“Combien à l’Hôtel Ibis?” (How much to the Ibis Hotel?) “Où?” (Where?) the taxi driver at Abidjan airport answered back. “L’Hôtel Ibis en Plateau.” (The Ibis Hotel in the Plateau district.) Despite clarification of the neighborhood, there was still a dull, thudding look on this taxi driver’s face. He said 5,000CFA ($10 USD), which was a ripoff, but how it goes when coming from the airport in Abidjan.
As we got on the road, it became extremely obvious that he had no idea where this hotel was despite it existing in the rather large Plateau district and it was incredibly annoying that once we got across the lagoon, to have him asking every third person where the hotel was despite my giving him directions. Of course, no one else knew where it was, even when a mere three blocks from it. And let me emphasize that this is well-known hotel in Abidjan in addition to the fact that this taxi driver was picking up a foreigner at the airport and should already know every damned hotel in Abidjan.
One week prior to returning to Côte d’Ivoire and the joys of Ivorian taxis, I was chatting with the gang at the iHub. We got to talking about how impossible it is to find places in most of Sub-Saharan Africa. Many people are hell-bent to propagate the myth that despite the vacuous absence of proper street numbers or street name signs, people in Africa just “know” where they’re going (it’s a “spoken map” I suppose). Every African I’ve ever met from East, West, Central, and South Africa decries this as bullshit. It really is impossible for anyone to find anything and is a painful process of lengthy explanations that usually involve making multiple turns at pharmacies and ever-changing landmarks (like a guy selling mobile credit.)
I said to this group that what someone should do is to start up a GPS web-based system so that people could spit out their GPS coordinates and use those as an address instead of actual street addresses. I laughingly said that it could be called “mapfrica”, but that that name was probably already taken. I was surprised to find that it wasn’t and so I registered the .com and .org.
Time has progressed as it does and I’ve realized that I’m never going to get around to creating the initial version of this site. Basically, what I wanted to do was to embed a Google or OpenStreet Map mashup. Someone could then zoom in, plop down a pin on what was their house, or business, or general piece of knowledge (like if they wanted to list a park or landmark) and then take those coordinates to give out to people. Additionally, they could have the option of submitting the address information in to an open database that anyone could query to get the locations of everything in a town.
Whatever the case, as you can see, there are a lot of details in this, but given the fact there are more and more phones with GPS ability and location-based services are really the way of the future, I can’t see how this isn’t one big win for everyone as long as the same standards are being used. To that end, anyone who feels like taking this on, I’m more than happy to point either of the domains I’ve got in your direction if you come up with a solid proof of concept, help out with hosting if the idea really takes off. All I know is that I don’t want to fumble my way around African cities anymore, guided by the lights of pharmacies and mobile phone stores when a vastly superior system is floating above all our heads in a geosynchronous orbit.
Best wishes from 37.788370,-122.415200