Capital News Online: Human rights and Canada

Mapping development

It’s been almost six years since a 7.0 magnitude earthquake destroyed Port-au-Prince in Haiti. In the immediate aftermath of the quake, numerous countries donated time, money and other resources to help rebuild the city. In fact, Haiti has been Canada’s largest aid beneficiary since 2010. For example, the Canadian Red Cross has distributed more than 14,400 tons of supplies, including 2.5 million litres of clean water, and has offered health-care services to more than 230,000 individuals. However, one Canadian is collaborating with local Haitians to build the knowledge that can lead to long term development.

Pierre Beland is a Canadian agronomist from Montreal who works with an organization call Open Street Map (OSM). Known as the Wikipedia of maps, OSM gathers local knowledge of an area and uses it to produce geographical information about that area, almost like a grassroots Google Maps. What differentiates OSM from other online mapping services is that it is locally sourced and the data uploaded to OSM is free and available for anyone to use as long as they give the website credit. OSM also gives local academics and professionals an opportunity to publish their work, and gives them access to a much larger audience that they may not have had before. Most important, it allows local communities to participate in the development of their country from a grassroots level. Rather than relying on an outside assessment of their needs, localized individuals can create the database of knowledge themselves based on the reality they know to be true.

“We work with the local communities here to give them the opportunity to do their own field data collection and sharing,” said Beland.

Beland is currently in Haiti training and working with local professionals to develop modern maps of Port-au-Prince and its surrounding towns. To this point, maps haven’t accurately represented the way people live every day in these areas. Beland is hoping the OSM platform will change that.

Mapping the landscape

Presler Jean looking over a ravine in the Canaan valley

Presler Jean is an example of the type of professional OSM benefits. Jean is a Haitian cartographer who makes maps using images taken by a drone he pilots. He finds an open space of land where he can launch and land his drone safely. He programs in the flight plan and then launches his drone over the settlement. While in the air, the drone takes hundreds of pictures which are then stitched together to form a complete map which can be analyzed to give data about the area.

“There are areas where flooding can enter into open latrines that are in the area. The water then flows to an area where there is drinking water and the people then use the contaminated water. It’s not good.”— Presler Jean

Jean uses the images taken by the drone to document important facts about the people who live in a settlement area on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince called Canaan. After the catastrophic earthquake in 2010, thousands of people were left without homes or places to live. Canaan was an area of vacant land where people moved, settled and began to rebuild their lives. At the time of the earthquake in 2010, the area was mostly empty. By 2012, Jean had taken pictures showing 22,000 homes had been built in this area. By 2014, there were more than 28,000 buildings that had been built in Canaan. Jean’s mapping offers proof that the population of Canaan is growing in this fashion.

In more developed countries, there is a great deal of long-term planning that goes into the development of an area. Studies are conducted to determine what certain types of land are suitable for. The geography of an area is taken into account to determine whether or not certain structures will be appropriate in certain areas. There are laws, codes and guidelines that determine what can be built where, and to what standard or quality those structures must adhere. These standards are strictly enforced.

None of these things are present in Canaan, where in 2010 survival was the priority, not standards. People built their homes with their own hands on whatever slice of land they could find, regardless of whether or not it was safe to do so. The result has been a town that has no roads, infrastructure, and where a majority of the buildings are located in unsafe areas.

Mapping the people

Duvillage in front of her home in Canaan

Duvillage Sidonia hates it when it rains.

The 39-year-old Haitian mother lives in a small, cinderblock house with a single room and a tin roof. It sits alongside a ravine which overflows whenever there is heavy rain.

When this happens at night, when it is dark, her home floods, and Sidonia is left with no choice but to huddle with her two small boys and wait for the water levels to drop.

“The water will come waist high and there is no place for us to go. We have to stand on chairs or on the bed until the water goes down.”— Duvillage Sidonia

Sidonia is one of dozens of families who face these problems in the Canaan settlement, and these are the people Jean is trying to help with their mapping project. The pictures taken by his drones can be analyzed, and models can be created that prove the area is at risk for flooding. If the problem can be proven, Jean is hoping that the government in Haiti will take action, and develop the area so that it is safe for families like Sidonia’s.

But there is another motivation behind Jean’s work, and it is the reason why his collaboration with Beland and OSM is so important. In addition to the procedures and processes that exist and drive urban planning in the developed world, there are also existing bodies of institutional knowledge. There are generations of civil engineers, cartographers and city planners who collaborate with governments to make sure that towns and cities are developed correctly. This tradition doesn’t exist in Haiti. It’s hard to develop when the institutional memory isn’t good enough to learn from the development mistakes of the past. This is what Jean is hoping OSM can achieve. Even if Canaan is fixed, at least someone will have left a record of it so that the same mistake won’t happen again.

“In Haiti, there is a lot of information,” said Jean, “but taking it and acting on it is the difficult part. We are doing this to share with people and government so good decisions can be made.”

[Header photo © Matthew Allen]

Matthew is a second year Masters student at Carleton University. He has a degree in international relations, and is extremely passionate about sports, music and development. Right now the major item on his bucket list is to go on a wing suit flight.

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