Development after Displacement: Evaluating the Utility of OpenStreetMap Data for Monitoring Sustainable Development Goal Progress in Refugee Settlements

Jamon Van den Hoek, Hannah K. Friedrich, Anna Ballasiotes, Laura E. R. Peters and David Wrathall

International Journal of Geo-Information, Volume 10, Issue 3 (2021)


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are most commonly monitored using data collected through national censuses and surveys. However, refugees are consistently excluded from these data collection instruments as well as global settlement and population datasets. Consequently, only 26 of 47 refugee-hosting countries identified refugees in their national SDG progress reports in mid-2020.

OpenStreetMap (OSM) is a potentially well-suited, though underexplored, source of data for assessing SDG progress in refugee settlements. OpenStreetMap ( is a georeferenced, crowdsourced product based on data collected in the field and through interpretation of remotely sensed aerial or satellite imagery.

This paper examines the utility of OSM data for monitoring SDG progress in UNHCR-managed refugee settlements in Uganda. Approximately 92 percent of refugees in Uganda live in 30 UNHCR-managed settlements.

The authors collected all available OSM data within 28 refugee settlements and 26 non-refugee settlements in Uganda. The data represents physical features associated with dwellings, schools, clinics, latrines, etc., with metadata on feature creation date, date of most recent edit (version), and descriptive tags. The authors created a novel SDG-OSM data model linking 149 OSM to 11 SDGs. Based on these SDG-OSM pairings, the authors: (1) quantified the spatial distribution of SDG-relevant OSM data across and within settlements; (2) measured the chronology of creation and subsequent versions of SDG data, and (3) compared the spatial and temporal coverage of SDG data between refugee and non-refugee settlements.

Main findings:

  • There is broad spatial and thematic representation of SDGs in OSM data from refugee settlements in Uganda. 11 different SDGs were represented across 92 percent of OSM data in refugee settlements. Information on six SDGs were found in more than half of refugee settlements, with a particular abundance of OSM data on SDG 6 (Clean Water and Sanitation) and SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth). However, there were no data on six SDGs.
  • The distribution of SDG-relevant OSM data varied across refugee settlements. OSM data on SDG 6 dominates across settlements, except for Elema and Nakivale, which have as much or more data on SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), and Rwamwanja, which has more data on SDG 4 (Quality Education). The greatest concentration—73 percent of all SDG data in refugee settlements—was found in Bidi Bidi, which is the largest refugee settlement in Uganda with nearly twice the population of other refugee settlements.
  • Data are generally out of date or were never updated. 81 percent of SDG data were never edited; the remaining 19 percent were edited at least once since their creation. Concentrated periods of SDG data collection years after settlement establishment makes it difficult to monitor long-term SDG progress.
  • Non-refugee settlements had a smaller count of OSM features than settlements, and a smaller portion of OSM data in non-refugee settlements was relevant for SDG monitoring. 78 percent of OSM features within 26 non-refugee settlements were relevant for SDG monitoring. This count is less than one-tenth of the 21,950 SDG-relevant features in nearby refugee settlements.

The authors notes several limitations for the use of OSM data for measuring progress  on SDGs, including: (a) OSM features tend to be physical infrastructure that can be mapped and counted, and these features are not always an appropriate measure of progress on SDGs, particularly those SDGs that relate to the quality of development outcomes; (b) the absence or existence of OSM data reflects the extent of data creation efforts not necessarily the existence of relevant features; (c) OSM data provides a snapshot at a particular point in time rather than charting progress over time; (d) OSM data creation tends to be driven by the goals of humanitarian agencies, and there is less data on SDGs that are less relevant for urgent humanitarian priorities; (e) humanitarian-driven data creation in refugee settlements suggests apparent SDG progress in refugee settlements relative to non-refugee settlements, which may not be the case.

Despite these limitations, the authors conclude that the widespread availability of OSM data make it a promising source of information on SDGs in refugee settlements, as well as in peri-urban informal settlements and internally displaced person (IDP) camps.