Posts Tagged ‘Technology


Google Mapping Burkina Faso

While cooped up inside over the weekend due to rain (with low temps in the 70’s!) I decided to play around some more with maps on Google Fusion Tables. The image above is a screenshot from the results of my work – a fully interactive google map of Burkina Faso departments (analogous to US counties). Darker colors represent a higher population and it’s quite evident that the Kadiogo department (containing the capital of Ouagadougou smack dab in the middle of the country) is the most populated. WordPress isn’t yet set up to allow me to embed the map here on the site (Fusion Tables is a bit too new apparently), however, I’ve made the raw data available to the public where you can click around on the map to your heart’s content and/or make your own mashup. You can create views to look at the data by province or region as well (just aggregate on either field), or just check out my separate provincial or regional boundaries/populations data tables.

Rather than inserting simple points like on my borrower map, this time I was able to map areas. I found GPS boundaries for Burkina Faso’s 13 regions and 351 departments here, and for it’s 45 provinces through some more searching here. Google Fusion Tables accepts .kml files*and I was able to easily add the data online. Then I made the data more useful by including other metadata about each department/province/region and stripping out extraneous points. Now, for example, you can click on a a department and see it’s associated, province, provincial capital, region, and regional capital. The trickiest part was using Wikipedia’s list/maps of Burkina Faso departments to be able to give a names to all 351 (Wikipedia only had 301). Also, .csv files don’t like french accents, so there was some cleanup there as well. I eventually tracked down some available Burkina Faso population data from a 2006 census report as well as the official breakdown of departments.

You could stop there, but I found the slick FusionTablesLayer Builder tool to be able to modify the look of the map (size, color, etc) and also be able to add a drop down or search box to allow users to filter results for when I put the map on the web.

While researching all of this, I found a few other tools that I plan on using in the future, such as this example on an on-map legend. Also, I found that it’s easy to add charts to the info windows by using this chart tool to modify and create chart URLs. Simply make a  new column in your data and put in the custom URL for each record. I also stumbled across Google Refine, which will greatly cut down the time needed to play around with messy data (like the Wikipedia list of departments). Check out some demo videos here. The smart grouping tool (where the program will automatically make groups of like names, such as “FBF” and “Friends of Burkina Faso”) alone would have saved me weeks of man hours at my last job.

Miraculously, my internet connection was sufficient to watch a few Google presentations from Google I/O 2011. I don’t know much programming, but these videos have inspired me to learn some JavaScript so I can work with the MapsFusion Tables, and Charts APIs in the future.

So, what will I do with all of this you ask? This exercise was a sort of proof of concept, and I think I’ve shown that these tools make it very easy to create interactive maps and charts all dynamically based off a fusion table, all with very little or no coding. Plus, since I’ve made the data public, I hope others will use my maps to map other things in Burkina Faso. For my organization, I plan to make an internal dashboard webpage where all of this data will be geared towards borrower activity. For example, we could view trouble areas for repayment rates, dynamic graphs of historical payments, and other summary statistics.

As an aside, the past few days of work also made me realize how great my job is. I had the time to explore and learn these tools without feeling time pressure, and have the leeway to create/research new features as I see fit. Thanks for the opportunity, Peace Corps.

Plan on using this data? I’d love to hear from you about your implementation.


*If you have a .kmz file, extract the .kml file from the .kmz file by changing .kmz extension to .zip and then extract.


Project: Putting Clients on the Map with GPS and Google

click to enlarge (data for illustrative purposes only)

Electronic maps, wide availability of GPS devices, cellular data speed increases, and the increased accessibility of data in the past few years has allowed for an uncanny ability to accurately map our world. In fact, some are calling it a geospatial revolution, as mapping has been used for more and more aspects of life – everything from staying safe of the way home from the bar to tracking international NGO locations, for example.

My interest in maps  started with my desire to be able to find all of the 44 nearby borrowers. Even if I had met a borrower at his/her place of business, it can be difficult to re-find locations. Street names don’t exist here and a lot of the buildings look alike. But then, I realized the map could have many more uses. There are plenty of names and faces to keep track of, and I also need to know loan details. Plus, the plan is to have ~26 PCVs working with FAIJ in 12 regions over the next six years. Wouldn’t it be nice for them to walk in on day one with a tool to instantly pull up borrower locations, information, and photos so they can hit the ground running? And FAIJ could use it for a variety of planning and tracking uses as well.

So I embarked off to the internet, and was inspired by some wonderful stuff already out there, such as the Disaster Preparedness Capacity Map by Development Seed, crisis mapping by Ushahidi, and the new Stats of the Union iPad app. Sadly, I don’t have the computer science chops needed to make something quite as pretty as those examples, but I did discover two non-technical tools out there; GeoCommons and Google Fusion Tables*. While GeoCommons has the ability to make nicer looking maps, I ended up choosing to use Fusion Tables for its ability to customize the info window (the bubble that pops up when you click on an individual marker) and the ability to keep the data private. GeoCommons allows everyone to see your data – normally fine – but not good if you have confidential loan information.

Visiting everyone took some time, but what I have now is each borrower’s exact location placed on the map, along with a handy info window that contains the borrower’s name, photo, contact information, plus a whole lot of other meta-data about the borrower’s specific business and loan details. Like my database project, I’ve started with just my region, and hope to take the map nationally with all 1,300+ FAIJ borrowers, starting in the locations where other PCVs are also working with the program. FAIJ already has most of the information, we just need to standardize the data formatting and add GPS coordinates/photos for each borrower to be up and running.

Besides being just a nice way to view the database, the map will help our ability to follow-up with borrowers. Automatic changes in icon colors will remind us that it has been too long since the our last meeting with a specific borrower, for example. Employee turnover will no longer mean a loss in institutional memory. Trainings/meetings can be better coordinated. Borrowers and lending agents can help create a network where borrowers can contact borrowers from other regions for business needs and/or opportunities; such as a mango producer in the southwest shipping his product to a grocery store in the capital.

So how did I do it? With one click I exported the database as a CSV file and uploaded it to Fusion, where played around with a few viewing options, and voila, I had a custom Google map. The secret sauce is that Fusion can read location data by taking my GPS coordinates and automatically placing them on a map (without coordinates you could label cities/provinces or in the developed world with a simple street address). I could have stopped there, but because of the lack of internet speed/availability, I linked the Google map to Google Earth via a KML link for offline viewing. The hardest part for me was to learn enough HTML to make a somewhat nice looking info window, but that’s only something that has to be done once, and only difficult because I hadn’t seen HTML since high school.

Most importantly, using the product is easy to use and not difficult to update. Sure, there are a few steps, but my even my colleagues who are somewhat inexperienced with computers can easily use the map, and have even learned to add new information to it. I have seen the future, and it is location-based.

7/12/11 update: GeoCommons now allows for private data


*If you’re interested in a further breakdown of Google Fusion Tables and GeoCommons, check out this post for some comparative analysis that I agree with after trying out both products.


Project: Simplifying Microfinance Reporting

The problem:

Like anyone in any job in the world, my colleagues don’t like paperwork. But it’s not just them who suffer while they maintain countless records; borrowers do as well. My organization’s greatest strength (ideally at least) is its mission to not just act as a lender, but also as a support system for borrowers. And if my colleagues are busy recording payments and making spreadsheets, they aren’t following up with borrower’s businesses. However, the paperwork is necessary. Borrower payments must be recorded, statistics kept, and reports sent into headquarters.

The Solution:

I came up with a database that automates all of those repetitive reports. Now, for example, when a borrower makes a payment we write down a few pieces of information (name, amount, date) and we’re done. After entering those simple fields, we can now generate dynamic reports for individual borrowers, the region, or eventually even for the entire country with a single click.

After we had that basic functionality in place, we added all of our other information into the database and added a few more  features. For example, we can now see breakout reports for borrowers who received loans in specific years, view those who pay bi-annually versus monthly, or see all of the borrowers in certain cities or certain professions. We’re also keeping track of how often we’re meeting with each borrower (minimum of once per month, but the more the better). Perhaps most importantly the automatic reports ensure accurate calculations – which had been a problem previously. Since we have a substantial amount of other information stored as well, we can continue to add functionality as other needs arise (look for an upcoming post on what we’ll be doing with geo-mapping).

Since MS Access is a new application for most of my colleagues and even my fellow PCVs, I spent a lot of time thinking about creating a simple design to try to make the project as sustainable as possible (see some of my thoughts on that subject here). I made lots of buttons, and included shortcuts for each option on each form so that the user doesn’t have to use any tables or queries. I also wanted to make it easy to edit data in case of input error. I think I’ve come up with a good first effort, and the plan is to use the database for the next month in my region to work out the kinks. Once it’s operating smoothly, we’ll head into Ouaga to show the director and hopefully take it nationwide.

More screenshots (with dummy data):


Friday Photo: Apple in Africa

Each Friday I’ll serve up a photo and give you the story behind it. This week, a new friend wearing an Apple t-shirt.

I was having a rough day. It was mid-day and scorching outside. I had a lot of borrowers to meet. But my bike was not cooperating and I was on my third trip to the mechanic due to repeated flat or burst tires. While waiting for a new tire, another customer arrived and he was wearing this t-shirt.

Anyone who knows me back in America knows that I’m quite obsessed with any and every Apple product I can get my hands on. While there is a surprising amount of technology available here, Macs are basically non-existent outside of the PCV community. The only one I’ve seen so far is when I shared a taxi ride with a Burkinabe who works for the US embassy who surprised me with a Macbook Pro and a 4G iPhone. And while the whole practice of sending free or cheap t-shirts to developing countries has come into question recently, this shirt certainly brightened my day.



As perhaps an appropriate follow-up to my last post, my counterpart just bought this Chinese iPhone 4 knockoff. It’s pretty terrible to use, but looks cool at least. It makes me miss all of my Apple products back at home, though I’m comforted by the fact that by the time I get home I’ll be buying an iPhone  7.

click to enlarge


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The opinions on this blog are only those of the author, and and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.