Learning from State of the Map Africa
I've heard that conferences are spaces to network, present your works and learn from outside your field as well, but State of the Map Africa (SOTMA) is quite different in the sense that it offers you the opportunity to experience the African culture, foods and myriads of other things. The 2019 edition of the conference was particularly interesting as we enjoyed a cross-collaboration with the World Bank Understanding Risk (UR) community. Held in the beautiful capital of Abidjan and the coastal town of Grand-Bassam respectively, the conference boast of over 600 participants from the academia, governments, private organizations, NGOs and multi-lateral organizations on a common day.
I worked with the program team and was directly responsible for the program of the conference. This included collecting, reviewing, scoring and selecting proposals, and then notifying selected speakers, confirming sessions and requesting presentation documents. The team was also in charge of arranging the schedule, on-site coordination of hosts, conference participants and plenary speakers.
Being a part of the organizing team for SOTM Africa was a new experience for me, even though I have been on the planning team for other organizations such as creative commons (CC) and work with some great minds in the field, the experience with SOTMA was different. If you are wondering what working with the core SOTMA planning team is, look no further; it is an opportunity to work with some of the greatest and brightest minds in the field of open mapping and geospatial analysis. Yes, quote me right, "the brightest and the best"! And because SOTMA was co-organized with the UR team, it is like having the best of both worlds.
So, what does this mean for a person like me who is holding a key role in determining the program's direction and outcome? You already know it is not an easy task. It is about giving one's best, staying hungry and committed to achieving the best no matter what. It is also about learning on the go because a lot of things might not be clear to you at first instance, which is okay, but then your input is still needed. In this regard, I find improvisation to be handy and an essential skill to have when working in any team environment.
Some important lessons and tips which I have learned throughout the planning and implementation stages and I think might be useful to some of us are:
Firstly, "Do not be afraid to say no". While we had some bright and dedicated people on the team, knowing when to say no cannot be over-emphasized because no one person can do it all. Some enthusiastic team members, sometimes may not have a schedule that allows them to participate fully in the organization of the programs or may not be able to complete a task - in this regard you need to learn to say no. It is not a personal thing - but of course SOTMA program is a big deal, and we need people who we can completely rely on to get the job done.
Secondly, "Be concrete on your decision." I had to learn this the hard way, but generally I think it's the best practice to already know what you want to do or at least have a blueprint of the task. During the last stages of the conference planning, we received some emails that some speakers would not be attending the conference anymore and we had to make last-minute changes to the programs. This in turn spurs further requests from other speakers for adjustment on their schedule, and because we were running late, we couldn't take all requests and we had to stick with our decision to avoid altering the programs further.
Lastly, you have to "learn to express yourself freely", be bold to say what you have to say. Although it is not easy to get everyone talking on the team, and not everyone who talks has something valuable to say, but perhaps some do. And a shy person may have a lot to contribute, or even not. But we encouraged everyone to talk and contribute and the results were simply amazing.
It's been 5 months since State of the Map Africa, but I still reflect on the experience and the values that it brought along. One thing that stood out for me is the connection and synergy between the two communities (SOTM & UR), you could see almost immediately the shared pleasantries, ideas and the building of bonds that is sure to grow forever. I sincerely think that connecting people of various backgrounds and bringing them together to discuss and to network, will form the basis for shaping and solving some of the world’s problems. The networking experience of young researchers, geospatial analysts, climate specialists, environmental risk data managers and open-source advocates are seriously needed to provide the interdisciplinary perspectives to a holistic problem-solving paradigm.
Laura Mugeha, Regional Ambassador (Kenya), Dr. Nuala Cowan (YouthMappers co-founder), and Yusuf Suleiman, Regional Ambassador (Nigeria) at SOTM Africa 2019
Thus, I hope future conferences, especially State of the Map Africa will invest in opportunities that bolster and promote collaborations across sectors and disciplines, additionally I think program design for conferences should prioritize networking time also.
In this sense, I am referring to a dedicated time that looks beyond coffee and lunch breaks, perhaps an educational tour or map tour, etc., something innovative that allows time for deep conversation and exchanges, which might perhaps be a step towards a more efficient battle against big issues we face today in our environment.
Yusuf Suleiman is a 2017 YouthMappers Leadership Fellow, a UN Sustainable Development Solution network fellow, and a YouthMappers Regional Ambassador based in Nigeria. He has lead several advocacy campaigns that leverage open data and technology to raise awareness about environmental and sustainability issues. Tweet at him @el_useful