Cartographic literacy and the rise of Uber in Africa


Yinka Adegoke set off an interesting thread on Twitter yesterday with the above observation about Uber.  People chimed in to agree that this was common in Accra, Nairobi, Abuja, Bangalore and Beijing as well, and seemed connected to poor local mapping (see the whole thread on Storify).  I was put in mind of a conversation I had with an Uber driver in Accra last year:

  • Driver: “Where should I pick you?”
  • Me:  “Do you see my location on the map?”
  • Driver: “Yes.”
  • Me: “Ok, please pick me there.”
  • Driver: “But where is that?  Tell me where to turn.”

This didn’t actually reflect a problem with the map, as Google Maps is quite accurate in central Accra.  But it did remind me of a point I’ve been making in conversation for years now: cartographic literacy is a historically recent skill.  For most of human history, the average person never would have seen a map, let alone needed one to navigate a well-known environment.  Mentally translating a eye-level view of (say) an urban street into a bird’s-eye view on a map and using this to navigate is a rather unusual task, and an understandable challenge if one hasn’t had to do it very often.

A bit of a detour through European and African cartographic history here.  People have been making maps for a very long time, but up until roughly the Enlightenment, it would have been difficult to use them for overland navigation in the way that we assume maps are to be used today.  In part this was due to limitations of cartographic knowledge and the difficulty of accurately depicting the spherical Earth on a two-dimensional map. However, many maps were also intended to depict connections between places of political or religious significance rather than a literal representation of the terrain between them.  Here are two European maps from the 1480s that capture this variation in intent.

The Martellus world map was made in Italy around 1489.  There’s a clear attempt at cartographic accuracy here, and the coastlines of Europe and northern and western Africa are presented in great detail.  Knowledge of coasts and maritime routes was quite important at the time because the vast majority of long-distance trade went by sea (as in fact it still does today).  The interiors of most countries are largely unlabelled, however, even for European states which were presumably better documented at the time.

The image shows a map of the world from 1489Source: Wikipedia

Compare that map to this Mappa Mundi produced in Germany around 1480.  This is an example of a politico-religious map which places Jerusalem in the center of the world.  It lists a number of contemporary Christian European cities and states, such as Rome and England, but makes no attempt to accurately depict the terrain between them.

The image shows a map of the world from 1480Source: The Morgan Library

In States and Power in Africa, Jeff Herbst argues that many early maps drawn by African cartographers adopt the same politico-religious schema.  He gives the example of a map drawn by Caliph Muhammad Bello of Sokoto for a British explorer in 1824. There’s a brief acknowledgement of some natural features, like major rivers, but this is primarily a map of political relationships between the Sokoto Caliphate (shown many times its actual size) and the smaller cities which were vassals or rivals.  Check out the tiny, misplaced Timbuktu (“Tonbaktoo”) at upper left and Kano (“Kanoo”) at lower right.

denham12Source: Princeton Library

For comparison, here’s an 1844 map of the same area from a British cartographer. It’s a bit hard to read, so I’ve labelled the relevant cities.  Putting aside the “uncharted” areas of the interior, this looks like a recognizably accurate map of the region.

The image shows a map of West Africa from 1844Source: David Rumsey Map Collection

One of the key points here is that these maps are serving different purposes.  For west African merchants, or aspirants to the Caliphate, the roads between these major cities were probably well known, but a map of contemporary political alliances would be quite useful.  For foreigners coming in to conquer, a detailed road map was important to make up for their lack of local knowledge.

All of this brings me back to Uber.  If you’ve lived in a city for most of your life, why would you need to read a map rather than navigating by well-known landmarks?  It’s like being asked to calculate distance in inches when you’re used to kilometers — an inefficient means of producing the same result.  And the mental math of doing a 3D rotation of a familiar street and projecting it onto a horizontal map is rather challenging — perhaps especially for places you know well.

I’ve got my own story about this from the time I was living in Tamale in 2010.  Google Maps hadn’t really made it to Africa yet, my guidebook had only a very small map of the city center, and I wasn’t able to find a paper map of the area.  I bought a bicycle and ended up getting to know the city quite well without ever glancing at a map.  I’ve been back four times since then, now in possession of Google Maps, and to this day I can’t look at a map of the city and make it match up to the streets I know so well.  I have to find the same landmarks that I used at the time and use them to orient myself before the map makes sense.  And I say this as someone with a BA in geography — I am not unaccustomed to maps as a rule!  But it’s given me sympathy for Uber drivers who might be facing the same challenge.




2 thoughts on “Cartographic literacy and the rise of Uber in Africa

  1. Too true. A few other issues I’ve noticed with African city-Uber as well — viewed as a good job opportunity for some who may have minimal customer service/actual driving/city knowledge skills. At least with private taxis most have had to build their business and client base.


  2. I have had the same experience as Yinka in Africa, but I have also taken uber in London and Dublin with Nigerian drivers many times, and they had no problems using gps.


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