On the right road

Anna Schemper

A project in Ethiopia uses GPS-enabled PDAs to map roads in the country. Accurate road data helps NGOs, extension services and farmers to plan their transportation needs.

Accurate information on the location and trajectories of rural roads is essential to improving the livelihoods of farmers. Precise data on road positions helps small-scale producers manage transport routes, improve access to markets, and aids planning for agricultural extension officers who regularly visit remote communities.

Road information already exists for many ACP countries, but it is often difficult to know which map or source to use. One map may be more recent, while another provides more detailed information. Neither may be very reliable, as they do not show the condition of the road or whether it is only seasonably available.

In Ethiopia, the Road Data Development project has been testing methods to gather accurate and up-to-date information on rural road systems. The project is led by iMMAP, an international not-for-profit organization, and developed from work they had previously carried out in Sudan. For that project, the data was collected on paper forms which were time-consuming and laborious to process.

To make the data collection more efficient, and less prone to misinterpretation, the project team in Ethiopia is using handheld GPS-enabled PDA units, which receive location information from satellites. The PDA unit has special software installed, based on the free-to-download CyberTracker program, where the user can enter data by pressing relevant graphics on a touchscreen. The information is then stored on the PDA and can be downloaded later onto a computer for analysis.


The project works closely with staff from the World Food Programme (WFP) to gather the data. iMMAP have trained more than 100 people at WFP offices throughout the country to use the customized PDA units. After initial testing and feedback, the team made some final changes to the software before they put it into use.

With a total of 17 PDA units, WFP staff collect road data when they travel throughout rural Ethiopia as part of their usual working day. They can record the coordinates of the roads they use, note the condition and whether it is temporarily blocked by an obstacle, such as a fallen tree or a flooded river. The field staff also document other infrastructure of importance to small-holder farmers: irrigation equipment, water reservoirs, community grain stores, fertilizer warehouses and agricultural extension offices.

Each of the WFP sub-offices has a trained ICT ‘focus person’ who is responsible for retrieving the information from the PDAs, uploading it onto a computer and sending the data to the WFP country office in Addis Ababa. Staff from iMMAP regularly liaise with the field staff to coordinate the data collection schedule.

Most of the data collected come from the Somali region of Ethiopia, where iMMAP’s other work is focused. But a partner organization, the Regional Center for Mapping of Resources for Development (RCMRD), have also trained people to collect information over a much wider area.

The data is then shared with Columbia University’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) to be processed further and integrated into the Global Roads Open Access Data Set (gROADS) project, which is developing a digital, public domain, global road map.

As well as contributing to these international mapping initiatives, the project team will combine their field data with information on currently available maps and satellite images to produce a single, reliable and up-to-date map of the region. Several NGOs and aid organizations have already expressed an interest in helping to gather more data, and to use the maps when they are finally available.

Small-scale farmers in the region will also directly benefit from the project’s efforts. Many of them have now been identified and can be targeted in the WFP Purchase for Progress (P4P) programme, where low-income farmers can sell food to WFP’s global operations for a fair price. P4P also works to develop farmers’ skills and helps them to be more competitive in agricultural markets.

Better roads data will also help aid agencies and organizations that are supporting farmers to plan and improve farmers’ access to local markets. WFP is already cross-referencing the raw data with their existing information to improve logistical support in the country. They can now confirm if a bridge has collapsed or a road is flooded, and start working out alternative routes.

So far, the project has proven to be a cost-effective method of mapping rural roads. iMMAP hopes to learn from, and refine, the procedures of the project in Ethiopia so that they can start collecting road data over a wider region, continue contributing to international mapping efforts, and help to make accurate, reliable maps available to organizations, farmers and extension services in many other countries.


Anna Schemper ( aschemp@gmail.com) is an information management officer at iMMAP ( www.immap.org)

Related Links


World Food Programme Ethiopia

WFP’s Purchase for Progress

Regional Center for Mapping of Resources for Development

Center for International Earth Science Information Network


29 April 2010

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