topic for Tanzania. In the Open Cities technical clinics, delegates met with experts from Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT), Mapillary, and OpenDRI to gain advanced training and instruction in validation, quality assessment and quality control, drones and other UAVs, and data collection tools. At FOSS4G and the HOT Summit (blog), delegates attended sessions on innovative open source tools, advanced OpenStreetMap tools training, and machine learning in open mapping.

Delegates were eager to learn how Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), such as drones, could enhance data collection techniques at the municipal level.

The jam-packed week was bookended with a final workshop for developers from each of the Open Cities teams. In Zanzibar City, Mapbox hosted an extended weekend web mapping training for Open Cities Africa and the Zanzibar Mapping Initiative (ZMI), led by Marena Brinkhurst and Jinal Foflia (blog).

Open Cities Africa and ZMI developers gather around MapBox engineer Jinal Foflia to learn an advanced feature in MapBox Studio.


Here, Open Cities developers were trained in techniques for using Mapbox’s Javascript tools for creating web maps and geovisualizations. In a short two days, Open Cities and ZMI trainees were able to create fully functional prototype web maps of Zanzibar’s schools, cultural heritage sites, before/after imagery, land use and other rich datasets from the ZanSDI and ZanSEA open data portals. One team put these skills to the test for the Open Cities Saint-Louis project, applying newly learned techniques for 3D building visualization to vulnerable infrastructure along the Saint-Louis, Senegal coast.

As Open Cities Africa teams progress in their projects, the trainings in Tanzania will serve to advance the development of user-centered open source tools to communicate and reduce urban risk across cities of Africa. Stay tuned with city teams’ progress on

Open Cities Africa is financed by the EU-funded ACP-EU Africa Disaster Risk Financing Program, managed by the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery.