Archive for ‘Thesis’

October 20, 2014

Map Hunt

The next task of the mapping project was to see what kind of maps of the city already exist. The core GIS team spent a few days visiting the various cadastral and municipal offices that might have information. It was a bit of a scavenger hunt because we would go to one office and they would suggest we go to another one. Sometimes they would be too busy and so we would have to come back another day or book an appointment. We went to the mayor’s office to see if they had any maps, but also to share and get support for the project. They responded very positively and expressed that it was a real need for the city. In our search for maps we discovered that there are no digital maps of the city that use or were created with GIS. At the office of urbanism we found a few hand drawn maps that had the names of some roads and rivers and the neighbourhood limits. It has been quite a challenge to overlay this information and transfer it to our own map. Originally we were planning to use the divisions of the neighbourhoods as the way to assign areas for upcoming fieldwork, but realized it would take us too long to resolve what the limits are. The quarters also vary too much in size. For the purpose of the fieldwork I divided the city into a series of “assignments” of areas that follow main roads and are manageable to explore on foot in one day. Beni Map


October 12, 2014

The Question of Land

One  thing I’ve discovered about this region is that there is a lot of conflict that arises over land. The problem is that there are multiple claims to land from different authorities. There are cadastral claims that are registered with the city, claims with local chiefs, and even ancestral claims that don’t belong to either group. It is a common occurrence that a piece of land is sold even though it already has another claim. In many cases the conflict becomes violent. There is no easy way to resolve such a deeply embedded issue, but mapping has the ability to offer transparency as a first step to reaching resolution.

An example of land conflict is the tension between the Congo Pygmy population and new populations that are moving in and buying land in the region of Mbau, north of Beni. The chiefs of the area are selling land that Pygmies say they already have claim to. Two weeks ago I went with a few professors and students from UCBC to an advocacy event that was arranged by an organization called PAP-RDC (Programme d’Assistance aux Pygmies) in partnership with the Catholic University of Graben in Butembo. Many Pygmy representatives were gathered to express their sentiments about how their land was being taken from them. They were seated in a circle and people stood up and spoke passionately one at at a time in front of a video camera. It’s a very sensitive issue because the Congo Pygmies have been subject to decades of discrimination and exploitation.  The advocacy group is making a video to spread awareness about the conflict from the perspective of the Pygmy population. It was interesting to be an observer. We are hoping to meet with the team from PAP to see what kind of mapping they have done and to learn from their experience of responding to land conflict.

Tags: ,
September 28, 2014

Week of Workshops

This week I jumped into teaching GIS software to the GIS group that has formed at UCBC. For two days I taught them the basics of QGIS and the final day introduced JOSM (Java Open Street Map) Editor and Field Papers. We were able to bring in the test data that the students collected the week before and start analysing it. I also showed the students how I created a base map by tracing a satellite image using JOSM. It is such a cool experience to see the students’ excitement as they are given tools to analyse themes in the community that they were probably already aware of qualitatively, but can now analyse, communicate, and respond to.


Tags: ,
September 21, 2014

Life in Beni

I have been in Beni for a week now. By describing the first few days of my stay in Beni, I thought that I might be able to give an idea of what life is like here.

Pano from Bethel

I live in the Bethel House that is a guesthouse for visiting international staff of UCBC. The picture above is the view from the second floor veranda. The house is cared for by Mama Noelle and Mama Georgette. They are my Congolese Mamas and are wonderful ladies! We hire them to cook for us because there are no stoves or fridges. Everyday they go to the market and get fresh food and cook meals on charcoal stoves. We eat a lot of potatos, plantains, cabbage, red beans, beef, and goat meat. On occasion we have chicken and fish. The tropical fruit here is fantastic and is much better than the stuff we import back home. There are always fresh avocados, pineapples, bananas, mangos, and passion fruit! I find that I eat heavier foods here, but at least it’s all natural.

Beni does not have a city power grid. The few places that have electricity purchase it from businesses that run diesal generators. The hydro poles are extremely half hazard and it is no wonder that there are often power problems. At Bethel house we get power from 6:30pm to 10pm. This means that I have to get into the habit of plugging in my electronics to charge during this time! When I work on the computer I always have my screen brightness on the lowest setting to make the battery last as long as possible. Internet here is entirely through mobile companies. It is expensive and so I have to be careful to do as much work as I can offline. That is difficult though when my work involves online research!

The day after I arrived I joined activities of the GIS group because they were doing their first practical component of the training they had received in ArcGIS and two other data collection applications. It was fantastic for me to jump right in because I was able to see what data collection is like in this context and how it might influence the design of the mapping framework. The group was eight current and former UCBC students who were split up into partners that were each collecting locations and names of amenities in a single quarter. I joined the team that was scouting out hospitals, medical centers, clinics, and pharacies. At most places that we stopped at, we would be offered a seat while we explained what we were doing. Offering a seat and being welcoming to strangers is very much a part of Congolese culture. At one point in the day it started to pour and so we ran to a nearby house and were offered a seat while we waited for the rain to pass. The group went out the next day as well to finish the last quarter of the commune. That time I joined the team who were locating schools. The following day the group met at UCBC to begin analysing the data they had collected. There was only one or two computers with ArcGIS and so I provided them with QGIS. This coming week I will probably lead a few training sessions to teach QGIS, JOSM, and Field Papers. It has already been a full week!

On Saturday I went with Lauren and Jessica into town. Jessica has been a staff at UCBC for a year now and so she introduced us to the various shops along the main road and the large market. It is possible to find all sorts of things at the market. It is made up of rows upon rows of tightly packed stalls. There is a large food section, household wares, random trinkets, and fabric. The fabric section is fun to see. The Congolese are very fashionable and try to look their best. A typical Congolese dress is a matching top and skirt made out of brightly patterned fabric. The shirts are fitted and the skirts are narrow and long but often flare out at the bottom. I wasn’t planning on buying anything but came across a beautiful blue and gold patterned fabric. I will probably get a Congolese style dress made while I am here.

On Sunday I went to a Swahili service at the UCBC church. There is also an English and a French service, but it was fun to experience the Swahili one. Although I didn’t get much from the message, I pulled out my Swahili dictionary and looked up words that I heard the preacher say. Since I took two months of Swahili lessons when I was in Kampala two years ago, the Swahili is coming pretty fast. We’ll see how much I can learn in three months! The church building is still under construction . I say “still” because it was under construction when I was here two years ago. The work is slow because they build as the money becomes available. They are working from the top down; the two towers are done!

Beni architecture is something to comment on. It is typical here that anyone who has wealth builds houses that are far to big, but that still aren’t built to a great level of quality. It makes me cringe. There is a disparity between the scattering of large houses and the more common small wood and mud huts. If I designed a house here it would be small but well made. There is great potential for craftsmanship here since everything is made from local materials.

So hopefully this gives you a picture of Beni! I hope I will have more photos soon as I jump into life here.

– Lise

September 11, 2014

Back to Congo

I’ve been in Europe for nine days and I fly out tomorrow to Uganda. It’s definitely time I write about the next journey I am about to go on! After a year of planning I am finally heading to Beni in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to partner with UCBC in research related to mapping and urban studies. The goal of my research is to design and implement a digital mapping framework for the university and community of Beni, while at the same time testing what digital tools can offer to promote agency in the real spatial and social condition of a precarious city. You may wonder where this research came from. Two years ago I did an internship with a Christian development organization called Engineering Ministries International in their East Africa office. I lived in Kampala Uganda for four months and for two weeks went on a project trip with a team of architects and engineers to the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo to complete a master plan for a Christian bilingual university called UCBC (Université Chrétienne Bilingue du Congo). Living in a developing country definitely changed my perspective as a designer. When I was there I realized that the young generation has an incredible amount of hope and energy for improving conditions in the country, but lack agency. I started wondering what design could offer. Since that trip I considered how I could perform research in the area of community development using design and mapping tools to foster community programs and networks. At the beginning of my research I contacted UCBC out of the blue to see if they would be interested in partnering in this type of work. It turned out that it was good timing for them because they had just launched a new GIS program. This was the beginning of a year of work to prepare for this upcoming trip. There was a lot of planning and learning involved in such a large scale project that was a step away from my expertise. I tackled coding of html, CSS, and JavaScript; I communicated with expert mappers and geographers; I learned about all sorts of data collection and mapping initiatives; I learned the use of different open source tools for data collection; I prepared a plan for how I will run workshops and what the content and purpose of them will be; I researched and purchased equipment such as a portable printer, GPS units, solar chargers, and a portable external battery; I collected a few used GPS devices and smart phones. On top of that I dove into the theory of mapping to determine what the positioning of my work will be in the discourse of mapping and architecture. What a year! I look forward to sharing with you about the trip! I’m going to try to post as often as I can even if it’s just a phrase or a single photograph. I’ll be posting some photos from my short trip to Europe shortly! Best, Lise

Tags: ,
July 5, 2014

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters

Book Review 4: Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa, by Jason Stearns

I just recently finished reading this book in preparation for my trip back to the Congo this fall. I had previously read King Leopold’s Ghost, another great read that describes the history of Belgian colonialism, but had yet to read a book about Mobutu’s dictatorship and the two Congo Wars of more recent history. I was recommended this book by an architecture alumni from U of T who did her thesis in the Eastern Congo, and I equally recommend it to anyone who wants to have a better understanding of the wars and modern Congolese politics. Before I read the book I didn’t even know what the motivations were for the war and was probably guilty of making generalizations. What this book reveals is an extremely complex conflict that offers no easy answers. The book is extremely well researched, following narratives from people on all sides of the conflict and from all walks of life. It demonstrates that there is no completely good or bad side because most people had reasonable motivations in response to their circumstances. The book was also very difficult to read because it doesn’t shy from the brutalities that occurred.

I don’t think that many people know about the two Congo wars even though they are a part of very recent history and occurred following the Rwandan genocide that is more well known. The first war was in 1996 to 1997 and the next from 1998 to 2003, although tension still exists with the presence of rebel armies in the Eastern provinces. It is estimated that close to five million people died. The majority of deaths were not from combat, but rather from the absolute poverty and disease that ensued. Although the country was ready for a shift in government, and almost welcomed the Rwandan invaders, it could be argued that very little has changed in the country since the time of Mobutu. What I learned about Congolese politics is that those in power have never been able to represent the public interest. Recent leaders have spent the majority of resources protecting their position than sticking their head out to set in place the necessary political reform. The culture of corruption has developed to such an extent that people have no choice but to act corruptly in order to survive or get ahead. It has become business as usual and will be something that might take generations to lift. The future appears dull after reading such a heavy book, but the author comments at the end that he saw the same thing that I saw when I was in the Congo: there is a lot of joy in everyday life and hope for a brighter future.


July 1, 2014

Three Cups of Tea

Book Review 3: Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

I recently finished reading Three Cups of Tea, a book recommended by my sister. I think that she read it in school in one of her peace and conflict studies courses. It is a good read for anyone interested in international development projects and cross-cultural experience. The book shares the memoir of Greg Mortenson who over the last decade has been an advocate of education for children, particularly girls, in the remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Greg Mortenson originally came to Pakistan to climb K2, the second highest mountain on earth. He failed to summit after losing energy from carrying out a mission to save the life of a fellow climber. On the way back down the mountain he was very weak and lost the path, accidentally stumbling across a small village called Korphe. It was his experience in this village and the kindness they showed him that changed the direction of his life. While he was there he noticed that the village really needed a school, and before he left the village he promised that he would be back to build them one. One thing I like about this book is that it demonstrates that anything is possible with stubborn endurance. Instead of getting bogged down with the almost impossible task of raising money, he wrote hundreds of letters. He knew that he only needed one person to care and that would be enough.

That person was Jean Hoerni, a fellow climber and one of the founders of the transistor in Silicon Valley. He donated the first 12 000 that was needed to build the first school in Korphe and he would go on to found the Central Asia Institute (CAI), of which he placed Mortenson as director. The book describes how the scope of work grew in response to the overwhelming need for schools, as well as the challenges they met along the way. Lastly I enjoyed the cross-cultural relationships in the story that demonstrate that the same human desires exist across all cultural divides. All in all I found the book inspiring by the way that it encourages people to act and fight for a cause by peaceful and collaborative means.

I was dragged back to reality after reading the book. I was warned that there was a lot of criticism but decided to wait until after I had finished the book to research it. There have been allegations that parts of the memoir are made up and that the CAI’s finances are spotty. The book has also received criticism for being ignorant and having a too simple perspective of life in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is true that the story is very one-sided (although I suppose that’s generally the case for a memoir) and that Mortenson is tagged as a real hero. I am sure the schools sometimes had a negative impact on some peoples lives; that’s real life. That doesn’t mean that we should stand by and not do anything, but to see and acknowledge the other side is important because nothing is perfect and ideology can be as dangerous as it can be motivating. If he hadn’t painted himself as such a saint, I think that the allegations would have been less stark and therefore wouldn’t have taken hold like they did.

Despite all of that, it was still a worthwhile read. Here are some great quotes:

“Once you educate the boys, they tend to leave the villages and go search for work in the cities, but the girls stay home, become leaders in the community, and pass on what they’ve learned. If you really want to change a culture, to empower women, improve basic hygiene and health care, and fight high rates of infant mortality, the answer is to educate girls.”

“If we try to resolve terrorism with military might and nothing else, then we will be no safer than we were before 9/11. If we truly want a legacy of peace for our children, we need to understand that this is a war that will ultimately be won with books, not with bombs.”

“Haji Ali spoke. ‘If you want to thrive in Baltistan, you must respect our ways. The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die. Doctor Greg, you must take time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated but we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time.’ That day, Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned in my life. We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly…Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects. He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.”

June 16, 2014

Prep Step 2: Data collection with Garmin GPS unit

GPS Images

The next step of my preparations was to learn how to use a GPS unit to collect data. Although mobile phones now have the same, or perhaps even more, capabilities as a GPS, the one key thing that a GPS device offers is durability and dependability. Not only are GPS waterproof and drop proof, they also take two AA batteries that you can get anywhere, and have a 24 hour battery life. They also don’t require access to mobile internet. All of these qualities make it excellent for use in the developing context. Phones on the other hand are cheaper and more widely available, but are fragile, need to access internet, and have a shorter battery life. I have to think about all of these factors because Beni only has a few hours of electricity per day. The best action to take will be to bring a good amount of both technologies and bring extra things like portable battery chargers and extra batteries. Prep Step 3 will describe my experience using a mobile phone application for data collection.

The first step in using the Garmin device was the most difficult. I had to figure out how to create my own img file to serve as the background map for the Garmin device. This is where the work that I did in JOSM fits into the picture (see Prep Step 1). When I am finished editing the base map of Beni I will upload it and it will be added to the global OSM map. Then I will retrieve it again using a web program that converts a chosen area selection of OSM and e-mails you a link to a downloadable zip file that includes the img file. It can take one or two days to receive the files and because it is a free service they ask for donations. The “gmapsupp.img” file can be downloaded onto the cards of several GPS devices that can then be enabled once the device is turned on. Mission accomplished! All of the Garmin devices will have the same base map for participants to navigate and work with. Because I can’t really test this part of the process with the Beni map, I downloaded the OSM Garmin img file for Cambridge.

The next task was to learn how to use the device to collect data. I discovered that the Garmin device is quite limited in this respect. I thought I would be able to edit existing Points of Interest for example, or be able to rename existing streets. This is not the case; the only thing that the Garmin unit can do is log what are called “tracks” and “waypoints”. Tracks literally mark your journey with a connected trail of points over time that save the coordinates. Tracking can be enabled or disabled and there is an option to have it enabled while it not being visible on the map. I will enable the tracking because anyone editing the map later will need to know where the groups of mappers went in the city to make sure there are no holes in the gathered information. Waypoints are points that can be logged at any time and can be used for the marking of any Points Of Interest (POIs). It can be marked by choosing to save a waypoint where you are standing, or you can toggle the mouse to select a nearby element such as a road or a building. A title can be given to a waypoint as well as a short note, and you can change the icon that represents the waypoint on the map to better express what it is. Originally I had planned for participants to input the POI and street names as the waypoint titles, and use the note category for descriptors such as type or condition, but I realized that it would take a long time to input the names, especially on devices that have to toggle across a keyboard to select individual letters. The best option will be to send out participants in groups that have a GPS user as well as a physical note-taker with a legend that shows what information to include. I am also planning to use a tool called Field Papers that I will talk about in Prep Step 4. After the storage on the device is full or a task is complete, the data can be uploaded to the computer either by USB connection or removing and reading the MicroSD. After the points are transferred they can be cleared from the device to leave space to go out and collect more. The waypoints and tracks from the Garmin device are “gpx” files that can be opened directly in JSOM or QGIS. A program called GPSBabel is handy if using a different brand device where conversion is required.

That’s about it for preparations with the Garmin device. One task I have yet to do is write out a step by step procedure to use for teaching participants how to use the device. Another thing I need to do is figure out how to get my hands on a few more units to bring along without going broke… :P


June 12, 2014

Prep Step 1: Tracing roads in JSOM


JOSM is a free software that is used for offline editing of OpenStreetMap (OSM). If you don’t know what OpenStreetMap is, it is an open source online map that can be edited or downloaded by any registered member. The easiest way to describe it is to call it the “Wikipedia” of mapping. There are now millions of people who contribute and I recently signed up because I learned it would be a valuable tool in generating a globally positioned map of Beni. JOSM allows you to select an area that you want to download from OSM and then has the option to put a tiled Bing satellite image behind it. Then using editing tools it is possible to add to the map by tracing new elements such as roads, buildings, or waterbodies, or adjusting existing lines and information. I am in the process of tracing roads and creeks because it is all I need to make a preliminary base map.

One might ask why I am tracing the roads of a place I have never been to and what if I make errors. The reason I am doing it is because I need to create a base map that I can add to once I go to Beni. If I do not create a base map, I would have nothing for the mapping participants to even follow or know where to go or what neighbourhoods to explore. They will use this information as a base but will then add to it and correct any errors by physically being there. That means that OSM will have errors for a small amount of time, but will soon be made accurate as we gallivant around Beni and document refinements and edits. The mapping participants will be able to collect information beyond just the tracings by documenting data such as road names, road types, paving types, and what condition they are in. They will also be mapping other things such as buildings and places that are Points Of Interest (POIs) for the community (as will be described in Future Prep Steps 2 and 3).

While the line information can be shared with OSM, we have the choice of whether or not to add the detailed information or keep it for our own use. JOSM always encourages people to upload the content back to OSM, but what is nice about the program is that you can always wait until the information is accurate before uploading, or choose to upload only the elements you want to contribute to the public map. Another great feature of JOSM is that it can export the information as gpx tracks that are compatible for download onto Garmin devices or GPS Android applications for use in the field (Future Prep Steps 2 and 3). JOSM can also export as geoJson files that can be used in coding or to import the same elements with their data into QGIS, an open source Global Information System (GIS) (also for a future Prep Step).

There is an online editor called iD that essentially does the same thing as JSOM, but it edits OSM directly. I like JSOM for the ability to wait, its exporting capabilities, and also because work can be done offline, a key thing to think about when working with technology in a developing country where internet can be spotty and expensive. I’ll be bringing all of these programs over on a USB key to avoid any need for downloading big files from the web! One may also ask why I am not just editing this information in QGIS, a program that is capable of doing the same thing. The reason I have decided to use JSOM is because its connection with OSM allows me to use really helpful tools such as this website (future Prep Step 2) that formats base map img files of a specified area from OSM for Garmin devices. Editing in JSOM is also much faster than in QGIS just in the way the interface is designed. QGIS will come into the picture later on when it is time to manipulate the data that we collect to create our own custom maps and corresponding databases. Lastly, JSOM is great for preliminary work because it is valuable to contribute to OpenStreetMap, not only because I am benefiting so much from it as a tool and resource, but also because others will benefit from an open source base map of Beni.


May 2, 2014

Introducing Some Awesome Tools

This is a post that I intend to grow as I come across useful tools for my research. Here are a few that I’ve discovered so far:


This is a website that teaches how to code. It currently offers beginner lessons in HTML/CSS, jQuery, JavaScript, PHP, Python, and Ruby. I decided to try it out and found it to be very comprehensive; the lessons are interactive, and it sets up milestones and saves your progress.


This is an Introduction to Computer Science course that Harvard University offers online. It is free and offers video lectures and support. You can either choose to just watch the videos and do only some of the projects, or else you can complete all of the course tasks and final project in order to get a certificate that says you completed the course (pass/fail).

This is a website that provides an “Open Forum on Participatory Geographic Information Systems and Technologies.” It offers a great list of tools, article/book references, and much much more! I haven’t even brushed the surface of the content that this forum has compiled together.


For my research I will be using and contributing to OpenStreetMap (OSM), an online map that is contributed to and used by people all over the world. The data from OpenStreetMap is open source and can therefore be appropriated and used by anyone for free. LearnOSM is a website that brings you through step by step how to contribute and use the data and maps from OSM.

Geojournalism Handbook

This website has a collection of excellent tutorials that describe various tools related to participatory mapping. It covers a whole variety of topics including balloon mapping, using Open Street Map and related tools, using Frontline or Ushahidi software for SMS reporting, and creating a simple animation.