“When Women Rise, Mountains Move” – Women in Technology and Mapping

By Emma Phillips, Disaster Risk Management Specialist at GFDRR


Participants at the first State of the Map Africa conference, July 8 – 10, 2017, Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda.

The below anecdotes are just a small sampling I heard during the first State of the Map Africa conference held in July at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda:

A computer scientist from Mozambique shared a remark one of her classmates once made to her: “Why are you studying computers? That’s for ugly girls, and you are not ugly”.

The only female contributor to OpenStreetMap (OSM) Niger from 2012 – 2016 had these words of encouragement: “I tell girls mapping is easy. Don’t be afraid, it’s really the simplest thing!”

The motto at Malawi’s innovation Hub, mHub: “We believe that when women rise, mountains move.”

Despite reading about the global predominance of men in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines, as well as the “tech-bro” working environments in notable software companies, I saw something different at the OSM gathering in Kampala. Cultural norms were being challenged, and inspiration for a different future was easy to find.

There are an increasing number of females engaging and leading mapping and tech initiatives in Africa. Recognizing this trend, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR) Innovation Lab brought together women from all over Africa who lead tech and mapping in their respective countries with financing from the Africa Caribbean Pacific – European Union Africa Disaster Risk Financing Program.

Listening to their experiences, one of the insights that struck me the most was that, if we’re serious about using maps as an opportunity to assist vulnerable populations, bringing in different perspectives into mapping efforts is essential. For instance, in Tanzania, the location of safe houses for girls escaping female genital mutilation (FGM) is being mapped and made openly available, helping reduce the number of FGM related deaths. A mapping project in an informal settlement in Zambia is pinpointing the location of health facilities and providing printed maps to the community; women can now easily find the closest location to receive medical attention, which has already resulted in a decrease in maternal deaths.

There remain challenges and barriers to entry for women in mapping and tech, many of which are cultural. However, the panel provided some practical solutions to tackling some of the challenges:

  • Insist on equal gender participation in any planned mapping activities. Whether it is participation in a training, setting up a local committee, or going out and mapping in the field, equal representation must be a requirement from the start.
  • In many households, fathers and husbands still have authority to decide whether women can be allowed to participate in all kinds of activities… including mapping. To overcome these hurdles and ensure long-term participation rates, engaging actively with families is key.
  • Provide prizes or financial incentives for community mapping activities. One panelist noted: “If she can bring back some sugar after mapping, then there is value in her time spent in these other activities”.
  • Encourage the engagement of young mappers and technologists in local and/or global competitions. Winning competitions will build a sense of pride and acceptance in families.
  • Hold trainings in local languages. Providing training in a local language is more inclusive and allows for more women engage.

Above all, there was agreement that all stakeholders – men and women, girls and boys – need to work together to achieve progress to ensure equal opportunity and representation. This event provided a wonderful opportunity for mappers and technologists to interact and engage with people across cultures and nationalities. Networks have been built, and the dialogue will continue online at www.OSMladyworld.com, a platform dedicated to promoting young women in the mapping and tech world that was launched after the event. I encourage you to join, share your own stories, and be inspired by others’.

The GFDRR-supported plenary on Women in Technology and Mapping was moderated by Angela Lungati, the co-founder of AkiraChix (a NGO focused on women in tech in Kenya). The event featured distinguished panelists including Janet Chapman from the Tanzania Development Trust, Christine Mhone from the Malawi Innovation Hub (mHub), Fatiman Alher from OSM Niger, Nathalie Sidibe from OSM Mali, and Trudy Hope from OSM Zambia, who each shared experiences in leading tech and mapping activities in their countries.