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GISCorps volunteer returns from a World Vision mission in Sierra Leone

In September 2012, Jim Tobias, a Senior GIS Developer with Northrop Grumman in Atlanta GA, was deployed to an onsite mission in Sierra Leone. The request for volunteer came from World Vision and was for a GIS/GPS Specialist to undertake mapping of health and education facilities in Area Development Programs (ADP)s within 4 districts (Kono, Pujehun, Bo, and Bonthe). Jim stayed in Sierra Leone for three weeks (9/15 – 10/6, 2012) and supported the project in a variety of ways.   The project involved the use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS), mobile smart phones, standard survey forms, and the creation of web mapping applications on the World Vision ArcGIS Online for Organization (AGOL) portal. This work was a team effort that involved as many as 3 Land Cruiser teams operating simultaneously to visit as many of the World Vision facilities within each district as possible during the 3-week project. The team kept a daily journal during the mission and Jim submitted the following report upon his return.

By Jim Tobias, GISCorps Volunteer

I arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone very late on Sunday, September 16, 2012.  My first day at the World Vision Sierra Leone office in Freetown was Monday September 17, 2012.  We met on the 9/17 and 9/18 in Freetown to gather the team, data forms, equipment, make hotel arrangements, obtain vehicles, and establish a data sampling plan.

The Team Members:

Christian Boombu-Johnson – Team Leader

Felix Koroma – M&E Officer

James Tobias  – GPS Consultant (GISCorps Volunteer)

Mathew Badenoch – World Vision Volunteer

Sheku Koroma – Driver

Photo credit: World Vision

The Kono district was the most remote district in terms of distance from Freetown and also one of the most difficult districts in terms of road networks and ability to travel. The teams decided to move in a clockwise manner and cover Kono, Pujehun, Bonthe and Bo districts in that general order. The central idea was to tackle the most difficult district (Kono) early in the effort and capture the remaining districts with time to spare for map and web map development at the end of the 3 week project.

The team would sometimes fracture into as many as 3 different teams to cover more facilities within a single day. The number of teams deployed was often limited by the availability of Land Cruiser vehicles and/or motorcycles to allow team members to travel the road networks to the remote locations.

The teams visited 189 locations including 125 schools, 54 health clinics, and 10 ADP offices. The catchment population of the health clinics exceeded 126,403 (for all clinics). The enrollment population of the schools exceeded 21,000 (for all schools). Additional facilities were noted and will be visited during the dry season when road conditions will allow for visitation to these locations. There were also several facilities located on an island which was not accessible during the rainy season due to strong currents and tides. The teams typically worked 8 hours per day on all days of the week with the exception of Sunday which was a day of rest. World Vision recognizes October 1st as an international day of prayer and this was also a day of reflection and the teams did not work on this day.

Photo credit: World Vision

A typical sampling day might involve several hours by travel in the vehicle to as many as 12-15 sites per day depending upon the road conditions and available driving hours during daylight. The hotels typically did not have network or internet access and we were only able to access the internet at the early morning hour at the ADP offices or late in the evening upon return to the ADP office.

I logged a total of 144 volunteer hours during my 21 day visit to Sierra Leone.

Technology: ArcGIS Online for Organizations, Phones, Garmin GPS units, Drop Box, Digital Cameras, SD cards, Batteries, Chargers, Power Strips, Power Adapters, Thumb drives, Private Clouds.

Photo credit: World Vision

War Stories:

Sierra Leone is recovering from a 10 year Civil War during 1992-2002 and there were some very sad stories that were relayed to us about the war. One staff member relayed the story of being shot during the war at a ceremony where a statement was made to illicit humor and this person laughed and the speaker became enraged and shot him in the foot in front of the crowd.

Another person told a very personal story of the attack on his mother’s village and her rape and murder by the attackers and how he has wrestled to forgive and to move forward in peace. This story was very touching and seems a microcosm of the desire of all Sierra Leoneans to recognize the madness and brutality of the war and to struggle to forgive and to move forward and not return to violence and war. It is a very personal wrong that happened to this man and he had the courage and the strength to tell us this story and to live a life of peace despite his hurt and anger and sadness and loss. I was so moved by this story and it will be one that I never forget and it is a lesson in forgiveness and what it takes to walk the high road.


The nation is within an election year and November 2012 will bring Sierra Leoneans to the ballot box to decide the next 5 years of leadership. There was a feeling that both parties are making promises for roads and networks but that perhaps the parties are representing slightly different geographic areas of Sierra Leone. The discussions seemed to indicate that the current president is directing a lot of funding toward Northern Sierra Leone while the opposition candidate seems to wish to direct more funding to the Southern areas of the country. Both parties seem to indicate that they would provide a peaceful path forward and seem to want to unify Sierra Leone but this unification does not seem to have a fully equitable distribution of the wealth across the various geographies. The challenge for Sierra Leone leadership will be to provide evidence of support for all areas of the country and moving forward together as one.

Holding onto the Peace:

The nation of Sierra Leone is holding onto the peace following the 10 year Civil War and 1 peaceful election. This next election in November, 2012 will be a test of the will of all parties within Sierra Leone to hold onto the peace and to move ahead together without a return to violence. The nation seems to seek equity in this peace and this can be a struggle for resources and investment between the various geographies. GIS seems to be emerging as a tool that might be useful to help maintain geographic equity in investment and to hold onto a peaceful future.

All that Glitters:

One child encountered during the visit seemed to have been burned on her face and arm and there was some scar tissue from the burn. The child’s scar tissue was concealed, however, by a purple glitter, that seemed to blend in with her clothing and match her blouse and sleeves in such a clever manner that it was difficult to envision her as being scarred in the first place. The other kids seemed to happily include her in their fun and it seemed that this technique was helpful to her recovery and happiness.

Making Toilets:

One facility within the districts included a woman that had a workshop with molds and cement that would allow her to build many toilet bowls for future use within the surrounding communities. I took several photographs of her workshop and several of the new toilets constructed.

Photo credit: World Vision

Symbolic Key to the city (Rosa and others at the ADP):

One district ADP office (Rosa and colleagues) was holding a meeting with 30 representatives from across the various chiefdoms to provide input to the ADP and this was only the 2nd meeting of the group (the first meeting was held the day before). I was introduced to the group and was presented with a symbolic key to the city as a gesture and photograph with the entire group of representatives. It was a joyful meeting and then we departed to survey facilities within the ADP for the day.

Photo credit: World Vision

The Opposition Party Candidate:

The J&E Hotel within Bo, Sierra Leone was our home base for several nights as we surveyed the surrounding ADPs and facilities. One evening we noticed a lot of armed police with rifles and this was in great contrast to the rest of the trip during which we observed no guns and signs explaining that guns have been outlawed and encouraging one to report guns to police or military. The presence of armed police indicated that someone important was to stay at the hotel that evening and the next morning, Julius Maada Bio (the Opposition Party Candidate), was introduced to us by the hotel owner at breakfast.

Local Geographer:

The teams would also discover many very nice hand-drawn maps displayed within the Public Health Units. We made a concerted effort to photograph as many of these maps as possible. A staff member that traveled with our team proudly stated that he was the author of this map and was also a student of geography. Abraham gave us a tour of his map and was very enthusiastic about the project and future mapping in the districts.

Photo credit: World Vision


The mining industry is active in many parts of Sierra Leone with many types of minerals harvested including: diamonds, rough diamonds, rutile, and bauxite. The mining companies may hire many engineers from South Africa and one complaint is that the local Sierra Leoneans are not hired for the skilled positions and do not reap much in terms of economic benefit.   The mining does carve into the landscape, pollute local water wells, and displace villages as the mines expand. The villager displacement is particularly controversial as villagers depend upon the land surrounding their village for subsistence farming and typically they are not compensated for loss of homes and loss of farming lands. Relocation to other villages is not really an option as these homes and farming lands are dedicated to those already occupying the land. There are also agreements between the mining companies and the locals in which the mining companies agree to pay a certain percentage of their profits to rehabilitate the land and provide local infrastructure, however, every indication is that the mining companies are not fulfilling their financial obligations to the communities.

Rutile Mine (Imperi, Sierra Leone) – Photo credit: World Vision

Clouds and Private Clouds:

The ArcGIS Online utilizes several cloud computing models including:  Public Clouds, Private Clouds, and Hybrid Clouds.    World Vision has a subscription to ArcGIS Online for Organizations and has established private groups for specific countries such as World Vision Sierra Leone. The staff within Sierra Leone can author cloud based maps and applications and expose these to the private group (Private cloud), expose to all of World Vision (Hybrid cloud), or expose to the Public (Public Cloud).

From Esri website

The World Vision ArcGIS Online for Organizations portal cloud based model takes advantage of all 3 methods (private, hybrid, and public clouds). This model allows for private development of services and applications that can be reviewed internally by an organization such as World Vision Sierra Leone. As services and applications become ready for larger audiences and have been vetted and reviewed, they can be shared to the larger audiences.

Web Mapping Application on the World Vision ArcGIS Online for Organization portal:

The data collected during the 3-week sampling were entered into Excel spreadsheets and published as features through the World Vision ArcGIS Online for Organization portal. A private group for World Vision Sierra Leone was utilized and all maps and applications built utilize this private group. In the future it will be possible for World Vision Sierra Leone to share their maps and applications with all of World Vision (hybrid cloud) or extend these services and applications to the public (public cloud). All of these options are available through the World Vision ArcGIS Online for Organization portal.

From Esri website

Link: (on private cloud only)

Potential for ESRI Story Maps:

The World Vision Sierra Leone team may explore the potential to create story maps using some of the ESRI Story map templates. This could help to tell the story of the scope and depth of World Vision support and activities within the communities of Sierra Leone and to provide more information to potential donors and supporters.

There would be a great potential to build and refine several story maps to walk the reader through the day-by-day journey of the health facility mapping mission and to show additional photos of persons we have met, stories they have told, and the depth of the contribution of World Vision to the benefit of the communities served. It would also be possible to engage the various ADPs and encourage them to share additional stories that might also enhance the final product(s) and give a physical and emotional hook to the story of World Vision support in the country.


The road network in Sierra Leone was a major challenge. The Kono district was particularly challenging as many of the roads were damaged by war, mining, and heavy rains. The Land Cruisers were very good vehicles and covered terrain that I would never attempt with my own vehicle and yet even these autos were sometimes no match for the road conditions (see below). There were multiple instances where our Land Cruisers became stuck and we would need to get out and push them out of the mire. There were also several instances where we suffered flat tires and were riding on the spare with no additional spare and carrying the flat tire instead.

Photo credit: World Vision

Another challenge related to the lack of staff presence at some facility visits. Mostly – this situation occurred at school facilities where we arrived late in the day to survey the school. Many schools were just starting the school year and were open for half-days only. Other visits were so late in the day that the school day had ended. Additional challenges such as limited internet access and electrical power by generator were also constraints.


The 3-week project to map health facilities and schools within Sierra Leone for World Vision was a great success and foundational work. The cornerstone of better resource utilization will be the ability to map facilities, capacity, staff, equipment, needs, and burdens across all of Sierra Leone. The ArcGIS Online cloud model is allowing World Vision Sierra Leone to build web maps and web applications that can help them to monitor and describe the services provided at the nearly 200 facilities across the nation. This foundational work will help World Vision to better allocate limited resources and to maximize the impact of these resources to the catchment populations and student enrollment populations served by these facilities.

It was a great honor to serve the URISA GISCorps and World Vision in Sierra Leone and I look forward to the future progress and directions of this project.


Jim Tobias,  MS, GISP
Sr. GIS Developer, Northrop Grumman Contractor

For more information about the project contact GISCorps at:

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