Written by Kate Cummings (DI-MENA’s Program Director) and Rim Othman (DI-MENA’s Interpreter)

As Tunisia gets closer to selecting an elections commission and finalizing its electoral law, Democracy International (DI) is taking to the streets to test out our mapping tools. DI’s partner, Mourakiboun, an independent observation network in Tunis, will soon be creating the country’s first map of all 4,800+ polling stations, using both online mapping technology and conducting field visits with GPS-enabled tablet computers. Mourakiboun’s goal is to provide election officials, political parties, civil society organizations and other stakeholders with a dynamic map to efficiently allocate human and financial resources, as well as promote greater transparency and accountability for the upcoming elections. The final product will be published on the forthcoming Tunisia Election Data web platform, a centralized hub for election-related data where anyone can navigate the polling station map and freely download the raw data.

Before handing the tablets and training manual over to Mourakiboun’s 54 long-term observers, DI-MENA’s team conducted a test run to see what difficulties, opportunities and surprises our field mappers might face. First, we carefully selected our testing grounds – some of western Tunisia’s most undermapped governorates: Kef, Beja and Jendouba. We picked these 3 governorates out of the country’s 27 because they present challenges we think are representative of many governorates: 1) large rural stretches where elementary schools (which will serve as polling stations) are scattered far and wide; 2) rugged terrain that slows down the mapping process; and 3) schools without street addresses that require creative searching.

Packed into the car, the team set off early in the morning with tablets in-hand (we’re using Samsung Galaxy Tabs). We started by recording our primary road track using OSMTracker, a fun byproduct of the project that allows us to map Tunisia’s roads as we travel to each school. With our list of schools and MapsWithMe Lite app, we started with the low-hanging fruit – schools along the road. There are sure signs of a school that can help any mapper – the flagpole, fence encircling the grounds, and usually an L- or U-shaped building with a courtyard. But not all schools will be polling stations, and we quickly found that we had to go off the map on unmarked roads to find the more remote schools on our list (with OSM Tracker on, of course!).

Early on, we switched to MapsWithMe Pro, a mere $4.94 and a big upgrade; with Pro, we could drop pins for each school that automatically recorded the GPS coordinates and the points can be downloaded as a KML file. We made sure to record each school’s coordinates on our physical list as backup. Without street names or clear signage in the most rural areas, we relied entirely on roadside assistance – passersby made our search much more efficient. But not everyone was well-informed – such as the shepherd on his cell phone below who ended up pointing us in the wrong direction. We came to rely most on school teachers, who we’d find outside schools in the early morning, at lunch time and the end of the day; they would advise us which school on the list we should find next, and we’d ask the same at the next school to determine the most efficient route.

Another lesson that can only come from testing: school teachers, students and neighbors are protective of their communities, and while very willing to help appreciate seeing an ID and adequate evidence as to why you’re inquiring about elementary schools. We’ll be sure Mourakiboun’s mappers have ID badges indicating their role as mappers and observers.

Mapping schools in Jendouba, Kef and Beja took – on average – 30 minutes to map a rural school and about 10 minutes to map an urban school. But that’s with a rental car and mappers operating at full-tilt without breaks; which brings up the question of transportation. In rural areas, local shared taxis often double as teachers’ collective ride home, and can be rented out for the day at a fraction of a car rental’s cost. In cities, taxis can also be a better option as they often have unbeatable local knowledge, though their pre-designated routes may prevent them from leaving certain areas, even if hired for the day. Mourakiboun’s observers will be mapping the governorates in which they live, ideally minimizing the chances that they will be in unfamiliar terrain, though they’ll be limited to weekends (because of the work week) and at a time of year when the days are at their shortest.

Next up: in December, DI will prepare 54 observers to complete our online mapping efforts with field visits to those hard-to-find schools. Tune in soon for the latest on what Mourakiboun’s observers find when they go off the map!