Exploring the Potential of Crowdsourced Mapping in Africa

Mapping with satellite imagery requires specialised skills and knowledge, including remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS). However, many African countries have limited human capacity in these areas, making using satellite imagery for mapping and planning difficult. Furthermore, creating maps from satellite imagery often requires access to high-speed internet, powerful computers, and specialised software, a bane in many African regions that lack the necessary infrastructure to support these tools, making it challenging to use satellite imagery for mapping and planning effectively.

In addition, getting young people involved in satellite imagery analysis in Africa can be challenging, as several barriers need to be addressed. For instance, many young Africans may not be aware of satellite imagery analysis or the opportunities it presents. This can make it difficult to generate interest and participation. Addressing these challenges will require a combination of investment in infrastructure and human capacity, collaborations between different stakeholders, raising awareness, providing training opportunities, and allocating sufficient resources. In addition, it can be helpful to incorporate elements of gamification or collaboration to make the experience more engaging and appealing to young people.

One way to improve this outlook is through crowdsourced mapping, which has become an increasingly popular method in recent years because it can quickly and inexpensively generate large volumes of data, which can be used for various purposes such as disaster response, urban planning, and environmental management.

Another is through gamification, with an engaging storyline and real-world applications, to help pique young people’s interest and inspire them to learn more. To this end, BlackShore is revolutionising digital mapping by harnessing the collective efforts of many people to identify and map features in satellite images. Furthermore, through this innovative method, Blackshore expects crowdsourced mapping platforms to give young people a global perspective by allowing them to contribute to maps of places worldwide to broaden their understanding of different cultures, geographies, and environmental issues.

In addition, Blackshore believes that engaging the public in the mapping process promotes greater understanding and participation in decision-making, which can build trust and collaboration between communities, government agencies, and other stakeholders. This led to their pilot project in Maradi, Niger which has further illuminated the uniqueness of their offering.

Space in Africa had a chat with the CEO of BlackShore, Hans van ‘t Woud, to learn more about mapping through crowdsourcing and its potential impact in piquing young African’s interest in utilising space technologies for sustainable development. 

Can you tell me about yourself?

My name is Hans van ‘t Woud, and I am the founding CEO of BlackShore. I graduated from the Academy of Arts in the Netherlands, where I focused on designing graphical user interfaces and closing the gap between technology and society. After this, I enrolled for a Master’s in computer science with a specialisation in human-centred multimedia at the University of Amsterdam. There, I focused on understanding human interaction with the digital world. 

Then, I began designing a self-invented gamified crowdsourcing platform (Cerberus). I discovered that computer game players could help the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) map Mars’s surface. At that time (perhaps to date), turning satellite data from the Mars reconnaissance orbiter into actionable information was challenging. The Mars orbiter produced highly detailed photos and sent vast amounts of data back to Earth. However, by ingesting this data in a computer game, the players could quickly and inexpensively map out traces of rivers, dunes and other objects, culminating in clean, crisp and detailed maps of Mars.

With this knowledge, I pitched the solution to the European Space Agency, which helped me through their business incubation scheme to start up my company. At the same time, I turned the focus from outer space challenges to map challenges here on Earth. We have a lot of satellites orbiting our planet, generating a lot of data, and we turn this data into maps using our crowdsourcing platform, which has now grown to about 110,000 players globally. Our game platform is partly developed and designed in Egypt by our partner, Streaming Creativity Game Studios. Thus, our game developers from Africa are designing and building a platform that engages players across the continent to transform space data into knowledge.

Cerberus game interface. Source: BlackShore
Please briefly discuss the PMERSA water mobilisation project, your role in its implementation, and the lessons learnt from the project. Also, who funded the project, and what kind of data sources were available to you on this project? 

The PMERSA-MTZ project, identified as part of the Global Agriculture and Food Security Programme (GAFSP), aims to increase food security in Niger’s Maradi, Tahoua, and Zinder regions through water mobilisation and agricultural output enhancement. This multilateral funding mechanism aligns with the G20 commitments for food security. The project, financed by the African Development Bank (AFDB), focuses on actions to improve water resources to ensure agricultural production is secure and increased, leading to improved food security in Niger. For example, water pumps were installed to support agriculture and refurbish village wells and dams to manage river flows. So, it focused on how to get more and cleaner water to people and farmers and improve their lives. 

Mapping Maradi with Cerberus. Source: BlackShore

Now, our role in the project was not a direct involvement. Instead, AfDB commissioned our company and the Akvo Foundation in Amsterdam to help measure and visualise the effects of the PMERSA project, to ascertain whether or not the project had the intended results. To observe and evaluate the success, we ran a controlled innovative test project where we ordered very high-resolution satellite imagery of the present containing a set of PMERSA improvements. Then, with our Cerberus crowdsourcing platform, we utilised very high-resolution satellite imagery to map what was constructed by PMERSA. We then engaged a trained crowd, immersed in a metaverse-like environment and motivated by gaming mechanics, to help us understand the context of the mapped features. In addition, we mapped the direct surroundings of these investments since this tells us something about livelihood throughout the region. 

PMERSA impact mapping for AfDB by AKVO and BlackShore using satellites, game-based crowdsourcing across time and local narrative from Niger. Source: BlackShore

For example, not every improvement, such as a motorised pump, is visible from space. Still, we can see what agricultural areas look like regarding crop diversity and tree growth. In addition to analysing the cropping system, we conducted a new experiment using satellite imagery. Specifically, we created a map of the city of Maradi using Maxar’s WorldView-3 satellite at a resolution of 30 cm. This gave us a unique perspective on the city’s features and infrastructure. With this data type, we could identify individual human entities from space. As part of our task, we localised markets and hospitals and observed people going to and from these locations. By analysing this data, we gained valuable insights into the vitality of different regions.

Eight-year trend analysis of Maradi, Niger. Source: BlackShore

After mapping the area, we went on to conduct further research. Using the maps, we identified specific locations data collectors visited from the AKVO foundation in Niger. At these locations, we interviewed residents to document how the PMERSA project had impacted their lives. By gathering these diverse stories, we gained valuable insights into the project’s significance, the lessons learned, and the prospects for the future. Additionally, we acquired historical satellite data from these locations, captured before PMERSA was implemented. This allowed us to conduct a time series analysis and complete the story of the project’s impact on the region.

PMERSA focused on the agricultural sector. Based on your long-term ambition, what are the other sectoral applications of this kind of initiative? 

Although PMERSA was a vast project, we only analysed a small portion of it during this pilot study. Therefore, we selected a representative sample that included rural and urban areas. Moving forward, we will conduct further evaluations of the project’s impact and make recommendations for improving future projects. Our ultimate goal is to ensure these initiatives are as effective and impactful as possible.

In the future, we hope to replicate this study for similar projects focused on water and agriculture, as there are many similar initiatives throughout Africa. Unfortunately, evaluating the impact and effectiveness of such projects is rare, which is where our work comes in. However, there is still much more we can do. With satellite technologies providing essential data for various applications, including natural resource management, climate change adaptation, and urban planning, many opportunities exist to leverage this technology for sustainable development. 

Our work has extended beyond agriculture and water to other sectors, such as wildlife conservation. For example, we previously mapped a wild park in Zambia to identify animal highways and protect the Black Rhino from poaching. By leveraging satellite imagery and human intelligence augmented by game mechanics, we gained valuable situational understanding that helped us protect nature. Many other sectors could benefit from space-based data, such as forestry, to protect biodiversity and urban planning from designing future cities with crowd-sourced input. By democratising this process through our gaming platform, we aim to make these technologies more accessible and impactful.

You mentioned that this is just the pilot project. Are you open to implementing this across all African states? What form would such collaboration take?

We have only scratched the surface of what our technology can do, and we are already seeing great results. Our approach has enabled us to capture both the quantity and quality of project impacts, providing a comprehensive understanding of how they have benefited people. We intend to continue this work and expand our reach to cover more countries and projects. Our technology is highly scalable, as it runs on game servers and is accessible to everyone. In addition, we have plans to further improve our solutions by standardising our methods, implementing blockchain technologies, and pursuing other exciting projects.

Do the maps allow precise mapping and surveying to collect accurate point data for the environmental management, mining, construction, agriculture and health sectors?

Yes. But beyond precise data points, we can also observe trends. For example, in Maradi, we could map areas that best serve for constructing buildings, wells and roads with pinpoint accuracy. Agricultural monitoring was critical in understanding what people ingest as nutritional products. Over time we saw a far greater diversity of crops planted, indicating people have a more diverse menu on their plate. And we all know eating various foods is healthier than just having one particular food daily. As for mining, we have experience involving mainland Europe, but we also know some in Africa. A good case here would be to focus on detecting artisanal mining. This is both important to involve human health and to preserve nature. 

Eight-year trend analysis of Maradi, Niger. Source: BlackShore
Several African nations are looking at models to increase young people’s participation in the space industry. This model of integrating satellite analysis in games is an innovative way to achieve this. What was the inspiration for this? 

What I like the most is that I am in the position to put data, which is usually only available for researchers and experts, into devices of everyday people. Wherever you are (if you have access to the internet), you can play the game, explore the world from above, and be directly relevant. While you play and research, you do something good and help us solve real-world challenges. Moreover, since learning is mandatory to map, you will also learn about real-world situations. You may even become inspired and want to go for a job involving space yourself.

Typically, digital map initiatives require satellite data processing skills to make sense of the satellite imagery. Is it the same with this project, or is it open to people without this background? 

As I mentioned earlier, a crucial factor is to have a good e-learning engine since we need to train the players to map appropriately. However, since it is all integrated into a game, players do not feel like they are following a lesson. Just by doing, they learn and can start doing the actual mapping. In addition, in our case, projects are specific and related to what the customer wants, so everything is different. This way, it never gets boring or monotonous, and there is always something interesting to do.  

Tracking the 1000s of years old geoglyphs and pyramids in Mali. Source: BlackShore

Lastly, we talked about mapping topics. A personal favourite, and I know it isn’t business savvy, I like space archaeology. We map what the customer needs in many maps, but I add something extra. From space, we see a lot of things, showing tracks of the past. For example, we have found 1000s of years old geoglyphs and pyramids in Mali.