Lawrence Sperling and Joseph Gillis*


Africa has the youngest population in the world with 200 million people between the ages of 15 and 24 - and that number is expected to soar by 2050. This growing youth bulge presents both challenges and opportunities. Providing jobs, education, and healthcare to this growing population will be a daunting task. Failing to address these challenges will have dire consequences and could lead to political and economic insecurity, increasing vulnerability to extremism, and increasing risks of the spread of disease and death. For example, young women and men are particularly vulnerable to HIV infection, and AIDS is the leading cause of death among young people (aged 10-24) in Africa.


However, this African youth bulge also presents opportunity. Many young Africans today are thirsting for knowledge and opportunity. They want to make a difference for their communities, families, and peers. They see technology as the key to a brighter future – and data as the oil that is powering this future. At the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, we are using data to accelerate progress toward ending the global AIDS epidemic by delivering life-saving services to  the people most in need of them in the geographic areas of highest burden and tracking how these factors change over time. Maps are an essential part of this effort, and that is why PEPFAR partnered with the Humanitarian OpenStreetMaps Teams (HOT),  the State Department’s MapGive initiative, the USAID led YouthMappers program, and others to engage young people in mapping, working to harness their energy toward the effort to end HIV/AIDS.

In 2017, PEPFAR held a series of mapathons across Africa. The Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Regional Leadership Centers in Kenya, South Africa, and Ghana, all hosted PEPFAR mapathons, as did the dLab PEPFAR set up in Tanzania under its “Data Collaboratives for Local Impact” (DCLI) partnership with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). Universities in the U.S. hosting YALI Fellows also held mapathons. Nearly 29,000 buildings and over 5,000 kilometers of roads were mapped in Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, providing PEPFAR with valuable data for targeting program resources. Since then, Tanzania dLab has hosted mapathons every World AIDS Day, and we’ve begun working with MCC on citizen mapping in Cote d’Ivoire. 


State of the Map Tanzania at dLab Tanzania. (December 2017)



Mapathon to end HIV-AIDS hosted by dLab and Ramani Huria. (November 2017)


These efforts are making an impact, both in improving the effort to end HIV/AIDS and in inspiring African youth to develop skills that can be used to improve their community. For example, one of the YouthMappers that helped facilitate the PEPFAR mapathons in Kenya, Elijah Karanja from Dedan Kimathi University in Nyeri County, was inspired to mobilize his fellow YouthMappers to partner with the school’s nursing students in offering HIV testing to the community. They also conducted a survey and mapped where local children were dropping out of school - one of the highest risk factors for HIV infection amongst adolescent girls. Participating in the PEPFAR mapathon turned Elijah, an energetic young data geek, into a champion for HIV/AIDS and girls education!

The mapping community has transformed raw satellite imagery into tools for epidemic control and sustainable development. However, there is an urgent need to build upon this work by adding critical details and ground validation to base maps using tools like Mapillary, Fulcrum, and Open Data Kit to “color in the map,” identifying priority areas and supporting improved resource allocation.

As an example of PEPFAR’s efforts to date, we’ve worked with MCC to build data capacity at the local level in Tanzania, in places like Mbeya– one of the highest HIV/AIDS prevalence districts in Tanzania. Kihumbe is a local NGO that uses peer educators to provide HIV counseling to at-risk populations in Mbeya. Using the base maps generated through mapathons, Tanzania’s Humanitarian OpenStreetMaps team helped Kihumbe identify hotels, bars, and other hotspots of HIV transmission. They then trained Kihumbe staff and volunteers to use cell phone apps like Open Data Kit to provide the critical detail themselves. Now Kihumbe is more effectively identifying HIV hotspots and targeting its outreach to the areas where the risk of transmission is greatest.



In addition to mapping, African youth can play an important role in producing, analyzing, explaining, disseminating, and advocating for better use of data. This work gives them valuable skills while contributing to solving big challenges such as HIV/AIDS. PEPFAR has also engaged youth through a partnership with the Sustainable Development Solutions Network on the MY DATA initiative - “Mobilizing Youth on Data for Action and Transformation in Africa.”  MY DATA is a network and a platform for sharing best practices among organizations, initiatives, and individuals that are working to engage youth as direct contributors and agents provocateurs in using data to improve their lives and those of fellow citizens. 

Citizen mapping is at the forefront of the data revolution in Africa. We’ve learned you can change the world with a laptop, a cellphone, and a broadband connection!






* Lawrence Sperling is Director of PEPFAR’s Data Revolution for Sustainable Development Team.  Joseph Gillis is a Presidential Management Fellow with the U.S. Department of Transportation, who completed a rotation with PEPFAR’s Data Revolution for Sustainable Development Team from January through June, 2019.