Pretend, for a moment, that you’re a truck driver in a developing country and tasked with making a delivery to an unfamiliar location. It’s important that you get there on time, because you’re delivering medical supplies to a community that really needs them and any delay on your part could impact treatment of patients. How would you reach your destination?
If you immediately thought you’d use your smartphone or other satellite global positioning system (GPS) device to find your way, that’s because these tools have become ubiquitous in developed countries. While mobile phone usage has exploded in recent years in sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the developing world, accurate digital maps and time estimates for travel are not always available. In many places, the data it takes to build a good road map is missing, and you may find your GPS directing you onto a rural “road” that is little more than a dirt path.
Maps Matter for Health
When it comes to medical supplies, these transit challenges can add up to serious gaps in health care for rural people. That’s why a USAID project in Tanzania took on the challenge of mapping more than 30,000 kilometers of road connecting more than 5,600 health facilities across the country.
The USAID | DELIVER PROJECT, which partners with government health ministries and other organizations to improve health in developing countries by increasing access to health supplies, was asked by the Government of Tanzania in 2014 to help improve how it delivered health care supplies. Almost half the roads in Tanzania were not online, making medical supply delivery unpredictable and unreliable.
To improve the system, we partnered with Tanzania’s Medical Stores Department (MSD) to analyze delivery routes and available transport resources. Although MSD had a comprehensive list of facilities across the country, about 30 percent did not have a validated geocode, making them difficult to find unless you asked a local how to get there!
While a digital map of Tanzania’s road network existed, it was incomplete. Truck drivers trying to get supplies from MSD to faraway clinics did not know if the route they chose was reliable or how much time a route would take to navigate.
A Mapping Solution that Yielded Dividends
Fortunately, if you install a tracking device on trucks headed out for delivery, you can amass a large amount of GPS data quickly. And that’s just what we did. Using GPS data from devices recently installed on MSD trucks, our team was able to mark the unmapped secondary road network showing what routes were navigable across the entire country. We also classified all roads in terms of travel speeds. This data was then used to analyze the distribution of health supplies and determine how best to plan and route each shipment.
And we didn’t stop there. When MSD and Tanzania’s Ministry of Health and Social Welfare saw the program in action, they immediately recognized its value beyond the health logistics system and asked that we expand its scope across the country. With MSD, we developed a plan to release the roads data and make it available for public use without compromising program information. We joined forces with Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team, a global community of mappers, and Ramani Huria, a community mapping group in Dar es Salaam, to upload the Tanzania data area-by-area, making it accessible to everyone around the globe.
Now, this digital map can be used not just by those delivering medical supplies, but also by food producers transporting crops to market, tour operators showcasing Tanzania’s spectacular wildlife, and others engaged in commerce who are driving Tanzania’s economic growth and development. With a comprehensive digital road map at their disposal, these businesses can better plan and operate. We think that’s a win for mappers, businesses, consumers and anyone else getting from point A to point B.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Marasi Mwencha is a supply chain program manager with JSI in Tanzania, overseeing engagement on the Global Health Supply Chain Technical Assistance (GHSC-TA) and inSupply projects in Tanzania. He is a technology and data enthusiast who enjoys leveraging innovative practices, including modelling to optimize and strengthen health systems.