Bringing life to the Drylands: Mapathons For Disaster Preparedness and Response

Authors: Morris Makabe & Naomi Ng’ang’a

Wajir county is one of the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASAL) of Kenya located in the North Eastern region of Kenya. The County experiences frequent drought episodes especially from June to September, which impact negatively livestock and crop farming, education, nutrition, and access to water and pasture. On the other hand, the county also experiences flash floods which damage infrastructure and destroys life. The frequency and intensity of extreme climatic events has been on the rise in the recent past disrupting the livelihood of the communities within the ASAL areas and increasing community vulnerability to subsequent disasters. For instance, since 2019, Kenya is among the countries in the greater horn of Africa that has experienced five consecutive failed rain seasons. According to World meteorological organization (WMO), the drought is the longest in 40 years1 disproportionally affecting the ASAL populations.


These threats are expected to intensify because of climate change. However, effective use of data in the development of early warning systems has the potential to reduce the negative impacts of disasters. In Wajir county, efforts are ongoing to strengthen county capacity in disaster preparedness, mitigation, and response. In one of the meetings, with the Wajir county stakeholders that aimed to strengthen their capacity in early disaster preparedness, lack of adequate data was outlined as a major shortcoming and posed a special request to be facilitated in acquiring granular data to support the development of disaster risk management (DRM) plans.

With funding from the HOTOSM-ESA hub, the Kenya Red Cross Society (KRCS) commenced a project in June 2022 that makes use of open map data to understand community vulnerability and adaptive capacities.

To officially launch the project, all the stakeholders, including the HOTOSM ESA hub, KRCS, Wajir County Government officials, and Community representatives, met during the inception meeting in July 2022 to expound the project aims and objectives. The stakeholders were practically shown through demonstrations and field engagements the mapping process, its short-term and long-term objectives, and the importance of the project to the community and humanitarian partners, especially in terms of disaster preparedness and response.


In September 2022, KRCS through its International Center for Humanitarian Affairs (ICHA) ( successfully conducted the first-ever mapathon2 in Wajir county from the 16th to 18th of September 2022 focusing on two wards within the Wajir West sub-county: Ganyure Wagalla and Hadado Athbohol. The three-day mapping event attracted a diverse group of people including officials from Wajir County, geospatial experts, volunteers, and the local community who used OpenStreetMap (OSM), an open-source mapping platform, to create detailed maps of the area. Close to 6,878 building footprints were added to OSM during the event. Participants also gained knowledge of mobile mapping techniques to add point features to OSM. Some of the features added through organic maps included health facilities, pharmacies, water points/ facilities, and financial and learning institutions.

Speaking during the Wajir Mapathon held on 16th September 2022, Abdullahi Mohammed, Wajir North former MCA aspirant and County official said, “I think the maps will help NGOs and governments to make decisions in future or currently… And for easy navigation during disasters.”

This mapathon served as a kick-start to a series of other mapathons aimed at mapping out the entire county gradually.

In October 2022, KRCS-ICHA conducted the second mapathon in Nairobi at Boma Hotel. The event attracted 80 participants drawn from diverse backgrounds and with different skills. There was presence from the OSM Kenya community, youth mappers from the Technical University of Kenya (TUK) chapter, representatives from organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Somalia, university students, and volunteers eager to map vulnerable communities located in Wajir, Tana River and Busia county who are at risk of climate-related hazards. A total of 39,262 buildings were mapped and added to OSM.

Speaking to one of the volunteers, Mary Muthee, a geospatial science student from Technical University of Kenya was elated about her newly acquired knowledge on mapping “… the whole aspect of being a mapper and being able to make an impact in the society through my skill has been the most fulfilling experience and especially being given a chance to map vulnerable areas in a bid to improve early action and response mechanisms in the humanitarian sector through the mapathon”.

Besides this, ICHA also carried out a three-day training from 1st to 3rd November 2022 on the HOT Tasking manager at Wajir North sub-county and Habaswein town. The three-day training saw county staff, community members and volunteers capacity built on data collection using the Kobo-ODK platform and how to use the ID editor on the HOT Tasking manager to map.

So far, the project has added over 52,000 building footprints, 517 km of road, and over 300 features of interest on the open data- OSM platform. The open-access nature of the data creates opportunities for all kinds of organisations, government agencies and not-for-profits to design interventions addressing community vulnerability to disasters.

By involving local stakeholders and volunteers in the mapping process, KRCS-ICHA has been able to create awareness and understanding of the importance of geospatial data and how it can be used in disasters. We have also been able to create a local network of trained individuals who can respond quickly in the event of a disaster. Mapathons are an important tool for disaster preparedness, as they help to create accurate and up-to-date maps, build local capacity, and promote collaboration between different organizations.

The project intends to expand its mapping efforts to cover the entire county, capacity-build local stakeholders on the use of open map data for decision-making, and capacity-build communities on disaster risk reduction approaches.