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  • Tommy G D Charles, Fourah Bay College

The Journey of A YouthMapper

I’m Tommy Charles, a Geographer and a Youth Mapper from a very beautiful West African country called Sierra Leone (Lion Mountains). I say “Kush3.”

In September of 2016, my mapping science lecturer at Fourah Bay College (the oldest formal college in Africa) invited me to the Geographic Information System Laboratory. He told me about a workshop which entailed the mapping of communities that are not on maps.

I became curious because, by then, I thought every community on the surface of the earth was already on maps and I wanted to know how those that were supposedly absent could be added. He gave me the task of signing up other students for the workshop.

I went around the campus signing up students and telling them about a workshop geared towards the addition of unknown or unseen communities on maps. I noticed that most of my colleagues were as curious as I was.

Later, in that month, I attended my first mapathon. I realised it was co-organized by the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society, Missing Maps and The American Red Cross. By the end of the event my colleagues and I had learnt how to add buildings, roads and almost everything on the surface of the earth. We were very excited.

On that day, I wasn't only introduced to OpenStreetMap but also individuals that would become my mentors and a global movement of humanitarians including Humantarian OpenStreetMap Team, OpenStreetMap-Africa and the OpenStreetMap-foundation. As a result, my interests in Geographic Information System, volunteering and knowledge sharing increased rapidly.


About two days after my first mapathon, I went to a cyber cafe and did a follow-up training, used the tasking manager and read about many mapping projects that had been executed and were on going around the world. I felt very emotional when I came across a task for mapping against Ebola in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. I got to know that there were people around the world that were helping the sister countries fight a tough battle. Since then I vowed to continue mapping.

My trips to the cyber cafe became regular but I felt alone, and I wondered if my colleagues were doing the same. So, I reached out to them and the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society and we decided to establish a Youth Mappers Chapter called the Students Geographical Association-Youth Mappers at Fourah Bay College.

In order to make the chapter inclusive, we had two men and two women as executive members with me being the president. The ladies were very and are still dedicated. We were given authorization to use the internet and board room of the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society on weekends because the Geographic Information System laboratory on campus was almost dysfunctional.

Since the establishment of our Youth Mappers chapter we have received training in Kobo Toolbox, JOSM, Remap, Radiant Earth, Hexagon Geospatial and QGIS. Certainly, we wouldn't have come across some of these tools in the absence of the chapter. Our membership has always been grateful for it.


Eventually I got to know about the numerous conferences organized within the global OpenStreetMap community. So, I decided to apply for a scholarship to attend the State of the Map 2017 in Aizuwakaatsu, Japan. Fortunately, I was selected and made a presentation about the inclusion of small and young OpenStreetMap communities around the world. There I met with people who became friends, mentors and a family in which I've been sharing and gaining knowledge and ideas from.

Sadly, for me, I was at the conference when my country experienced a devastating mudslide which almost claimed a thousand lives. I could see the desperation and willingness in almost everyone at the conference to help in their own little ways. Their love and support were overwhelming I was reassured of being in a family of humanitarians who would go the extra mile to help communities in need.


With new inspirations from the conference, my team and I decided to establish and register OpenStreetMap-Sierra Leone as a Local Non-Governmental Organization, which would oversee and coordinate OpenStreetMap activities with an initial vision of expanding and diversifying its membership. Since then, we have held numerous mapathons, established two more Youth Mappers Chapters with OpenStreetMap and Kobo Toobox training.

One of the reasons that make me a proud YouthMapper and a member of the OpenStreetMap community is the fact that I applied almost all the knowledge I had acquired when writing my dissertation. From the use of Kobo Toobox to collect my data to the creation of armature maps using QGIS, the whole process was less cost effective and cumbersome. Gladly I got an A for my dissertation on Vulnerability Assessment of Flooding in Freettown.

Unfortunately, we were informed that the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society had developed a new cyber security policy which prohibits the use of external computers on their internet network. This was a big blow to the OpenStreetMap community in Sierra Leone as our mapathons became seldom as we can barely afford internet and space to conduct them.

However, this increased our urge to apply for the 2019 Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team Microgrant, so we can secure funds to procure computers, mobile phones, internet equipment, facilitate mapathons, data collection training and establish new Youth Mappers Chapters in order to revive and expand the community for sustainable development. It is with joy to state that we are one of the selected communities for the 2020 HOT Microgrant and we are about to kick start our project.

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Through my experience as youth mapper and an OpenStreetMap contributor I'm proud to say I have two years of volunteering experiences which has made me eligible for numerous opportunities, it’s just a matter of time. My journey continues as a YouthMapper and an OpenStreetMap contributor with optimism.

Therefore, I encourage new and old YouthMappers to continue the good work as your contributions do not only help mankind but also your individual development.

I want to say special thanks to Mr. Tino Raphael Toupane, Mr. Patrick Massaquoi, Mr. David Luswatu, Tigidanke Fofana, Stephen Kassigbie, Grace Kainessie and The Sierra Leone Red Cross for making my journey with YouthMappers and OpenStreetMap, thus far a thrill with a lot of knowledge and experiences. You're appreciated.

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